Bank holidays are outdated, miserable and inconvenient: let's scrap them

A Victorian invention, the bank holiday no longer suits the lives of most British families

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Has the time come to abolish the bank holiday?

No, I’m not being a killjoy, not this time at least. I do not propose to abolish paid holidays, and nor would I want to reduce the amount of time families can take to be together. In point of fact, employers can count bank holidays towards the annual leave entitlement of their staff, so a statutory right to have paid protected holidays outside that quota would be a marked improvement for some people (equivalent to a pay rise of about 2 per cent). What I mean to say is that we’re all so used to this idea of a set of days where the whole nation celebrates together the rites of spring or something that we don’t think much about it.

Things could be immeasurably improved if we gave people the option of when they themselves wished to take their “bank holiday” allocation. Thus, if they wanted they could save them up and take the best part of a fortnight off instead of the odd day every couple of months on dates that might well not suit them. Relaxing the bank holiday regime would mean, say, a cheaper flight to Barcelona for that long weekend: a genuine bonus for hard-pressed workers.

After all, the original aim of the bank holiday, an eccentric Victorian invention, was to give bank workers, and the wider workforce, a bit of a break. That purpose has long since been overtaken by technological and economic change. If you want to move money around your bank account then you can do it at virtually at any time on any day, bank holiday or not, by logging into your account online.

If you like, you can spend all Boxing Day buying stuff on Amazon, and all New Year’s Day selling it on eBay. In the era of mass manufacturing and factory work, whole towns would take the same weeks off every year, for the convenience of the whole community – such as the “wakes weeks” in which successive towns in Lancashire and Yorkshire took their fortnight breaks in Blackpool, Southport and Whitby. Sadly, like the jobs and prosperity that went with them, the custom is pretty much gone now.

Ah, but would we not miss the communal joy of the Bank Holiday? I’m not sure we would, if by communal joy is meant sitting in a miles-long queue of traffic on the A30, or taking a ram-packed Jeremy Corbyn-style train journey, or having to pay a premium price for an air ticket or hotel room because demand is artificially ramped up on these feast days. Nor, in fact, would communal joy be stopped at Christmas time, so the country would continue to enjoy its turkey lunch in more or less uniform fashion.

Having said that, it’s worth mentioning that Britain is changing rapidly and the celebration of 25 December as a special religious day is, let us face it, less and less genuinely observed as such. On Christmas Day 1986, 30 million British residents settled down to watch an episode of EastEnders (the one when Dirty Den handed wife Angie her divorce papers by way of a Christmas present). I think we can confidently say that marked the high point of national shared enjoyment, and as every year goes by families previously united by HM the Queen, Morecambe and Wise and the rich heritage of the soap opera will find themselves split asunder by multiple tablets and Netflix.

So as communality, if that’s the right word, declines, so too should the communal, inflexible, inconvenient tradition of the bank holiday. As paid holiday it shares parentage between a Victorian Liberal politician, banker and cricket enthusiast named John Lubbock, and Neville Chamberlain, who introduced the Holidays with Pay Act 1938, and whose record as a Tory social reformer is sadly overshadowed by his more abiding failures in foreign policy.

Anyway, the custom and practice of these venerable public holidays is ripe for further reform all these decades on, is it not? Something to think about as you wait for the car in front to move.