The petrol non-crisis has been a strange beast.
For a start, if the media collectively were better reporters of the news rather than story-opportunists, they would have pointed out that the most accurate headline to describe the issue would be “Government attempts to induce anti-union sentiment by causing panic over a strike that hasn’t been called and may well not be.” However, 24-hour news is a demanding mistress and, instead, we were treated to Jenny live in Osterley interviewing a series of punters queuing for petrol who were all complaining – with no sense of irony – that the whole situation was ridiculous.
Well, why join the queue in the first place, a sage might ponder? Why not just wait and see what gives before standing outside your local Shell garage with a water butt and a couple of jerry cans, hysterically screaming “Drill, baby, drill!” and calling for the government to get all Battle of Orgreave on the ass of any passing trade unionists?
[An aside: poor old Francis Maude was – arguably – misunderstood when he urged people to fill up jerry cans with petrol to store at home. He didn’t mean to store it in the residence! No, no, no. Just pop off home and ask your butler what he usually does with such things and, if in doubt, just tell him to put them somewhere safe in the far paddock.]
But in a way, the government’s naked opportunism in trying to whip up anti-union sentiment − at a time when proposals to make it easier to fire people with impunity are being considered by the coalition − revealed something more thoroughly heartening about the British condition and spirit.
We loves a good queue, don’t we?
Ah, the politeness. The British sense of fair play and the principle of “first come first served”. The courteous acknowledgement of who is in front and who is behind; the natural order of things, the Great Chain of Being! And the consternation, never crudely expressed in words but through a series of tut-tuts between strangers, when somebody pushes in. Queuing is not merely a process or a simple means to an end for our nation: it is a manifestation of our collective commitment to all the principles enshrined in its seemingly humble existence. Honour. Order. Deference to the rule of law. At some points in our Fair Isle’s history, it has only been the queue that has stood between us and chaos. Do they queue in France, for example? Of course they don’t. They never have and never will. Now, I’m not saying that had they queued for Marie Antoinette’s cake instead of engaging in a continental free for all, that the French Revolution could have been averted … but it makes you think, doesn’t it?
Today, everywhere you go in Britain, Her Majesty’s loyal subjects pay homage to the queue and all it represents. Sometimes they do so unconsciously. You don’t believe me? Head off to Borough Market on a Saturday afternoon and watch people shuffling around vaguely before absent-mindedly but instinctively joining the end of a line of people. Half the people in queues at Borough Market only realise they are in them when they get to the front and, wakened from their reverie by the rough question of the vendor (“Salt beef or chicken, mate?”) amble off to join another queue.
Take also Cashpoint Etiquette. There are two cashpoints: one with a line of people behind it, waiting patiently, the other completely free. Do you nip over to the free one? Of course you don’t! That would be pushing in, so you join the queue and join in the collective displeasure when someone eschews the line for a quick withdrawal. It just isn’t cricket.
So hats off, in a way, to Cameron and Osborne. They may have been making mischief but the sight of the lines of cars snaking out of petrol stations up and down the land, and the stoic stiff-upper-lip manner of their inhabitants when vox-popped by Jenny in Osterley, made the British heart soar.
God bless the queue, and all who stand in her.