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Complaining Brits

My newspaper this morning reports that Britain is a nation of moaners.  To which my unspoken response was, “Tell us something we don’t know”.

This little gem of non-news was reported by an organisation called Ombudsman Services, a government-sponsored quango set up to resolve minor disputes as a less expensive alternative to taking legal action.  (I’m in favour of any entity that diverts business away from the rapacious and frequently incompetent legal profession, but that’s another matter entirely.)

Anyway, the Ombudsman Services’ annual Consumer Action Monitor today reports a rise of 37 per cent in complaints since 2013, when it launched the study, to an annual total of 52 million.  That is actually down on the 66 million recorded the previous year, but either way, in a nation with a population over 60 million, the figure is hardly staggering. It amounts, if my arithmetic is correct, to less than one complaint per person per annum.

Of course the residents of this storm-tossed, once-powerful, laughably-governed island do complain a lot.  There is much to complain about: from the atrocious weather, to the allegedly parlous state of the National Health Service, to the shocking decline of the British Broadcasting Corporation, to the inept performance of the national football team – actually, most of the national sports teams.  I could go on, but we all have our favourite objects of anger or derision.

Complaining is a national pastime in Britain and that is altogether a good thing.  We do it to let off steam gently.  Unlike the far-too excitable citizens of many foreign lands who may complain less but only because they prefer more drastic remedial action to redress grievances – like revolutions, assassinations, demonstrations and other forms of violent self-expression.  We Brits simply don’t go in for that sort of thing.

We’d much rather fulminate over our breakfast newspaper, and if we’re really, really hot under the collar, fire off a letter to the editor.  ‘Outraged of Tunbridge Wells’ is alive and well, I’m happy to report, and if he, or she, is a little ticked off, then the worst aspect is probably nothing more than a temporary rise in blood pressure.

What happened, you may ask, to that legendary British attribute, the stiff upper lip?  It is, I can assure you, as stiff as ever.  That’s confirmed by the figures put out by CAM, if nothing else.  One complaint a year!  I have at least a dozen things to complain about every single day.

Today is a case in point.  I’m already on my fifteenth complaint, and I haven’t even watched that vacuous woman on The One Show or the weird presenter on Newsnight yet.  Not once today, or any other day, has it occurred to me to call up the Ombudsman.  Nor for that matter have I even remonstrated with my local NHS surgery for demanding that I only call for an appointment the day I wish to have it.  Nor have I ranted on the telephone to the car salesman whose product I drive, which, with its constant faults, registered by its electronic ‘brain’ and annoyingly recorded in a panel on the dashboard, seems to have some prodigal compulsion to return to the service department of the dealership from which it was purchased.

It is of course deeply ingrained in the British personality to complain.  It stems, I’m convinced, from our island’s fickle weather, which gives us dreary endless winters that freeze us to the marrow – even though most of the time it’s hardly cold enough for a sharp morning frost – to spirit-dampening summers – which bring rainstorms no more drenching or frequent than in most other European countries, and perhaps even less so, but which seem to have been programmed by some Supreme Meteorological Being to occur only on weekends.

Bill Bryson, an American-born, British-naturalised writer, finds the art of complaining one of our more endearing virtues.  He’s right, because from that virtue flow all the others that made our nation strong and great: our relentless stoicism, our enviable common sense, our epic reasonableness, our ingratiating good manners and our infernally gracious hypocrisy.

These are the qualities that make the world envious.  And if they keep our society stable and sane, even as we complain, then let them prevail forever.

I hope to see those CAM figures rising steadily.

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