Comment: Don’t be ashamed to be lazy

No-one on their death bed wished they had spent more time working. But there is a school of thought in Britain which values hard work in and of itself. It ascribes to the idea that a fulfilling and virtuous life involves working your heart out.

This protestant ethic has existed in society for centuries, not least because it makes men easier to control and keeps their minds off filthy, sensual things. But it has a modern voice as well. This week, five of the Tory party's rising stars on the right called Britons the "worst idlers" in the world and demanded workplace reform along the Asian, rather than the European, model.

Meanwhile, the Daily Mail was forced to do one of its not-so-subtle unannounced redactions after a columnist wrote the 'Arbeit Macht Frei' slogan at the entrance to the Auschwitz concentration camp was "somewhat tainted" by its association with Nazi. "Its essential message, 'work sets you free', still has something serious to commend it", the author argued.

You can encounter similar sentiments on the streets of any city, with everyone from street market sellers to City executives complaining Britons 'don't know what it is to work hard anymore'.

Modern work fetishists avoid the religious tones of the protestants and insist their solutions are intended to allow the UK to compete with rising economies in Asia. But their reasoning is based on such flawed evidence it is as groundless as a priest's sermon. British workers clock up 1,647 working hours a year, more than the 1,408 of Germany, with its far more impressive economy and generous social system.

The link between work and economic performance has always been twisted to suit the sneering assumption of miserablist Britons, whose mission in life is to prove that laziness is the source of all our problems. Greek workers were invariably branded workshy spendthrifts when their economy tanked, but they actually worked longer hours than any other Europeans, clocking up 2,017 hours a year, just behind South Korea and Chile in the international rankings.

"Too many people in Britain, we argue, prefer a lie-in to hard work," the Tory MPs complained in their book on the UK economy. But what is wrong with preferring a lie-in to hard work? Most people in this country spend more time with their co-workers than they do with friends and family. Is that a satisfying state of affairs? The most worthwhile moments of your life will come in a park, on a Sunday, with wine and friends; or over dinner with your wife; or watching your son play his first game of football. Life is to be lived, not sweated away so Britain can compete with China.

Of course, no significant achievement comes without hard work, be it an Olympic gold or writing a novel. Creative types and sportspeople are usually acutely aware of this, having to pursue their dreams in the hours left after nine-to-five employment. But the Tories and business interests have another campaign in mind when they castigate this imaginary army of feckless Brits. They plan to disable the European guarantees of quality of life.

Limits on working hours are the most obvious target, but the agenda is driven more subtly as well. The Beecroft employment law review radically weakens staff negotiating positions, allowing employers to force a culture of longer working hours on offices where everyone is trying to secure their position.

It is an image of a country slaving away to improve its GDP, a barren and heartless view of the human condition. It comes from people who insist they support the family unit, but force mothers and fathers to spend less time with their children. It comes from people who say they are patriotic, but constantly talk down Briton.

This false image of a feckless Britain, perpetuated every day by the tabloid press, betrays its citizens. Students who study hard for their A-levels are assumed to have received easier exams, because the idea of them dedicating themselves to anything contradicts the lie we have taught ourselves about ourselves. The number of unemployed welfare claimants is radically overemphasised to ease the passage of benefit cuts which mostly affect working families.

There are times in life when hard work is the only route to fulfil your dreams. But it is not an end of itself. If work is your main concern, you are living your life wrong. Don't let them convince you to waste a life on their shabby dreams of Britain. There is nothing wrong with a good lie-in.

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