UK: NURTURE THAT NATIVE NEGATIVITY. - David Morton takes a positive look at the British capacity for doing nothing, for going nowhere, for saying 'no', for being thoroughly miserable ... and enjoying it.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

David Morton takes a positive look at the British capacity for doing nothing, for going nowhere, for saying 'no', for being thoroughly miserable ... and enjoying it.

No sunshine, no holidays left, no money to pay the bills, no pay increases to look forward to ... November. And now a great big chunk of Budget gloom to extinguish the last sunny memories of distant summer days, cheap foreign booze and a climate that doesn't need taxable central heating.

Not a great month, then, for the optimistic side of the human psyche. In the UK November is just a half-hearted box of fireworks that fizzle out in the dampness to commemorate a bomb that didn't go off anyway. Elsewhere, of course, it's all Thanksgivings and Happy Hallowe'ens - but over here we prefer our gloom pretty-well unrelieved - except, of course, for the cheery Government Safety Campaign which reminds us of the dangers which await us in that packet of sparklers.

Of course there was a time (a long, long, long time ago) in the can-do-go-for-it-sunny-side-up-have-a-nice-day-enjoy '80s, when it seemed that we might also be in danger of succumbing to the American 'trick-or-treat' treatment of endless optimism even at the fag-end of the year.

But then, as fate and the calendar would have it, along came the Negative '90s and with them re-emergence of our very own national bent, which can perhaps be best summarised as not to do very much, not very well - and not enjoy it very much either.

Now there's a lot to be said against this native characteristic and most of us spend a good deal of time saying it. And the negative side of our negative capability comes in for particular stick just after summer when we return from abroad replete with stories of traffic that moves, offices and factories that work, shops that sell, restaurants that serve food, escalators that escalate and many other equally amazing travellers tales.

If, however, you happen to be lucky enough to find yourself in an old English pub one afternoon, wrapped in the deep gloom of the dark Victorian mahogany that the brewery didn't have the money to rip out in the '60s and '70s - and that the manager hasn't had the enterprise to turn into a brightly-lit, no-smoking, food-service area with child-changing facilities - then you may begin to see the more positive side of our national genius for not doing anything.

And it needs to be emphasised that not doing anything isn't something that just happens; the brewery, after all, could have raised money for a new Formica look by a quick rights issue on the stock market, the manager could have gone on a marketing course - but they both had that ineffable British ability 'not to'.

And doing nothing is a particular capability that many nations in the modern world wish to emulate, but find they can't and which we risk losing at our peril - for once gone there is almost nothing that can be done to get it back.

For example, try as it might the European Community just cannot get its farmers to stop farming. It has just given them huge amounts of 'set aside' cash to take 15% of their fields out of cultivation and all they did in return was work like the blazes to double the productivity of the remaining 85%.

In short, no matter what the incentive to stop farming, no matter how bad the weather, no matter how ill they are making themselves by pouring thousands of gallons of pesticide over their fields and into the water supply, Europe's farmers just cannot stop themselves farming.

Tell them that the people who can afford to consume their food don't wish to and they just grow a few more apples with even less flavour. Tell them that the people who might wish to consume their food can't afford it and they arrange the market to keep their prices even higher.

And it's not just the farmers; there are chaps sweating in steel mills turning out miles of ferrous products which are destined to rust unused in some eyesore stockyard, and there are chaps down coalmines mining coal nobody wants to burn. And better still in these days of equal opportunity it is not just men who are wasting their lives and ruining a bit more of the environment in this way. Women are at it too - probably even more highly skilled, almost definitely even more hard-working - but sadly just as pointlessly.

Of course these are somewhat gloomy reflections on another dark November day but if the farmers, the coal miners and the steelworkers will only repair to the nearest unimproved public house I am sure that some solution will occur to them to solve these slight problems of the modern economy.

When Lenin contemplated capitalism's problems at the beginning of the century he posed the question, 'What is to be done?' At the end of the century it's good to know that Britain has the answer: 'Just try not to do anything at all'. By the way, mine's a pint.

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime

Why you overvalue your own ideas

And why you shouldn't.

When spying on your staff backfires

As Barclays' recently-scrapped tracking software shows, snooping on your colleagues is never a good idea....

A CEO’s guide to smart decision-making

You spend enough time doing it, but have you ever thought about how you do...

What Tinder can teach you about recruitment

How to make sure top talent swipes right on your business.

An Orwellian nightmare for mice: Pest control in the digital age

Case study: Rentokil’s smart mouse traps use real-time surveillance, transforming the company’s service offer.

Public failure can be the best thing that happens to you

But too often businesses stigmatise it.