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Who knew the British were so law-abiding?

Blog | By Harry Mount | Apr 01, 2020

An outdoor gym in Maida Vale, London. Despite the flimsy protective tape, no one is using it (Credit: Harry Mount)

Biking to work, it's astonishing to see how law-abiding Londoners are.

Good for them – but I would have thought there'd be many more naughty youths and bolshie oldies ignoring the rules. There are hardly any. In Regent's Park, I saw one group of four young men – who didn't look like they were from the same household – walking together. And, in Camden Lock, I saw one disconsolate group of three teenage boys and two teenage girls drinking beer while playing music moderately loudly.

Two weeks ago, I was at the last night at the Academy Club in Soho – traditionally a place of bold individuals and those dedicated to a good drink. And yet, along with the charming waitress, we were the only three people in the club. And this was a week before the lockdown.

The British are policing themselves - without the need for over-intrusive police telling them not to go for a walk. In the park (pictured) in Maida Vale, the council has put some flimsy tape around an outdoor gym; and no one tears it away and tries to do some illicit exercise.

The British haven't always been this obedient. During the war, there was plenty of illicit behaviour: spivs selling contraband; lots of sex in the shadows of the blackout.

As we approach the 75th anniversary of VE Day, I remember the anecdote that WF Deedes – “Dear Bill” in Private Eye – told me on the 60th anniversary of D-Day in 2004, when we both worked at the Daily Telegraph.

Just after D-Day, Bill Deedes was in the east London docks, loading vehicles aboard ship to take them to Normandy to help the march towards Germany.

“Trouble is, mate,” said a friendly docker who was reluctant to help, “we don’t have the rate.”

“The rate?” Bill repeated.

“That’s right,” he said, “The rate for loading these ’ere vehicles. Never seen ’em before.”

“Look,” Bill cried, “some of you have sons, relations out there, clinging on to that bridgehead. We’ve got to get

there fast.”

“That’s right! You’ve got to get there fast,” the dockers echoed. “But, you see, we haven’t got the rate.”

In the end, Bill and his men loaded the vehicles themselves under the supervision of a retired docker.

So what's changed? I can only think that we're so scared of public contact that we now willingly embrace laws.