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Saturday, 22 September 2007

Countries get the rulers they deserve – and vice versa

There is an old joke which, like all jokes, only works if delivered with a straight face and solemnity: “To be born an Englishman is to win first prize in the race of life.”

Anyhow, I know many of you are not in line for the first prize, and have better things to think about than the fact that English is not the same as British, and that our Prime Minister, Gordon Brown is Scottish, like his predecessor, Bliar, and many of his cabinet. Cameron is a Scottish name for that matter

The English, when they raise their eyes from their sundry follies, sometimes feel miffed about this, since although the Scots can vote in our elections, sit in our Parliament and run the whole show, we can’t do the same up there.

Gordon Brown is no fool – he is running rings round Cameron - and to take the eye off his Scottish origins he has launched a campaign about "Britishness", the latest manifestation of which is a contest to come up with a phrase or word which describes being British.

To this end I believe he has set up a panel of 1,000 useful idiots, making it into the sort of contest they have on the back of cereal boxes. This is brilliant, as it is at the same intellectual level as the things voters here really care about - like which of a group of freaks and buffoons should be thrown out of some dire place no sane person would want to be in the first place.

You may well wonder why describing what it means to be British matters more than determining whether we stay British by being allowed to vote on whether we should willy-nilly accept the carefully disguised new European Constitution.

But, ever a concerned citizen, even though I have not been asked, I feel it my patriotic duty to help in the task of defining ourselves.

This country is a very popular holiday (and work) destination, so even if you are not British you may like to know what to expect when you get here. What are the words or phrases that encapsulate our national charms today?

I have examined what seems to characterise us most, and come up with a list of plausible candidates. This was no casual study. I did so by dint of by walking around the streets in London and other major towns, reading the paper, listening to radio and watching, as little as possible, TV.

Finding just one phrase or word that describes us is not easy, as we have so many obvious qualities, but “Illiterate” instantly springs to mind. Even people with university degrees can rarely write English nowadays, as I know from reading far too many badly-written reports and letters asking for jobs.

“Obese” gets my vote, too. We dare not yet challenge the good citizens of, say, Houston, Texas, but in Europe only the Germans carry, on average, more wobbling flab than we now do.

“Noisy, drunken, tattooed and violent” is clearly a fitting phrase, as time in the hospital casualty department in any large town on a Saturday night will demonstrate. “Druggies” has a claim as well. If late at night you aren’t offered drugs in Soho nowadays, complain to someone – maybe the overpaid time-wasters at the Equal Opportunities Commission - because you’re being discriminated against.

How about “Pregnant at 15 - again”? Statistics show we are clear winners in that contest. Or perhaps “Idle”? The number of clearly able-bodied beggars you see on the streets is quite astounding. They do well too. I recently saw a black man who works from a bench in the King’s Road buying shoes in a shop nearby that’s far too expensive for me.

On top of that, an amazing number of people are paid to be unemployed or have jobs in the public sector that involve so little real effort they might just as well be. Thank God there are shoals of Poles and others who grapple with the hard graft.

I have to say, too, that “Mawkishly sentimental” has good claims. If you don’t believe me wait till you try to avoid being drowned by the tidal wave of slop that gushes out whenever the words “Princess Diana” are dragged out for another airing in the media.

It’s a tricky one, isn’t it? On balance, maybe “Gullible” gets my vote if we all fall for Gordon’s latest little ploy. But you do have to take your hat off to him. How many people could guide a country from massive surplus into massive debt in ten years and still be seen as a brilliant economic manager?

Now after that little bit of fun, before you all get carried away and imagine I’m just a miserable old misanthrope, I’ll come clean. I sometimes think all these qualities are counterbalanced by others like imagination, an unusual degree of tolerance, humour and a sense of fun, a belief in fairness, good restaurants serving almost any cuisine except our own, unusual skill at losing almost all sporting contests gracefully – and so on.

I also think that we have benefited hugely from all the people around who are not English. The great Scottish economist Adam Smith is a good example, though it seems our current rulers either haven’t read him, don’t understand what he said, or don’t agree with it. That’s a shame – and we are all paying the price.

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