Don't expect help from public servants in do-it-yourself Britain

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The Independent Online
WE should bother our doctors and policemen less. We plague them with trivial appeals for help, interrupting them when they should be doing their job. Buy some senna extract and dose your own constipation; buy a street map and find your own way to Trafalgar Square. We, the public, are getting on the nerves of busy men and women.

These official complaints about the public are more interesting than they seem. It's true that, case by case, they are perfectly well founded. The Audit Commission last week announced that there had been a 150 per cent increase in 999 calls since 1980, only a third of which had anything to do with crime and which included enquiries about late-night chemists and football scores. The commission sensibly suggested instituting a 333 call, for lost door-keys and cats up trees. At the same time, the Department of Health and the British Medical Association are complaining that night calls to doctors have doubled, many of them concerned with a jammed medicine cabinet or a lack of condoms at a crucial moment in the small hours.

Doctors and police officers are certainly hard-pressed. But where will this end? The privatised utilities have already begun to show signs of the same impatience. In Yorkshire, the water company has suggested that it cannot do its job properly unless the population stops taking its water for silly reasons like washing or drinking. No doubt British Gas, even when its finances are relieved of the burden of Cedric Brown's pay-off, will soon launch a series of witty advertisements inviting us to eat more cold meat and fruit cake and - like the healthier Germans or Dutch - to cook only one hot meal a day.

On the surface, these appeals suggest that we are becoming softer, more demanding, more spoilt by easy living. Where is our ancient British ruggedness? It is all our fault, and our moral fibre is decaying. Far from having reversed the decline into dependency culture, as Thatcherites claim, the British are less self-reliant than ever.

But are we? I suspect that this is a case of getting one's retaliation in first. A public service is underfunded and overburdened, and quickly excuses its failings by blaming the clients for asking too much. And we are expected to hang our heads, even to apologise. It is true that even the deferential people of the British Isles, who labour so patiently to have neat houses and well-nourished children, have grown more ambitious and have acquired higher standards than their parents. But that is not at all the same as growing soft. To ask for more out of life and to expect better service from That Lot Up There shows a gain in self-reliance - not a loss.

As for trivial appeals for help, I suspect that we are looking at cooked figures. There have always been people who summoned doctors for their hangovers and policemen to open a rusty garage door. Certainly, such calls have increased enormously. But have they increased relatively more than the swelling burden of other responsibilities dumped by government upon doctors and police officers - most of it paperwork or new duties on the fringes of social service - which keeps them from the bedside or the beat? I doubt it very much.

Still, it may be that the long-suffering public will have to face these challenges. The "Active Citizen" (a phrase of Douglas Hurd's, I think) will become a sort of castaway, and Britain a desert island colonised by millions of Swiss Families Robinson. In order not to bother the local water company, the Robinsons will sink their own well or raise their own rain-fed water tower; methane from their own excrement will heat the house, giving British Gas the peace it deserves, while an array of stirrup-pumps - one each for father, mother and the children - will quench trivial fires and leave the Fire Brigade to fill in its productivity returns at leisure. The doctors in their Health Centre, a gleaming fortress on the hilltop, will largely be replaced by half-qualified amateurs cycling from homestead to homestead with a suitcase of simple instruments, bandages and herbal remedies - the figure known in the old British Empire as the "dresser".

This Robinson society would live the New Age in all its dire simplicity. Grimy but self-sufficient vigilantes would deal with petty crime by knee- capping and the occasional lynching on the community gallows. But the Robinson Britons will not be alone in their land. Among them and above them, a privileged class who were once known as providers of services will continue to exist. And they are destined for a strange transformation.

The scenario runs like this. At first, the "servicers" continue to "serve" - but on their own terms. The undertakers bury only great personages or the victims of a disaster which leaves too few Robinsons to bury their own dead. Lawyers cream off a few rich or glamorous causes, while peoples' courts convened under trees must deal with the rest. Politicians, no longer overstrained by universal suffrage, pass their days debating treaties or the correct flags to be flown over royal palaces.

Slowly, the gulf between the two groups widens into a gulf between classes. The servicers soon become the served, as unwashed Robinsons mow the lawns of the British Gas executives or mop the floors of the police station. And now this new ruling class reserves its skills almost entirely for itself, intervening in the affairs of the lower orders only to control an outbreak of typhus or to put down gangs of brigands which the Robinson vigilantes cannot control. For one class there are courts and lawyers, votes and universities, gas mains and telephones and modern police forces to protect property. For the Robinsons, there are village elders judging by tribal custom, headmen chosen by acclamation, messengers with a badge of office pinned to a ragged tunic, barefooted constables with spears.

That is what colonial Africa was like, especially in territories with a substantial white minority. I don't mean Lord Lugard's old system of "indirect rule", which left traditional kingdoms almost intact to run their own affairs, subject only to a British Resident who kept an eye on the local Emir or Paramount Chief. I mean those strange, dualistic colonial societies which appeared rather later, and which reached their logical conclusion in South Africa during the decades of apartheid.

South Africa segregated white from black, in theory creating two streams of "separate development". But it also developed a large, well-rewarded white bureaucracy whose ostensible job was "Bantu administration": the provision of every kind of service to the African majority. In practice, this project was a monstrosity: the creation of a deliberately inadequate social fabric.

Time passed, and new African generations demanded schools with schoolbooks, medical centres with at least a few medicines, electric light from the pylons striding overhead. But the hordes of "Bantu administrators", growing more numerous and finding fresh meaningless tasks for themselves every year, indignantly refused. Where were they supposed to find money or time for such trivia? They felt martyred and misunderstood. These young blacks nowadays had no initiative, no moral fibre, but wanted everything done for them.

Who is the master in Britain, and who is the servant? To waste the time of police officers and doctors was always wrong, and still is. But at the instant when free men and women are insulted for asking more of their public services, democracy is stood on its head. And to accept the insult and feel guilty is to step further down a political staircase which leads only to one place: a cellar full of second-class citizens.