In today’s Britain, innovation and initiative are often held hostage by rule-keeping and a fear of failure.
The inventive pioneer spirit that drove the great British entrepreneurs and social reformers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries has often been replaced in both business and public services by an insidious culture of timidity.
Britain's current cold snap, which is now predicted to last well into next week, has brought this mentality to the fore, revealing a slowness to innovate except where there is a rule to cover every contingency.
In the past two weeks, temperatures have plummeted to -18°C in parts of England – and -21°C in Scotland – and snow has covered much of the north and east. This week, even where some of the snow has melted, ice, fog and heavy frosts have taken its place as temperatures remain unusually low.
Since winter began, 1400 flights have been cancelled and 150,000 tons of snow had been cleared from runways at Gatwick airport alone.
Meanwhile, 29 percent of trains have been cancelled and another 44 percent have run late. Seven thousand schools have closed and 500 petrol stations have run low on fuel.
Incredibly, 60 banks have actually run out of money. In all, the cost to the economy has been an estimated £1.2 billion per day.
The question is, why? After the public uproar that followed a poor official response to last year’s wintery blast, many people are asking why the authorities apparently learned so little and have failed again to cover the contingencies.
It's a fair question. My family and I lived in Denmark for almost a decade. We regularly saw temperatures plummet to zero or below at the height of winter.
That said, Denmark has far less snow than any of its Nordic neighbours and its winter is milder. For Danes, as for Brits, a white Christmas is a novelty.
When the weather there takes an especially icy turn, people will complain that services are not up to their usual high standards. Yet for the most part, local authorities respond quickly and services continue to operate, if with some slight (only slight) delays.
Roads remain open, no banks are short of cash and schools function rather well.
In parts of Britain, even in highly populated areas, life seems to come almost to a standstill when Old Man Winter decides to behave badly.
The problem is partly the result of a general mindset, one that runs deep within sections of British business, government and public services, and perhaps the wider culture.
It is a deeply ingrained ‘safety-first’ mindset that eschews personal initiative in favour of almost robotic rule-keeping. I don’t mean safety as in physical protection, but as an insidious deference to accepting the status quo.
This culture of timidity has people saying, ‘I will do only what my work contract or the company rule-book demands and no more.’ If there is no rule to cover a certain contingency many people seem to believe that nothing can be done about it.
Most Brits are innately generous people, yet the culture of their organisations provides them with little incentive to go the extra mile in solving problems for others.
In fact, exactly the opposite is true: they feel that taking the initiative might land them in hot water. They may make a mistake, or worse, become the subject of legal action.
Much has been written about the overblown health and safety culture in this country, which the present government says it wants to cut back.
Teachers recently complained about having to fill out more than ten bureaucratic forms before they can take schoolchildren on even the most basic excursion. Such legalistic procedures are quite obviously made to protect school authorities more than children, who’ve often lost important learning opportunities as a result.
With this bunker mentality acting as a cultural backdrop, many people now believe that whatever the venture it is better to stay within the confines of so-called ‘best practice’ than to be inventive.
It is better to wait for someone else to step forward with an answer than to proffer one yourself.
When anything unexpected turns up, people have neither the confidence nor the skills to engage their innate creativity in finding solutions.
It wasn’t always this way.
In his new BBC series Age of the Do-Gooders, Ian Hislop doffs his top hat to the great social reformers of the Victorian age.
He tells the stories of remarkable people from business, politics and the charity sector who blazed new trails in promoting social justice. In the process they built resilient and successful businesses and communities.
Their strength of conviction motivated them to get involved where there were no contemporary benchmarks or models – often in defiance of both convention and rules.
This robust commitment to initiative and innovation, both in society and in business, helped to turn Britain into the engine room of the world’s economy.
William Wilberforce was the model for most of the great social and institutional reformers who followed. In setting out to break the back of the slave trade, he was motivated by a passion for what he called the ‘reformation of manners’.
He was not referring to manners in the narrow sense of rules for etiquette. If he were starting his campaign today, he would substitute the words ‘public morality’.
Wilberforce was driven by nothing less than a desire to fundamentally shift the way people saw their social responsibility. He wanted to renew a sense of shared responsibility for the social ills of the time, to stir the courageous and humane heart he believed still beat in the chest of his fellow Brits.
Wilberforce defied the timid, who-are-we-to-change-this mindset of his times, and shifted first public opinion and then government policy to solve a problem that many called intractable. In the process he proved to Brits exactly how good, how bold they could be.
Big Society and Broken Britain are political catchphrases. Like all catchphrases, they leave little room for nuance.
Not everything about Britain is broken. We are blessed with a stable and relatively just social order. Recent studies have shown that, despite much talk about a crisis in the family, a majority of people remain passionately committed to making their relationships work in the long-term.
Yet there are areas of British society that need fixing. Having one of the highest rates in Europe for both teen pregnancy and teen alcoholism is nothing to be complacent about.
Such problems can be solved – but not with timid thinking and a fearful preoccupation with rule-keeping.
Without initiative there is no innovation; without innovation there is no growth; and without growth, there can be no prosperity. The best course is not always the safest one.
The current cold snap is an opportunity for us to reflect on the heritage the early do-gooders left us.
To decide again that ‘health and safety’ ought not to be code for playing things safe; that not having a hard and fast rule to cover every eventuality shouldn’t be an excuse for stifling our creativity.
It's time to throw off timidity and once again release innovation.