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Queuing shouldn't be a British virtue
Every queue is a policy failure
The Queen lying in state in Westminster Hall has given rise to what we often characterise as a quintessential part of being British: The Queue.
Our national tolerance of queuing, it appears, is something that we should be proud of. It’s a fundamental part of our national character that we are happy to wait for things in a patiently and orderly way. It’s a virtue to celebrate.
It’s also a completely bonkers, wrong-headed way to think about Britain. When we see a queue, we should feel embarrassed.
Because queuing is a symptom of a sclerotic disease that haunts Britain. Because a queue isn’t just a line of people waiting for a thing – it is a manifestation of lost time and wasted potential.
If you are in a queue, whether at the Post Office, on the M25, or indeed, waiting to see the Queen lying in state, you are by definition not living life to its full potential. Your time and energy is not being spent efficiently.
Even if the prize at the end is worthwhile, the dead time that got you there is a sign that something is seriously wrong. As a society, when we see a queue we shouldn’t want to celebrate it - we should want to eliminate it. Because every queue represents a failure to think bigger.
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Fixing the queue
Fundamentally, a queue is a mismatch between supply and demand.
The queue for the Queen is a good example. More people want to see the Queen than can fit in Westminster Hall, and we can’t easily build another dead Queen, so we have to ration access by forming a queue.
But the correct response shouldn’t be to turn it into a heartwarming story that loosely passes as news, but to figure out what interventions can be made to minimise the waste and the bullshit.
One crude way of doing this would be to charge for tickets, raising prices until demand precisely matches capacity. But this is obviously unpalatable, so places have to be rationed in some other way.
And what makes me mad in this specific instance is that even if we correctly accept that can’t use prices to reduce demands, tools already exist in the world to make the situation better.
Take Disney World, for example. Queues still exist, but the company is almost fanatically dedicated to reducing queue times, because it knows that queuing has a detrimental effect on the customer experience. So instead of queuing for ages for each attraction, customers are offered a number of “fast pass” slots using an app that they can use to skip the queue during specific, pre-booked time-slots. The spillover effects are quite complicated1, but one upshot is that it help Disney’s parks optimise demand for different attractions during the day – and ultimately means that in aggregate, everyone goes home a lot happier.
There’s no reason Britain couldn’t do something similar for the Queen. In fact, the government already has virtual queuing technology ready to go. We all used it during the vaccine rollout to book our vaccination slots. In just a few clicks, we were able to choose a time-slot and location that works for us – and it turned what could have been a day-spanning queuing ordeal into something that only took minutes.
Obviously the Queen’s death was not exactly something that could have been predicted ahead of time (aside from the fact she was 96), but you can imagine a situation where a more dynamic country could have quickly repurposed the vaccine booking software and customer workflow to book slots for the vigil.
I’m sure there would have been some complications, such as the need for new data protection assessments and the need to accurately estimate the throughput of Westminster Hall. But the fundamental building blocks were there that meant we could have had everyone in the queue book a slot, and then freed to spend their time supporting London’s restaurants, hotels and visitor attractions. Or at least sat more comfortably at home doing other stuff while they wait their turn2.
Every queue is a policy failure
The problem with queuing though goes beyond what we can physically see snaking along the South Bank. Queuing is also a state of mind - and is emblematic of Britain’s enormous productivity problem - an economic reality that has us crawling behind the other major European economies in terms of investment, research and development, and output-per-hour-worked. Because of our failure to tackle our problems, we’re stuck in a metaphorical queue, wasting time and energy.
This isn’t a left or right-coded issue. Because unless you’re a maniac, making Britain more productive is a good thing. If we can make our country more productive, we can redistribute more stuff, and provide a more robust welfare state that offers more services.
And the way to improve our productivity is to build more infrastructure, invest in more technology, and solve the long term problems that are holding us back.
This is why we shouldn’t celebrate our love of waiting around and doing nothing, and why I am absolutely beating the queuing metaphor to death.
Because what is HS2, if not an attempt to relieve the queues of trains on the West Coast Mainline? Once built, local and high speed trains will no longer have to wait for each other to pass, as they will be on separate tracks. Transport capacity will no longer be such a bottleneck.
And what is the housing crisis, if not an enormous mismatch in supply and demand? Because we haven’t built enough homes, the price of buying and renting has increased, and a horrifying proportion of household income has to be wasted on literal rent-seekers, and not supporting communities, educating ourselves, or invested in more productive areas of the economy.
And what of the sometimes literal queues in Dover and Calais, where Brexit red-tape has degraded the ability of British people to work and trade with our European allies? The whole point of frictionless trade, and the reason even the Brexiteers lied and pretended that there wouldn’t be any problems is because people know that time spent queuing is time and money wasted, something that ultimately makes us poorer.
Perhaps the most potent example of a queue that is damaging Britain in an immediate sense is the enormous NHS backlog. Because of the long term failure to build excess capacity and resilience into the health service, and because the NHS has been forced to pick up where the rest of the austerity-ravaged public sector left off, anyone needing an operation this winter is going to find themselves stuck waiting.
This ultimately, is why I have invented a metaphor and annoyed myself with it. Queuing should not be a virtue – because it is more of a symbol of everything that is wrong with Britain.
We shouldn’t be happy to queue – we should find queuing intensely annoying. Celebrating a queue is like celebrating someone winning a competitive eating competition. It might look exciting, even noble in the moment – but fundamentally is pretty fucked up when you think about it for a couple of seconds.
We should be unwilling to accept that waiting patiently is something inherent and unchangeable about us. We can do better, and we should want our culture, and our national character to valorise not our tolerance for bullshit waiting around, but efforts to actually make things better.
Congratulations! You made it to the end of this roughly 6500-word long queue of letters to reach the end. That means you must have either enjoyed it or got suitably annoyed by it. In any case, please do share it with your friends and family, sign up to receive more blazing hot takes on a wide range of topics, and don’t forget to follow me on Twitter (@Psythor).
If you have almost two hours to spare, I strongly recommend watching this long YouTube video about how Disney has optimised its queuing system. It is genuinely fascinating.
This footnote is to acknowledge the cynical take that the queue is the point, as it’s part of the theatre of mourning. Maybe. But I’m not convinced the government is that smart. I think it is more of a conservative attitude to planning, and fearing a big IT fuck-up, even though we know the vaccine booking system a) works well, b) scales.