Corbyn's bank holiday madness

With an election campaign underway, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has promised four new bank holidays. This is bad news. We, and not the state, should decide when we take holidays. And election auction-bidding over bank holidays says something dismal about our democracy.

Start with the argument about holidays themselves. Bank holidays were instituted so that workers would get at least some time off, principally around religious festivals. When business was all done in cash, forcing the banks to close meant forcing businesses to close, which meant that workers had to be sent home.

The trouble with political initiatives, of course, is that, like Topsy, they just grow. Over the years, the number of bank holidays was increased, often after a promise in an election campaign. The most recent was the May Day bank holiday, instituted by a Labour government to suggest a weak sort of solidarity with the workers of the world.

But today’s most hard-pressed workers are not the people who benefit from bank holidays. In those early days, when large numbers of us worked in factories, and some in offices, a day off work meant a day at home. Now, a Monday off work means a weekend at the seaside, or touring, of going out to shops, cinemas and restaurants. In the decades since bank holidays were first thought of, like these, services have become the UK’s most important sector.

So a bank holiday for well-paid professionals and politicians means a busy time for people in retail, restaurants and other trade where rates of pay are often quite low. Promoting bank holidays is a pretty strange way of showing your solidarity for workers and their rights and leisure.

We have eight in most of the UK, and nine in Scotland because St Andrew’s Day is also a holiday. There are, in addition, local holidays, particularly in Scotland (including, in many places, Queen Victoria’s Birthday. The May and August holidays, in particular, are notorious for ‘bank holiday madness’ in which, like Lemmings, we rush to the coast and into the sea. (Actually, Lemmings don’t: they are far too sensible.) Public transport—the state showing its support for workers’ rights again—is often operating reduced schedules, so much our holiday time is spent stuck in the car, in the collective traffic jam. Madness indeed.

Why do we need the state to ordain our holidays? Holidays should be a matter of agreement between employers and employees. It’s the same problem we have with schools—because the government runs them and they all take holidays at the same time, the cost of flight and hotel packages soars. Why can’t we pick our own work holidays and so spread the congestion and benefit from non-peak pricing?

Which brings me to the point about democracy. Democracy is a great way of deciding things you can’t decide in any other way. If there is another way, it’s usually better. Do our holidays really need to be a collective decision? Should banks and businesses be forced to close, under threat of imprisonment? Should people in different trades, and of different religious and other backgrounds, all be forced to take the same holidays as everyone else?

Politicians like to think that democracy is so wonderful, it should be extended to more and more decisions. But that means extending politics to more and more decisions. And it’s already feeling like the decline of Rome. We’re being promised more and more things (ever-rising pensions, free healthcare for everything, free schools and universities) that are, in the long term, undeliverable.

It’s time for some brave politician to say that, without changing anyone’s leisure entitlements, bank holidays should be abolished and we should choose our own days off. They won’t, of course. Bread and circuses will win every time.