Tyranny of Losers

As you know, I’m living in the UK with a French car, a BMW. My plan was to go back to Annecy at some point in the autumn and sell it quickly on one of the auction sites. The trouble is, the service light came on. Apparently it needed an oil change and nobody is going to buy a car with a service light on, or at least they’re not going to pay full market value for it. So I called the BMW dealership closest to me and asked if I could book it in (yes, I know the main dealers are expensive and honest Hank down the road can turn the service light off, etc.) They took down the VIN number and told me there was a safety recall on an engine component, and they might need the vehicle for a few days. I said I’d had the car in the main dealer in France a few months back and they’d not said anything, even though this recall is a couple of years old. So I said skip the faulty component, just change the oil. Ah, but this is Britain:

“We can’t do that, we are not allowed to release the car with a safety malfunction”. 

Not allowed by whom? Is there a law saying a garage cannot change the oil in a car with some alleged problem in part of the engine? No, it’s probably some policy imposed by BMW, or even the dealership, being presented as if they are words handed down by God himself. You see a lot of this in Britain, appeals to mysterious higher powers who have delegated their formidable authority to the person you’re dealing with. There’s nothing a British jobsworth likes more than pompously telling you something mundane is illegal, truth be damned.

I decided to take the car in anyway. I asked at the counter why the French BMW concession hadn’t told me about this recall. “Well, it was just a UK-wide recall,” I was told. “Then why does it affect my French car?” I asked. She had no answer for that. When the work was done I asked the same question to another clerk. He replied that “There were a lot of recalls, maybe they were too busy and so decided not to mention it?” Which seems odd for a problem which, according to these jobsworths, was so severe they simply couldn’t just change the oil and let me be on my merry way.

For some reason, I don’t think my experience with BMW was too far removed from this video, which shows a couple of thugs employed by the local government in Grimsby fining a pensioner for having a dog in a graveyard:

British people, in the main, like to follow the rules and cooperate with authority. The downside of this is that certain people, when given a smidgen of temporary authority, gleefully wield it against ordinary folk, and especially those who have little choice but to cooperate. You can be damned sure the fat fool in the video would stay well clear of a couple of chavs with a pitbull; they’d have slapped him silly and posted the video on Snapchat. You see this authoritarian, bullying attitude everywhere in Britain, especially at airports and anywhere else where jumped-up little wannabe Hitlers can cite a Blair-era law to justify their actions. I remember years ago being on a rubbish dump outside Worcester with the bloke who ran the place lecturing us on how interfering with a washing machine we found lying there was “breaking the law”. You can only imagine what these people would be like if given real power.

None of this happens in France. For a start, the local government wouldn’t hire thugs to harass pensioners for walking their dogs. Secondly, no Frenchman would take the job because they’d find the local bar wouldn’t serve them any more. Thirdly, the public wouldn’t cooperate. There’s no way you’d get a hundred euros out of Frenchwoman the way these two shook down the old lady in Grimsby for £100. They’d risk arrest and imprisonment before they’d cough up on the spot like that. One of the things I like about the French is their disdain for authority, particularly that wielded by the government. I’ve written before about the very different relationship the French police take towards the citizenry in comparison to their British counterparts (the gilets jaunes in big cities notwithstanding).

That’s not to say the French fonctionnaires aren’t the most frustrating people on the planet; a trip to the local prefecture would disabuse you of that notion within minutes. But their contempt for you is one of utter indifference: they don’t hate you, they simply don’t care. But in the UK the bureaucrats and petty officials take delight in lording it over people, as if they’re trying to make up for a lifetime of being a complete loser in every field.

There’s also no room for nuance. I expect the reason the recall never happened in France is because the Frenchmen who owned the dealerships realised they were going to have a load of irate BMW owners on their hands, demanding compensation and free courtesy cars. So they probably negotiated and persuaded BMW that maybe the issue wasn’t that bad after all. Whereas in Britain BMW would have called the UK dealerships who immediately accepted whatever they were told and decided they’d refuse to perform routine services on customers’ vehicles unless they agreed to surrender them for several days during which they’d have to hire a car at their own expense (as I did).

The French approach to things can drive you insane at times, but there are times when I grudgingly admire their intransigence. And few things make me feel more ashamed of my country than the combination of authoritarian bullying by British jobsworths and its craven acceptance by ordinary people.

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46 thoughts on “Tyranny of Losers

  1. Oh yes, I have had so many “against the law innit” experiences back in Mud Island that I have come to expect it when I visit there now. Like you say the worst bit is when you either challenge it or discuss it with locals and they turn around and look at you as if you are some kind of deranged anarchist.

    I first noticed this attitude creeping in with crusty old snooty British Airways hostesses over twenty years ago, their lounge staff are equally smug as well. The only time I have flown with them since was on a domestic flight to Derry and Belfast, as there were no other flying options available but I have never taken a long haul flight with them since.

  2. In the UK, the DVLA uses the digital MOT reporting system to monitor which cars that are subject to recall have actually been seen. Not so in France. Manufacturers can be fined if they are not seen to be complying with the target depending on the severity of the issue in safety terms

  3. This all harks back to WWII and the Vichy regime. The French learned to distrust authority when the authorities were literally the enemy. Britain was never occupied, so we’ve never learned to distrust plod.

    As for recalls, there are various websites where you can lookup the recalls issued for any given make & model. The garage might well be lying about there being a recall, on the basis that they think you’re a tourist.

  4. This is a good example of the difference I’m talking about:

    Manufacturers can be fined if they are not seen to be complying with the target depending on the severity of the issue in safety terms

    “Can be fined”. Brits will interpret this as “will be fined” and therefore 100% compliance is required. In France, they’d wait and see what happens and whether anyone is actually fined. Brits can be kept under the thumb by weaselly threats which the authorities probably have no ability to enforce.

  5. The garage might well be lying about there being a recall, on the basis that they think you’re a tourist.

    What?

  6. I actually think this is quite a lot of the reason for the Brexit vote. It was two fingers up for all this carry on. The RNLI is an example as well. People are just sick at the unaccountable having power over the smallest things in their lives.

    Amusingly, I had a very emotional Irishman verbally assaulting me about brexit a couple of days ago, he seemed to believe it was all the work of racists, sold to the population by ‘snake oil salesmen’ and it would result in the IRA bombing everything again. I did try to point out that the IRA blowing things up was a choice they were making, and not the choice of the British, but that seemed to just get him more worked up…

  7. ““Can be fined”. Brits will interpret this as “will be fined” and therefore 100% compliance is required.”

    I’ve said this before I sure, but the UK was once a place of few laws, well enforced with a population of free and respectful people. Europe has always been a place of many laws, many ignored or simply not enforced with people who vary from free to not at all free. By joining the EU, Britain has become the bastard offspring of these two things.

  8. Here’s your problem: “As you know, I’m living in the UK with a French car, a BMW”

    BMWs are actually Cherman, and not French cars. BMWs also have lots of super-spiffy electronic options such as: a) the proximity warning system delete when you get less than a metre behind the car in front, b) the rear-view mirror delete, c) the wing mirror delete, d) the indicator when changing lanes delete.

    My suggestion. Buy a Renault with the polyamory option wired hard-on. 🙂

  9. I forget who it was (Hayek? Ralph Harris? Arthur Fisher?) who pointed out that fascism comes in many forms, including just having a clipboard and peaked cap.

  10. “This all harks back to WWII and the Vichy regime. The French learned to distrust authority when the authorities were literally the enemy. ”

    It goes back a lot further than that. Look at the history of the Vendee & the war the revolutionary government in Paris conducted against its inhabitants. France is culturally very regional, Always has been. It’s history, since there was a France, is that of diverse peoples held together by the power of a central ruler. Sometimes reluctantly. The only reason they all speak french is because it was made illegal to speak anything else.

  11. I have a more heartening example for you: I have a UK-bought car registered in France. There was a recall mandated in the UK by VOSA after complaints from owners (of which I was one). As far as I know, that recall never made it out of the UK, so lots of cars around Europe with that engine are driving around with fuel injectors that could instantly conk the engine at any moment. So +1 for the UK.

    Not that I’m disputing the point of the post, just that sometimes a good result sneaks NB through too…

  12. David M: “Europe has always been a place of many laws, many ignored or simply not enforced”

    An anecdote, which maybe suggests that Europe is a diverse place, and the world is always changing.

    The high school in Minnesota attended by the son of a friend had a program which exchanged students for a semester/term with a German high school. Since the son was learning German, he took advantage of this program. Big culture shock to him was that his Minnesota high school had a thick book of rules, most of which could be ignored with impunity — the German high school had very few rules, but those rules were enforced strictly & uniformly.

    US society, like that high school, has many laws, large numbers of which tend to be enforced selectively — and not at all if your name happens to be Hillary Rodham Clinton. I wonder if German society similarly mirrors German high schools?

  13. The national sport in Germany is getting away with flagrant breaches of as many rules as possible while continually pointing out eveey single trivial and inconsequential, even imaginary, infraction by others.

  14. That lady should have refused to give her card, politely refuse to cooperate, dare them to have her arrested. Demand a jury trial, no sane twelve people would convict her. Maximum publicity.

    Councils and the police fear publicity for cowardly shakedowns like this. They’d cave in eventually.

  15. And when they aren’t busy putting people in jail for flipping off speed cams or conducting a national manhunt for someone who told a Muslim joke on social media, the British lecture the US for having the Second Amendment as a check against a tyrannical government.

  16. My guess is that the garage are worried about their insurance position if you subsequently kill a number of people because of the “safety” problem. These stories inevitable revolve around our imported desire to sue anyone and everyone for any misfortune, even if its our own fault.

  17. Last week my mother had to take her car to the main dealer (which she bought it from 10 years ago and has had dealings with since) due to a lock issue. She was told to bring proof of ownership, but on arrival, the young fellow on the counter insisted on seeing the logbook (the insurance certificate she’d bought was insufficient apparently). It was only due to the intervention of another member who knew her that she was able to get the work done.

    Jobworths are everywhere sadly

  18. Looking at the video, it bears out the idea that the elderly lady was reacting to two images which will have been imprinted in her mind by childhood in a country where the State almost never, ever, impinged on the day to day life of the individual. It’s not the fat jobsworth bully, it’s the uniform and the notebook that terrify. In the world she grew up in, if authority ever did turn up about something it came dressed in black and carrying a notebook (and probs a pointy hat, too, but two out of three ain’t bad as another fat boy pointed out many years later), and if it did you were in real, serious trouble.

    It’s interesting too (well I thought so) that the gobby chap doing the videoing bobbed about on the sidelines and shouted insults rather than interceding direct with the jobsworth. Despite the gobbiness, he was intimidated too because he wouldn’t engage; he contented himself with bullying the easy target of the useless girlie, letting the fat boy get on with the ticket-writing. Maybe the power of the black uniform and notebook has filtered down the generations to some extent.

    I wonder if the Council will cancel that fine? In the old lady’s world, the official would have wandered up, excused himself, explained the problem gently, and asked her to bear it in mind next visit. Then wandered off with a cheery smile. Job sorted, no tears, no respect for authority lost. But polite society is dead and gone and it’s a loss we’ll rue in the future.

  19. Despite the gobbiness, he was intimidated too because he wouldn’t engage; he contented himself with bullying the easy target of the useless girlie, letting the fat boy get on with the ticket-writing.

    Quite so. He didn’t cover himself in glory here.

  20. I must point out that a two month old BMW caught fire on a.garage forecourt the night before last. No idea why, except it started in the engine. Hopefully someone will find out why and issue a recall.
    That being said, I have had instances of garages insisting I get a car towed in before they investigate a warning light. I went elsewhere.

  21. Many councils ‘outsource’ wardens, such as the two described, to companies who pay peanuts (which is why many of them are barely trained monkeys) but who offer bonuses for the number of tickets issued. Even if the fine is cancelled, the monkey can still add it to the number issued.
    I agree with Rob in that the lady should have refused all details and kept her card, but the elderly are usually very law abiding and fearful of authority. An easy target for two barely trained chimps.
    Regarding the BMW, I was once told that if I ever felt that my life had no meaning, just think of the people employed by BMW to fit indicators to their cars.

  22. Not sure there was much the guy could do. Two on one, he wouldn’t be able to do much.

    The problem that’s happened is that a lot of council and police services have been outsourced to contractors and the incentive is now about collecting money, not addressing the problem.

    Like traffic wardens and police used to warn you that they’ll give you a ticket if you park there. Because their primary job was getting cars off double yellow lines and keeping the roads flowing. The private contractor doesn’t care. He just wants to collect a fine.

  23. Two on one, he wouldn’t be able to do much.

    Get the woman out of there ASAP, and stop the two rent-a-thugs talking to her directly.

  24. So long as any crap is picked up what does taking your dog a walk in the Cemetery matter anyway?

    Getting shot of ALL Councils is increasingly necessary.

  25. I thought it had something to do with dogs digging up bones? Like, centuries ago before six feet down was mandated? Or is it because they widdle on the headstones?

  26. I thought it had something to do with dogs digging up bones?

    Most probably, in which case this is where nuance is required. Is the offending dog actually digging up bones? If not, no need to go in mob-handed. But the knuckle-dragging morons who’ve been hired by the government only see a dog, and don’t have the intellect to think any further than that.

    It reminds me of a time I was staying in a hotel in Kuwait with a private beach. I was down there late at night, utterly alone, with my tripod and camera facing out to sea taking pictures of a dhow anchored just offshore. Suddenly some Indian “manager” comes up and tells me photography is banned on the beach. Now obviously this is to stop women sunbathers being photographed during the day, but this was the guy’s once-in-a-lifetime chance to lord it over a white man, so he took it.

  27. In my happy country we have a much simpler system. When confronted by an official one looks up at a random spot in the sky and muses aloud, “I wonder how much it would take to make the problem go away?” The guys aren’t greedy. Enough to buy a Kentucky Streetwise with a side will usually do it. Traffic cops are a little more difficult because everyone at the roadblock expects to share in the largesse.

    A French BMW? You could have saved yourself some inconvenience by shopping on the net for the little gadget that resets the warning lights.

  28. You could have saved yourself some inconvenience by shopping on the net for the little gadget that resets the warning lights.

    When I drove a Prado in Sakhalin the engine light came on. I took it to a garage and the mechanic fixed the problem by removing the bulb behind the dashboard. I don’t think he quite understood what I was after.

  29. “It reminds me of a time I was staying in a hotel in Kuwait with a private beach. I was down there late at night, utterly alone, with my tripod and camera facing out to sea taking pictures of a dhow anchored just offshore. Suddenly some Indian “manager” comes up and tells me photography is banned on the beach. Now obviously this is to stop women sunbathers being photographed during the day, but this was the guy’s once-in-a-lifetime chance to lord it over a white man, so he took it.”

    You’ve hit on the crux of the problem, here, Tim. It’s discretion or lack of it’s the problem. Some laws are necessary. You mentioned being warned off of interfering with a washing machine at the tip. It’s not hard to see why there’s a law banning the activity. Otherwise you’d have the Pikeys setting up a metal recovery operation at the council refuse site. Pulling out worthwhile stuff, stripping it of anything of value. Then just dumping what wasn’t anywhere they felt like. And why the cemetery is dog-unfriendly. You don’t want it as the local dog owners’ pooch playground. Sometimes breaking the law causes no inconvenience or problem to anyone else. But may be beneficial to an individual. So why enforce it?

  30. That lady should have refused to give her card, politely refuse to cooperate, dare them to have her arrested. Demand a jury trial, no sane twelve people would convict her. Maximum publicity.

    Alas Rob, it would almost certainly be heard by a lone Magistrate, if she’s lucky by Magistrates sitting in a trio.

    The outcome would be pretty much straight out of 1984, unless she lucked a particularly humane or sympathetic Magistrate.

  31. The dog-in-the-graveyard story reminds me of my own jobsworth incident.
    My wife and I were bicycle-touring in southern England, and had been doing longer moves by train. The drill was to walk the bikes to the luggage car of the train, where the conductor would let us lash our bikes inside, or have us simply stand with them if the trip was very short.
    No problems anywhere until we arrive on the platform for the Salisbury – York leg. Uniformed chap eyes us, and walks over to inquire what we are about. After we explain, he get this grave look on his face. “Well, this is an express, and that’s not allowed.”
    Cue looks of dismay on my and my wife’s faces.
    Then, “Look, do this. Take your bikes to the luggage van as usual. I’ll make sure to be out of sight, and as long as the conductor doesn’t see me he will very likely let you board with them.”
    Everything works smooth as silk.
    Of course, this was 1985, and I’m sure it helped that I could pass for a local as long as I kept my mouth shut.
    In France, however…

  32. “Otherwise you’d have the Pikeys setting up a metal recovery operation at the council refuse site. Pulling out worthwhile stuff, stripping it of anything of value. Then just dumping what wasn’t anywhere they felt like. ”

    And the problem with this would be? Metal gets recycled, less sh*t gets tipped in a hole in the ground, someone makes a living. How awful.

  33. William of O: “BMWs are like pubic hairs.”

    OK. I will bite. Now give us the punch line.

  34. All of which could have been avoided if you drove, as you should, an 80s-90s manual transmission BMW instead of whatever contemporary monstrosity you foolishly purchased. Service lights? How gay is that! 😉

  35. Tim, these jobsworths flourish because people like you know they are having a laugh, but you still acquiesce.

    The right thing to do (notwithstanding buying a car from Europe’s foremost chocolate engine maker) is to go to a reputable independent garage.

    But you didn’t. You paid the piper then came here to complain about your own willingness to give money to the enemy.

    And I don’t understand why no-one else has raised this. Did I miss something?

  36. If the dog is on a lead and the crap is picked up so what? It can’t piss on gravestones unless you let it and “digging up bones”? Can’t speak for the rest of the UK but in my bit they bury them 6 ft under still. Some dog to dig that up. If you had such a dog no council pricks would be anywhere near you.

  37. Slightly tangential: the latest bullying by our betters involves refusal of many energy suppliers to allow access to their cheapest tariffs unless you agree to have a “smart” meter fitted. Although time and again the “authorities” confirm that smart metering is not compulsory, Ofgem does nothing and the energy suppliers bathe in the approbation of the Church of Climate Change.

  38. Ecks,
    The prohibition of dogs in graveyards is very old. Before 1860 it was the law that everybody had to be buried in a churchyard but that became impractical so the law was changed to permit cemeteries.

    What was happening as the churchyards filled up was that they had been burying punters on top of other punters. Do that a few times and the punter at the top of the stack is close enough to the surface for a determined dog to reach.

  39. The right thing to do (notwithstanding buying a car from Europe’s foremost chocolate engine maker) is to go to a reputable independent garage.

    I’m three days in a new city in the UK and I’m supposed to find a reputable independent garage who can replace my oil and turn off the service light in a BMW? Not from the UK, are you?

  40. With everything now computerized in most cars, you often have no other option but to go to the dealership for many issues.

  41. “We can’t do that, we are not allowed to release the car with a safety malfunction”.

    I do wonder what would happen if you then showed up with bailiffs, given that you do in fact own the car. Or would you discover that there is fine print showing that you don’t?

  42. Also, with regard to an issue with a rental car, I am presently discovering the Belgian way of doing things at the moment. I would rather either the British or the French way, easily.

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