What happened to the British queue?

Growing up in Sri Lanka, a former British colony, while we deplored the imperial exploitation, there was also admiration for many qualities that the British displayed, in particular the orderliness of the British general public. Specifically we marveled at the fact that the British people would spontaneously form a line whenever there was a need to get in somewhere or get something, even in the absence of railings or someone to enforce the line. One example is at the bus stop. In Sri Lanka, as the bus arrived, there would be a free-for-all as people tried to get in ahead of the others irrespective of the order in which they arrived at the bus stop. I used to wish that we would emulate the British in this regard.

I was thinking about this when I watched the chaotic scenes at Wembley stadium on Sunday when large numbers of people stormed the gates to push themselves inside to see the European Cup final against Italy, even if they had no tickets. What had happened to that legendary orderliness? Was it that it was always just a myth? Or has that sense of civic orderliness somehow disappeared over time for some reason? Or was that just a one-off due to the irrationality that extreme sports fandom can generate in some people?

Jonathan Pie has a brutal rant against the British behavior at the match and the racist reaction afterwards, decrying what he sees as the collapse of any sense of civic mindedness and the country going to hell.

Of course, Pie’s shtick is overwrought hyperbole and so he may have gone too far in his criticisms for the sake of effect. I hope he is wrong.


  1. blf says

    One place there has always been a mob rather a queue is in pubs at the bar.† Which leads to one of the weirdest things that I ever encountered whilst living in teh “U”K: Edinburgh Scotland, attending a music festival (partly) located at the University. During the break, everyone went off to the pub (in the student union or someplace like that), where there was only a single bartender. Instead of mobbing up to the bar, there was a queue… of the stereotypical style, orderly, polite, etc. And joking about there being a queue. In a pub. At the bar. In Britain. In Scotland, even.

      † Pubs that serve through a hatch presumably have queues.

  2. cartomancer says

    We still queue for most things. But mob violence is kind of a different bag. We’ve never really queued for that. You may well recall the culture of football hooliganism of the 60s and 70s that we thought we had got over. This is basically an atavism of that.

  3. xohjoh2n says

    Football hooligans have always been a law unto themselves.

    @1 mob it may look like, but the better establishments can keep track of who actually arrived first and take a dim view of people obviously taking the piss (and make sure they get skipped a few turns for their efforts.) And enlightened self-interest says make life easy for the person supplying you with beer.

  4. says

    There are some situations in which a queue won’t form. Among idiots trying to get into somewhere that none of them have tickets for is one.

    The only other common one I know is the London Underground at rush-hour. There are no queues to get on the trains.

  5. blf says

    @5, Yes, I know the “pub mob” is usually served on a (roughly) first-there–first-to-drink order, but as you say, it looks intimidating.

    Saying that, that reminds me of an incident in a Irish brew-pub in Dublin some yonks ago: I was watching a Rugby game on a stool about two arm’s lengths from the bar, tucked away in a corner and surrounded by others. When my pint exhausted itself (with some assistance from me!), I faced the problem of getting to the nearby bar to order another. This would have a tricky maneuver, probably requiring championship limbo dancing skills.

    Noticing my predicament, a gent seated at the bar held out his hand for my empty. I couldn’t quite reach, so two intervening people helped pass the empty along, the full back, the money to the bar, and the change back. All, of course, while watching the game and sinking their own drinks.

  6. Trickster Goddess says

    In my city, people don’t queue for buses, but rather all crowd around the door when a bus pulls up. Then a deferral system kicks in. We let people we mobility aids, walkers, canes and strollers board first. Then older people, then the rest.

    I had a rude awakening one day when I was holding back and letting the older folks on, then there was a pause in people boarding even though there were other passengers waiting with me. I looked around to see why no-one else was going ahead and found a gaggle of teenage boys looking at me expectantly, waiting for me to go ahead of them.

  7. Holms says

    I don’t think the beer and pies crowd was ever particularly orderly, but especially not when a game was on.

  8. Matt G says

    There is a bus stop in Queens which ferries subway riders from NYC to their homes in fairly affluent towns on Long Island. There are two busses which stop there, taking slightly different routes (one through more affluent areas than the other, interestingly). A queue forms every time, and can sometimes reach 100 meters in length and curve around the corner (so requiring a gap for pedestrians at the intersection). Now, when one bus comes, an issue arises: which people need that bus? It resolves itself quite easily, actually: those people take a step closer to the curb and start walking towards the bus door in that new queue, while those left behind tighten up the remaining queue. It’s beautiful to behold.

    Trickster Goddess@8- Ouch!!

  9. oldmanxman says

    May I recommend the episode of “Dave Gorman’s Modern life is goodish” show where he takes apart our (UK) inherent belief that we always queue.

    He especially highlights the ‘bar question’ and shows how we sneakily overcome the first come, first served rule


  10. larpar says

    “What happened to the British queue?”

    Still sitting on the throne, as far as I know. : )

  11. mnb0 says

    “In Sri Lanka, as the bus arrived, there would be a free-for-all”
    Ah yes -- and woe to you if you (in Paramaribo) get in the way of an overweight woman shaking her upper body while making her way to the entrance! Alas I couldn’t find footage.
    This video from just five years ago shows that English queue building is not a myth.


    However that doesn’t prevent the Brits (ie including specifically the Scots) to misbehave at other occastions. Ask the Spanish tourism industry.

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