The English, wrote George Orwell in 1941, are characterized by their hatred of interfering officialdom: “The most hateful of all names in an English ear is Nosey Parker,” a British colloquialism referring to “a persistently nosy, prying person” or “busybody“
The English countryside was once particularly self-reliant, a place where people organized events or sorted out disputes without much recourse to state bodies or rules.
No longer. The English countryside today is awash with busybodies and red tape. The organizers of a simple village festival would find themselves occupied with petty form-filling: public liability insurance, risk assessments for the home-made cakes and bouncy castle, criminal records checks for any adult running kids’ events.
Nosey parkers are in the ascendance, complaining about their neighbors to the authorities who then rush in with punishment slips and rule-books. The more bucolic aspects of village life are becoming controversial and highly regulated.
Take church bells. Churches whose bells have tolled for over a century are now being slapped with “noise abatement notices” because their bells are judged too loud. A church bell in Hertfordshire which had rung every 15 minutes for 140 years was silenced, after environmental health officers threatened the church with fines (the bell was recently reinstated, after some locals raised the money for a device to allow it to ring more quietly). The chime at a church on the Isle of Wight was canceled after a noise complaint from a single resident.
Even picturesque wildlife has become subject to moaning and state interference. A lady in an Essex village is under threat of a fine and criminal record after complaints about free-roaming peacocks that issued from her farm. The council has issued her with a legal order that requires her to remove the birds by January. At one point the council sent a ranger down to spend a whole day sitting outside her house “monitoring peacock activity.” She says birds are basically wild and cannot be caught: “It would be like catching pigeons — they just fly away. I’m worried that the council will send someone to spend 6 weeks trying to catch them, and bill me by the hour.”
All this interference means that long-established customs are being upset. In the Forest of Dean, in the West of England, sheep have roamed freely for centuries and are an essential part of the local land management. But they were also under threat of criminalization when some locals complained about sheep droppings and the fact that sheep could be heard “baaing loudly” outside their houses. The council set up an “irresponsible shepherding task group,” which recommended that sheep be banned from the village and that a warden be employed to monitor straying sheep and fine their owners, at the cost of £28,000 a year.
It seems that officialdom is targeting the one defining feature of an area, the thing that gives a place its character: the sound of bells or sheep, or the sight of that most beautiful of birds. This was the case in Cooper’s Hill in Brockworth, Gloucestershire, which is known for the annual cheese-rolling event in which locals run down a steep hill chasing a roll of (Gloucester) cheese. In 2010 the event was canceled on health and safety grounds, although hundreds defied the ban and the event now continues on an unofficial basis. The authorities keep trying to stop them, with the police one year warning cheese makers that they could be sued if anyone is injured chasing their cheese.
Orwell said that English culture “centers round things which even when they are communal are not official — the pub, the football match, the back garden, the fireside and the “nice cup of tea.’” Now the official world is even poking its nose into the back garden. Councils have ordered people to stop feeding birds in their gardens, to cut their grass or trim their shrubs, even to clean their windows.
How did we get here? English everyday life is now far more regulated than that of the French, that arch-bureaucratic and centralized nation that historically saw England as the beacon of liberty and live-and-let-live. Now it is the French who harbor a relative wariness of state interference and do their best to side-step red-tape and officialdom. It is French village life that now centers around things that are communal but not official.
The main reason for this lies in the crisis of English institutions. With the ceaseless reform of British institutions since the 80s, the state was stripped of its traditional culture, and institutions were reduced to a series of empty shells. Public servants were no longer professionals, with a public mission or institutional identity: they became the representatives of blank, empty officialdom, with no raison d’etre other than to subject social life to their bureaucratic tools.
This change towards a busybody culture might be strongest in England, but is also characteristic of those other countries the French call “Anglo-Saxon”: America and Australia. Perversely, it is the historically most liberal countries that have seen state interference march steadily into every domain of life. The French, with their unreformed, unrepentant arch-bureaucracy continue their civic life pretty much as before.
An English resistance to the creeping busybody state may be in the future, though. After fervent protests, the Forest of Dean shepherds have so far managed to hold off the council’s plans to ban sheep from villages. The Essex peacocks are being defended with local petitions and demonstrations. And the cheese-rollers seem determined to continue their insane local custom, breaking legs every year in its honor.
Defending the traditional and bizarre activities of the English countryside defends the very principle of civil society. A space for people to do things on their own and take responsibility for their actions, where busybodies and complainers are not welcome. And where the most hateful of all names to our ears is nosey parker.