Sunday, 16 November 2008

The envy of the world

Change, many in Britain feel, is synonymous with decline. So our rightwing press – which is most of it – resounds with denunciations of deplorable initiatives, usually by government, to undermine some cherished, once grand institution. We might read:

‘The British judicial system is the envy of the world. And yet the government has struck a blow at the very roots of that system more damaging than anything even Hitler’s blitz could throw at us.’

On looking into it more closely, you’ll probably find that what government has done is to issue a timid consultation paper into whether top lawyers’ fees are a little excessive, or whether a few more women or even – don’t say it too loud – one or two more blacks among our judges might improve the balance of the courts.

What I really like is the idea that Britain is the envy of the world. I picture the little boy in his village on the Limpopo who has been caught stealing rice from his neighbour. He’s facing the council of elders with his guts churning in trepidation. ‘Oh, woe is me,’ he’s saying (sorry for the old fashioned turn of phrase: I couldn’t afford a better translator), ‘if only I was up in front of a beak in London. Then I’d be sure of a proper hearing, because the British judicial system is the envy of us all.’

And it isn’t just the judges. The world loves our army too. US forces breathe a sigh of relief when they hear that British units are on the way. ‘Oh, thank God,’ they all say, ‘we can go home at last. The Brits will have this insurgency sorted in no time. Our work is done.’

Emotions run high on the other side too. In Afghanistan, the British have been using snatch land rovers, vehicles whose armour plating might best be described as discreetly understated. So there’s consternation among the Taliban on seeing a British patrol approach. ‘Hold the bomb, boys,’ they call to each other, ‘we’ll keep it for a tank. Just throw a can of lighter fluid at this lot.’

The National Health Service is another beacon to the world. Our NHS dentists are like precious stones, which is presumably why finding one these days is like drawing teeth. As for our General Practitioners, no other country can rival their talent. Where else do doctors reach a diagnosis with so little evidence? A visit to a GP goes something like this:

‘Ah, hello doctor. I’m afraid I’m a little worried about the pain/ache/twitching/smell of putrefaction [delete as applicable] from my arm/leg/head/lungs.’

‘Ah yes. How long have you had the problem?’

‘Since yesterday. I thought I’d better see you about it quickly.’

‘Good.’ He scribbles on a pad, tears off a sheet and offers it to you. ‘Take this four times a day for two weeks. That should clear it up.’

‘Really? Shouldn’t you examine me or get some tests done or something?’

‘Oh, no need to bother with all that just yet. Let’s wait until you’re ill.’

The only British organisation that isn’t regarded as the envy of the world is our favourite whipping boy, the BBC. David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party, recently joined in the fun. Two BBC comedians had overstepped the mark in their pursuit of bold and iconoclastic humour, and broadcast some pretty ugly, pretty tasteless material. One of them resigned, another has been suspended. Lesley Thomas, the controller of the channel that broadcast the material has also gone, which is a pity since she was good at the work and will be missed. You’d think that would close the chapter. But when the BBC is down, you can trust Cameron to put the boot in. So he issued what for want of a better word we have to call a ‘thought piece’ about the corporation, in particular castigating the high salaries of the top executives.

After all, what have BBC executives done to win our admiration or loyalty? OK, they may have produced outstanding nature programmes, brilliant adaptations of the classics, fine new drama, informative and balanced news broadcasting, fascinating historical series, excellent radio. Even, with a few exceptions, some pretty impressive comedy.

But apart from that? What have they achieved? Compared to our judges, our generals and our doctors, what claim do they have to be the envy of the world?

Postscript with little relevance to any of the above

Lord Salisbury, prime minister at the turn of the twentieth century, pointed out ‘If you believe the doctors, nothing is wholesome; if you believe the theologians, nothing is innocent; if you believe the military, nothing is safe.’

Don’t know why that appeals to me. It just does.

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