The American writer Bill Bryson once wrote that it was a shame that the “important experiment” of Communism had been left to the Russians when the British would have “managed it so much better.” Prepared by their reserved and ordered culture for the deprivations that come inevitably with government control, he proposed, the Brits would have accepted their fate with alacrity. Keep Calm and Carry On, and all that.
In some sense, they already had. During the stagnation and decline of the 1970s, the people of Bryson’s adopted home demonstrated an uncommon readiness to “queue patiently for indefinite periods” and to “wait uncomplainingly for years for an operation or the delivery of a household appliance.” Surely, the reasoning went, this could be pushed ad infinitum? Surely, there was no line so long that an Englishman wouldn’t join it?
As a piece of social commentary, the basic thrust of Bryson’s claim is correct: Traditionally, the British are rather patient. Nevertheless, the notion that even a patient people will queue indefinitely is so much romantic fluff. They won’t. And for a government to ask them to do so is for that government to open itself up to defeat.
This, the polls suggest, is precisely what the Obama administration has been busy doing over the past few months. Before October of this year, conservatives trying to make the case that state intrusion led inexorably to queuing and to inefficiency were forced to rely on local failures to illustrate their point. “Do you really want your healthcare run by the DMV?” was a common refrain. “How about the Post Office?” Nowadays, there is no need for hypotheticals. Critics can just say “Obamacare.” In December of 2013, dissenters can point to the long lines, to the shoddy service, and to the reports of frustrated users waiting for hours to get onto the site — and they can say, “I told you so!” It’s been two months since the website was launched, and swathes of people remain unable even to browse plans. Isn’t this exactly what we were warned about?
If he has the time and the stomach, the president could do worse than to read the story of the 1979 British general election. The Right’s post-rationalizations notwithstanding, Mrs. Thatcher’s ascent was not primarily a sign that the British had been magically converted to the charms of privatization, free markets, tax cuts, and a strong defense, but that they were sick and tired of what socialism had done to their country and that they were reluctantly prepared to give the other side a shot. To her immense credit, Thatcher recognized this, and she made sure that her branding focused more on dissatisfaction with the status quo than on her own ideology. The Conservative party’s election-season message was pitch-perfect for the moment: Showing a snaking line of people outside an unemployment office, giant posters across the country featured three simple words: “Labour Isn’t Working.”