301.18 Thatcherite tea breaks

When I went to work in Stoke Newington Library in 1975, we had two staff rooms and a tea fund.

Younger readers may wonder what a tea fund is. The idea was that we all contributed an equal amount each week and this was used to provide communal supplies of tea, coffee, milk and sugar.

We took our breaks (one hour for lunch, 20-minute breaks in the morning and afternoon, and 30 minutes before the evening shift) in two sittings, imaginatively named “first” and “second”, and except for the odd few who went out at lunchtime (guess where…) we took our breaks in the staff room.

These breaks gave us the chance to unwind, get to know each other better, and talk about anything but work, all very therapeutic.

Along came 1979, and the country in its democratic wisdom elected a government that believed in “no such thing as society, just individuals and families”. This was the embodiment of ways of thinking that had been developing, mainly in the U.S.A., for some years past. This isn’t the place to go into the history of it, and other people have in any case done this much better than I can. But it’s interesting to see how the cult of individualism penetrated even into the minutiae of everyday life.

One small example was the sad demise of the Stoke Newington Library tea fund. One or two people asked to be excused the tea fund payments as they were bringing in things of their own (herbal teas, etc.) which the tea fund could not provide. Some others followed, not because they weren’t using the tea or coffee, but because they thought it would be cheaper to bring some of their own from home. It wasn’t long, less than a year, before it became impossible for the rest of us to keep the tea fund going; not least because there was a strong suspicion that some of the “opted-out” people were occasionally dipping into the communal supplies. We even tried providing a Conscience Box for people to put money in if they did use small amounts of the communal supplies, but this didn’t work, and before long we didn’t really know who was in the tea fund scheme and who was not. This all caused a certain amount of unnecessary ill feeling.

This was, trivial though it may seem, a microcosm of life in the 1980s. Many people were seduced by the libertarian argument that “if I don’t use it myself, personally, then I shouldn’t join in paying for it collectively”. For example, some people now argue that if they have private health insurance, they should not have to pay the NHS element in the taxes they pay. If that argument were accepted, the NHS might soon go the way of the Stoke Newington Library tea fund. Currently (2008) some local councils are toying with the idea of separating charges for refuse collection from the general Council Tax so that those who waste more would pay more. This is peddled as a Green Tax. It isn’t; it’s just the old Tea Fund argument in reverse.

Those of you who go out to work might like to compare your workplace to the 1975 description that I started with. Between 1992 and 1998, doing temporary and short-contract work (also a sign of the times) I saw quite a few workplaces. Only two had a staff room; the Science Museum Library and the National Sound Archive, both state-run bodies. None of the private-sector employers had a staff room. (Bad for productivity? maybe they thought so)

So, in your workplace, do you take your coffee break at your desk? How about your lunch? And if someone management-looking comes into the room during your break, do you quickly start doing some kind of work?

Do you take your full holiday entitlement? If you’re ill, do you stay at home and look after yourself, or do you soldier on and infect everybody else?

If you scored 3x Yes, 1x No, and one “soldier on”, then take a break, get down to your local library, and borrow a few of the novels of Charles Dickens. You’ll find his stories strangely familiar.

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