Shona Craven: Farcical scenes highlight English exceptionalism

FANCY a Big Mac? How much? Enough to queue around several blocks? Well it’s up to you, fatty. It’s not for anyone else to judge the decisions you make about shoving greasy junk down your gullet. Although bear in mind that if you block the path of an ambulance with your car, you’re basically a murderer.

The British are supposed to love a good queue, but this week it’s become clear there are the wrong sorts of queues (for McDonald’s or IKEA) and the right sort of queues (for casting votes in the House of Commons). The easing of lockdown has come as a blow to the curtain-twitchers who were obsessively monitoring the exercise habits of their neighbours, and tutting at the cheats who took up running as an excuse to leave the house, but thankfully they now have fresh opportunities to exercise their tongue muscles.

To judge the morality of a queue, the busybody must ask three simple questions: How long is this queue? How rich are the people in this queue? Do I personally want the products they are queuing for? If the answers are a) very long, b) not very rich and c) not at all, then the correct response is to tut extremely loudly from a distance of two metres, then sprinkle block capitals into a tweet about how SOME PEOPLE care more about BURGERS and BOOKCASES than they do about SAVING LIVES.

There were queues around the block when IKEA stores in the rest of the UK reopened

The old adage about Britons and queues has always had the air of a humble-brag about it. While it might be cloaked in self-deprecation (“daft old us, following the rules!”), the implication is really that we’re much better than other countries with their uncontrolled hordes, their uncivilised swarms, their insistence on using nonsense phrases such as “waiting on line”. Refusing to queue properly is like microwaving a cup of tea – something only a savage would do.

But this week’s farcical scenes suggest that actually, for some people, the very act of queuing can serve as an aggressive display of British (or rather, English) exceptionalism. Far from demonstrating respect of the rules, the queue that snaked its way around the Westminster courtyard and into Portcullis House was a way for Jacob Rees-Mogg to demonstrate that the pandemic rules should not apply to the likes of him.

READ MORE: Jacob Rees-Mogg told to quit after overseeing Commons ‘shambles’

Apparently queuing for a quick chat with the Speaker, like primary school pupils lining up to speak to their teacher, is “essential work”. This despite the fact that voting can easily be carried out electronically, either from within the grounds of Westminster or from the comfort and safety of a parliamentarian’s own home. Scottish MPs are being asked to travel 500 miles and queue for the best part of an hour just to utter three words. Remind me again why it’s unfathomable madness to queue up to buy a cheap new desk or chair for your new home office?

Rees-Mogg, and the pathetic band of Tories who followed his orders, want you to believe that voting in person is essential work on a par with providing medical care, food supplies or a postal service. They say they are setting an example by queuing so they could vote to do lots more queuing.

We’re not just through the looking glass now, but upside down and walking backwards as Alice shouts “no room, no room!” and the mad top-hatter replies “there’s plenty of room” before resting his head on the green benches and his feet on a sleeping dormouse, which has survived an emergency deep clean thanks to cracks in the ancient skirting board.

I spy the opportunity to kill two birds with one stone here, while avoiding killing any people by infecting them with coronavirus.

Clearly, the Houses of Parliament are not fit for purpose – they weren’t before the pandemic, they definitely weren’t during the pandemic, and they won’t be when the immediate threat of infection peaks has passed.

Also clear is that British people absolutely love assembling flat-pack furniture, and will go to considerable length to procure a box of pre-drilled boards and a bag of cam locks. They love it so much that they’ll queue to do it in the sweltering heat, knowing they’ll be denied the reward of a plate of meatballs and a self-serve ice-cream cone.

If we can open temporary field hospitals in a matter of weeks, why can’t we establish a 21st-centry parliament with sufficient room for social distancing, wipe-down desks and seats with machine-washable covers? We could call it VÖTSAFE. An army of volunteers stands ready to be recruited, each one armed with countless Allen keys and wall-mounting brackets left over from previous projects.

Instead of walking round their gardens or up and down stairs, the elderly people raising millions “for the NHS” could be making themselves useful by standing in queues in IKEA car parks, waiting to buy office essentials for our political key workers. We could turn the OBE into an award for Office Building Excellence and pin medals of blue and yellow onto their lapels.

Of course, if ministers keep developing symptoms at the current rate, and parliament workers follow through on their threat to strike, mass gatherings of MPs may be rendered impossible for the foreseeable future – an outcome that was predicted by hundreds of opposition MPs, multiple Tory backbenchers and anyone who has followed the news for the past six months. When it comes to telling the government “we told you so”, they’ll need to form an orderly queue.



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