I've been re-reading Alan Coren's hysterically funny 'Waiting for Jeffery', a collection of writings taken from his column in the Times. One of the articles is about Coleman's mustard. Typically, Coren approaches the topic from way out in left field, listing all of the public facilities that we enjoy in the UK that are the worst in Europe, before pointing out that Mr Coleman's comestible is the one and only British food product that the French recognize officially as good.
This got me thinking. Why is it that the nation that gave birth to the Industrial Revolution, and that headed one of the largest empires in history, now finds itself at the foot of most league tables of European nations? Our roads, railways, education and health services languish behind those of our neighbours. And this is despite Tony and Gordon, in an orgy of profligate spending (prudence my ar*e!), throwing all our money at the problem. It's not as if we have low taxation.
I wonder if the problem is that our major public institutions suffer from the echoes of past glories. They certainly suffer from delusions of adequacy. Government and Whitehall continue to behave as though the UK is important in world terms. They've just not woken up to the reality. The Ministry of Defence is a prime example. The scandal of the Eurofighter is well documented. Depressingly, this is not an isolated incident.
The truth is that we muddle grumpily along with our generally poor roads, railways, health services and education. Our national sporting teams are mediocre at best, but do extraordinary things occasionally. Our leaders are usually well behaved, but shove their snouts into the trough from time to time. And our television increasingly focuses on the celebrity of celebrity.
What does that make us? It makes us a pretty average, European country. And yet, our leaders still seem to think that when a crisis like the one in Libya erupts, we need to act like the world's policeman. It is apparently our responsibility to lead the charge at the UN, demanding regime change and no-fly zones. Now don't get me wrong, the current Libyan situation is an affront to anyone with an ounce of humanity. I just don't see why the UK has to be at the front of the queue of people telling the rest of the world how to behave. After the debacle surrounding Tony's war in Iraq, we don't have much credibility in any case.
We're not a world power any more. We're a small country on the north western edge of Europe. It's time we started behaving like one.
And those services that we love to grumble about? In Europe they may be mediocre. In many places in the world, they'd be regarded as miraculous.