Thomas Kielinger: How can you be so calm in the face of so much misery?

'In Germany, similar failures in public services would have the populace in open revolt'
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The Independent Online

I have been wondering ever since the campaign to ban fox-hunting got underway in earnest what the coming national election may really be all about. Britons must be supremely at ease with themselves to think they can afford to indulge the foxaholic pursuit of righteousness to the apparent exclusion of so much else in need of redress.

I have been wondering ever since the campaign to ban fox-hunting got underway in earnest what the coming national election may really be all about. Britons must be supremely at ease with themselves to think they can afford to indulge the foxaholic pursuit of righteousness to the apparent exclusion of so much else in need of redress.

The facts, of course, belie my easy assumption, and you don't need the middle-brow papers' crusade against "Third World Britain" to see for yourself. The heartland cries its heart out not for "Save the foxes", but for save our neighbourhoods, save us from ever more cancer-treatment queues or next-to-useless train schedules. Londoners had their own story of woe to add yesterday when, on top of everything else, the underground almost ground to a halt, to the accompaniment of much grinding of teeth.

If pebble-dash Britain had a pebble of anger to spare for the intolerable plight it is being exposed to every day, people would surely raise hell and give Mr Blair reason to reconsider calling an election in May this year.

In any other country, the sheer volume of compounded misery heaped on the long-suffering populace of late could only spell trouble for the incumbents. Alas, in Britain, such logic has obviously become suspended. Have you heard about the recent poll that suggests people now view Labour as even more sleaze-prone than the once sleaze-discredited Tories? But will this impinge in any way on how ballots will be cast in May? Fat chance. Or are people simply not telling the pollsters about their real intentions, since it is politically incorrect to express any leanings towards the maligned Conservatives?

There can be no more embarrassing dichotomy for a foreign correspondent than to have to report, accurately, a successions of crises - from the state of the NHS to the signals-passed-at-danger state of affairs of the railways, not to mention Damilola Taylor, Harold Shipman, Alder Hey, Peter Mandelson or the Dome - and yet to have to report, equally accurately, that none of this makes one iota of a difference to the likely outcome of the next election.

What more calamities must descend on this society before political fortunes begin to change? Surely it can't all be put down to the allegedly unelectable William Hague? Or to Oscar Wilde's crisp dictum about public opinion being an attempt by the rulers "to organise the ignorance of the community"?

Ignorance? Certainly not. People are anything but ignorant about the state of the nation. And yet, while they do care, they don't seem to care enough to take to the streets in protest to shake the Government out of its poll-happy complacency.

The fact that the British accept with such stoicism some of their outrageous fortunes must lie outside the realm of political philosophy. Superficially, it could be argued that they lack the conviction that throwing out one set of rascals for another changes anything much by itself. That is the cynics-take-all analysis.

But people in this country, to my mind, are not any more cynical than other modern electorates. What differentiates them from more impulsive societies, however, is their huge reservoir of forbearance, an almost Russian capacity for suffering and a concomitant refusal to rush to judgement. Could there be a more tolerant and forbearing society anywhere? In Germany, such imperfections of public services as have become the hallmark over here would find the populace in open revolt. In Britain, both a sense of humour and some inbred behavioural reflexes mitigate against such radicalism. Wasn't it ever thus?

I think that every society pays a premium for some of its most recognisable characteristics, virtues or otherwise. Germans evince little humour or civility; if anything, they think they are entitled to break-downs. As a result, their trains run smoothly and on time (more or less), and their standard of health care is maintained with fastidiousness. In return, moaning at the slightest irregularity has become a national pastime.

The sceptred isle seems to swear by different traditions. Incorrigibly tolerant of imperfection, people are educated not to complain, to speak softly and with restraint, to suffer with dignity and - above all - not to lose your sense of humour. In return, you may get a public system as good - or as bad - as it gets, but, given time and the unfeasability of every solution tried, things will finally begin to look up, somehow.

You don't do rash things like changing governments when so much can go wrong so much further, while the economy keeps you buoyant enough, thank you very much. Thus, this time around, Blair appears safe. Next time, perhaps not. Come May, anger and anguish will likely express itself more through abstention at the ballot box than through anything else. But I would be alarmed if I were to run for public office in Britain and had to face some increasingly seething questions, not about caring for the fox but about caring for so many scandalously ill-served citizens. Some time, some day, even the most long-suffering society is going to say enough is enough.

The writer reports from the UK for the German daily 'Die Welt'

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