Page last updated at 11:54 GMT, Tuesday, 22 December 2009

In praise of bloody-mindedness

Wartime ID card, wheelie bins and cigarette
Three things that have prompted bursts of bloody-mindedness

By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

The way Rage Against The Machine were propelled to the top of the charts in place of the latest manicured X Factor act shows a quality that runs through British life like a stick of rock. But why do people like to be so bloody-minded?

"Sheer bloody-mindedness" is usually bandied about in an insulting fashion, used to categorise obstructive officialdom, obstreperous uncles and cantankerous children.

But is there something noble in the desire to not do what you are told?

Zack de la Rocha and Simon Cowell
Sometimes certain people induce rage

Recent years are full of glorious examples of semi-organised resistance against "them" - the forces of authority, commerce and enforced taste.

It very often shows itself in resistance to polls where the participants have been subtly channelled towards certain choices.

One campaign that can be considered as successful as the recent chart outing came in 2001. An e-mail exhorted census respondents in the UK - as well as Australia and New Zealand - to put their religion as Jedi.

The clue to the bloody-mindedness was in the plea that census respondents should do it either for their love of "the Force" or "just to annoy people". For many, the thought of anonymous serried ranks of civil servants having their neat boxes spoilt was a compelling one.

In the event, officialdom was compelled to be fairly good humoured, in the UK at least. The census takers created the counting code "896 Jedi Knight" and announced the numbers in a press release entitled "390,000 Jedis There Are". Brighton and Hove came out best with 2.6% responding Jedi. See link here. In Australia the naughty Jedi were threatened with fines.

BBC Sports Personality of the Year has in the past provided countless opportunities for the bloody-minded to upset the applecart.

Whisky Galore: Islanders benefit from shipwreck but fight authorities to keep their booty
Passport to Pimlico: Area secedes to defunct Duchy of Burgundy
The Titfield Thunderbolt: Villagers battle to keep their railway open

In response to the BBC trailers featuring the stars of football, rugby, tennis, golf, cricket and athletics, for several years in the 1990s angling magazines tried to get one of their own to the top of the pile.

In 1991 it was reported that angler Bob Nudd received a welter of votes, but it was distance runner Liz McColgan who won the award.

Several years ago, a vote to name a stand in Manchester City's new stadium prompted shenanigans. There was a suspicion that non-Manchester City fans were attempting to hijack the vote by backing former star Colin Bell in the hope the stand in question would be forever lumbered with an embarrassing name.

Again the club showed its sense of humour by responding to the pleas of City fans and keeping Bell's moniker, making it the Colin Bell Stand.

But there is a serious side to bloody-mindedness. The same resistance to being economically or culturally steered can be one of the drivers for political campaigns, says cultural historian Joe Moran, author of Queuing for Beginners.

ID card burnings in 1951 and more recently
There is a serious side to the refusal to obey orders

"There is quite a long British tradition of localism and scepticism towards state power, and after World War II this was refuelled by widespread resentments about the survival of wartime red tape and rationing."

It can be seen in the Ealing comedies from the period, he says. Passport to Pimlico, The Titfield Thunderbolt and Whisky Galore "celebrate the cussedness of the little people in the face of authority".

This strain of resistance saw its zenith in the fight against the retention of wartime ID cards into the 1950s.

"There was a famous campaign involving a liberal councillor, Harry Willcock, who in 1950 was stopped for speeding on Ballard's Lane in Finchley, and the policeman asked to see his identity card," says Mr Moran.

"Willcock refused and he managed to turn this incident into a national campaign against the use of identity cards in peacetime, culminating in a mass rally in Hyde Park."

The case ended up in the appeal court where his conviction was upheld but the police were attacked for demanding ID cards for minor offences.

Mr Willcock's modern inheritors are those who oppose the latest incarnation of the ID card, wheelie bin imposition and the ban on smoking indoors.

While spurred on by newspaper campaigns, little battles against the street scene-spoiling wheelies are being fought the length and breadth of the country.

It is not just that people have practical and aesthetic objections to the new arrivals, but more fundamentally they dislike being told what to do by uncompromising councils.

Tony Hancock (right)
If bloody-mindedness has a patron saint it is Tony Hancock

The same feeling led to the small handful of libertarians who communicated to news organisations like the BBC their intention to take up cigarettes in response to the smoking ban. If that is not the ultimate political manifestation of bloody-mindedness, what is?

There is an over-arching impulse that drives people to resist.

"They think to themselves we are preventing ourselves being marshalled into this," says writer and broadcaster Simon Fanshawe.

But these acts of rebellion might seem strange, particularly to those in the US who note the British docility in the face of bad customer service and transport chaos.

"We queue meekly like no other nation on earth," says Fanshawe. "We are always doing what we are told. Maybe we can't bear it any longer. It is a distrust of the notion of authority."

There is, of course, no British monopoly on bloody-mindedness.

In plenty of other countries, people question why they have to take off their boots, or stand in a particular place or wear a particular shirt.

But there will always be a special place for bloody-mindedness in the British psyche.

Below is a selection of your comments.

As a half British - half Italian take I can honestly say that British people have a long way to go before they can reach the bloody-mindedness of our continental neighbours.
Rob, Manchester

Fanshawe: we queue out of consideration to others. It is not a sign of weakness.
P England, London

These days we only seem to be bloody-minded about quite trivial things, which is pretty childish when you think of it. We weren't bloody-minded enough to (for example) stop the government from taking us into a war in Iraq that the majority of the country's citizens did not support. Rage Against the Machine my butt!
Jade, Oxford, UK

How could you possibly miss out the most memorable one of recent times. The Mayor of Hartlepool, Angus the Monkey!
Joules, Lancs UK

You mentioned some films that exemplified British bloody mindedness, but a song also springs to mind: Bernard Cribbens' Hole in the Ground. The digger of the hole has a government official pompously telling him "Don't dig there, dig it elsewhere. You're digging it round and it ought to be square" The songs ends satisfyingly with Bernard singing, "It's not there now, the grounds all flat, but beneath it is a bloke in a bowler hat - and that's that!" Wonderful.
Delia Emery, Canada

Bloody mindedness is without a doubt, one of the best assets that you can have. In this day and age, we simply bow down to every request, every demand, every order and proclamation that comes down from on high. Where did we loose our guts? I remember a few months back I was stopped by a police officer in Crewe station. After he asked to look through my bag, I agreed to let him- on the condition that I got his name, badge number and force. A perfectly reasonable caveat- or so I thought. He simply wondered off. No disagreement, no acquiescence, he just wondered off. We need more people to show more spine, to remind our government that it does not run the country- we let it run the nation on our behalf.
Evis T, Menai Bridge Ynys Mon

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