A Missive from the UK: Small Is Beautiful?

Like Mark, I’m in Britain now. Started out in the Home Counties, now up in what the motorway signs around London refer to simply as “The North.” The trip so far has made me think, as trips to Britain often do, about smallness.

Smallness isn’t necessarily bad. For instance, the Guardian has changed from the full, NYT size paper, to a more compact (but not tabloid) version. Along with a really beautiful new format, it is one of the few unvarnished improvements of ANYTHING I can think of. Also, a large percentage of Britons read the paper on public transport, where the new, smaller size dramatically lowers the probability of sticking your elbow in someone’s face when you try to turn the page.

And largeness isn’t always so hot either. I have been hearing about how wonderful the Tate Modern museum was. The main attraction of the museum was supposed to be its sheer size–it has the largest open spaces of any museum I have ever been in. This allows the museum to stage enormous installations by contemporary artists. Which begs the question–is there really all that much gargantuan art that is genuinely inspiring being produced, or which should be produced? All I can say is that the installation currently in place was not much of an advertisement for the virtues of enormousness.

On the other hand, everything else in Britain is smaller than in the US. There are cases where this is quite pleasant–some of the most enjoyable pints I have had in Britain, especially in the countryside, have been in pubs where I nearly brained myself walking through the door. But houses are a different story. Even quite pricey houses in Britain tend to be very, very small, with quite low ceilings. There’s a good reason for the low ceilings–heating is much more of a priority here than cooling. But coming from the US, small rooms and low ceilings produces a real sense of confinement and agitation. Of course, people can adapt to lots of things, and there is little doubt that the relative dearth of private space leads Britons to spend more of their time in public space–hence the continued significance of pubs and, increasingly, cafes.

But there is a non-cultural reason why homes are so small in Britain–there’s not a lot of room and a lot of people. As a result, house prices are just extraordinary. This used to be a purely southern (i.e. London) problem, but as Northern cities are becoming more livable, and companies are relocating up here, they’re bringing house price inflation with them. And as a consequence, people up North will have to do without one of the compensating virtues of being away from London, which was greater space (horizontal, of course–as far as I can tell, it’s hard to get much vertical space anywhere here).

To sum up, Britain’s housing stock is small, both vertically and horizontally, and it’s not about to change that much. I’ve thought about living in Britain permanently (having lived in England for a year or so in bits and pieces) before, and even interviewed for a job here. But could I deal with the low ceilings? Maybe if they decided there wasn’t a need for huge installations at the Tate Modern and converted it to lofts instead….

Author: Steven M. Teles

Steven Teles is a Visiting Fellow at the Yale Center for the Study of American Politics. He is the author of Whose Welfare? AFDC and Elite Politics (University Press of Kansas), and co-editor of Ethnicity, Social Mobility and Public Policy (Cambridge). He is currently completing a book on the evolution of the conservative legal movement, co-editing a book on conservatism and American Political Development, and beginning a project on integrating political analysis into policy analysis. He has also written journal articles and book chapters on international free market think tanks, normative issues in policy analysis, pensions and affirmative action policy in Britain, US-China policy and federalism. He has taught at Brandeis, Boston University, Holy Cross, and Hamilton colleges, and been a research fellow at Harvard, Princeton and the University of London.