Britons' behaviour on the London Underground escalators shows the country has not yet lost all its charm and civility
People often argue about the meaning of “Britishness” and “British values” in an age of mass immigration and multiculturalism. For much of the 20th century, Britishness was associated with gentleness, reticence and a certain kind of civility – that social lubricant that allows big crowded cities to function peacefully – in the public square. Today, both natives and visitors to Britain are more likely to note opposite qualities. Certainly it’s not hard to experience the coarsening of British life. When people bump supermarket trolleys these days they are more likely to exchange four-letter insults than “Excuse me” or “Sorry”. They eat pungent food in public, swear loudly at each other, or fondle each other as if they were invisible or sitting at home. Queuing at bus stops sometimes seems to be a thing of the past. The aged, the infirm, the pregnant or those carrying heavy shopping are lucky indeed if someone gives up a seat for them on public transport.
However, there is one peculiarly British form of civility that remains as strong as ever. It is the wonderfully intelligent way we use escalators, on the London Underground at least: Britons of all colours and cultures stand on the right and allow others to pass them on the left.
The rule is so obviously sensible and beneficial to all that even the roughest, scariest hoodies generally obey it. Indeed, escalator etiquette could almost serve as a test of “Britishness”. On the Tube you can instantly spot the foreigners, not by their clothes or language or facial features, but by the way they ignore the “stand on the right” rule or are pleasingly surprised when they realise how the system works.
Though it is probably the most efficient way to use a moving staircase, the division into two lanes – one for people who want to walk (or run) and the other for people who prefer to go up without physical effort – is apparently unique to these islands. You don’t even find it in fantastically orderly and polite countries like Switzerland and Sweden. The fact that this custom survives, though unenforced by laws, policemen or surveillance cameras, is surely proof that orderliness and considerateness are far from dead in our culture.