How the Brits really lead the world

In all the key areas of grieving - self-pity, on-camera tears - we trump the world
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SOMETHING ODD and discomfiting seems to happen at this time of the year. Perhaps it is a reaction to too many long hours spent by the pool reading a Robert Harris novel, or to rediscovering the joys of family life with the kids. Maybe a distant memory of a time when sun-baked silliness gave way to the autumnal chill of a new school year is to blame. Whatever the reason, anyone with the remotest access to the public prints seems suddenly to be preoccupied with big ideas.

The Prime Minister's big idea is that teenagers need to stop going out at night, stealing things and getting each other pregnant. Mr Blunkett's big idea is that secondary- school pupils should be given a list of intellectually improving authors, from Dilys Powell to Alistair Cook, with which perhaps they could fill up those long, post-curfew hours. Everyone else, it appears, has become preoccupied with the question of the British attitude to success.

Edward Windsor (the royal previously known as Prince) touched upon the subject while talking project with studio heads out on the West Coast. Jeffrey Archer took up the theme when he was being interviewed by his old pal Gyles Brandreth. It is there, behind the amiability of Tim Rice's autobiography and behind the bluster of new books from two eminent, state- of-the-nation pontificators, Peter Hitchens and John Humphrys.

What are we good at? Why are we so mean to our achievers? What is it about the British and success?

Of course, none of these great patriots wishes to run his country down. Doubtless, while attempting to convince American film producers that he was just an ordinary media magnate, Eddie Windsor may have slightly overstated the case. A few moments' contemplation of recent events would have been enough to remind him that, in certain areas, Britain is still a world leader, and proud of it.

Little more than two years ago, for example, we were an international byword for emotional repression, a nation where the inner child was either unrecognised or treated with the rough impatience of a sadistic nanny. Then, confronted as the result of car crash in Paris by one of the greatest emotional challenges we have ever faced, we hit the ground grieving and showed the world that no one, not even the flashier, casket-thumping nations of the Middle East, could hold a candle to the British way of mourning.

Other countries have tried. Following the recent John F Kennedy Jr tragedy, the Americans made a serious attempt to join the champions' league of mourners. But was America a nation united in grief? Hardly. Did its newspapers carry headlines urging the president, "Show us you care, Bill"? They did not. In all the key areas of modern grieving - keening self-pity, mountains of flowers, on-camera tears, the generalised treatment of a public figure as an intimate friend - America was hardly at the funeral.

Not that we allow excessive feeling to impinge upon another area of British success: the exploitation of love or friendship for financial gain. By next week James Hewitt will, it is said, have made pounds 1m from book and serialisation deals recounting the details of the solitary achievement of his life - going to bed with Diana, Princess of Wales. Public betrayal is, of course, a team event and Hewitt would no doubt be the first to acknowledge the contributions made by the British press and its readers' insatiable appetite for seedy stories from Celebrityville. The trill of indignation from editors who were not offered serial rights - sorry, who have been appalled at the super-rat's callous amorality - is a sure sign that, within a few days, we shall all be enjoying second-hand, warmed-over accounts of the same miserable story.

Hewitt is part of a recent tradition. When Lawrence Dallaglio was lured into a tabloid trap by the offer of a fake sponsorship deal, it was an unnamed "good friend" who set him up. When the fun-loving Radio 2 presenter Johnnie Walker was introduced to a couple of pals to whom he later was said to have offered dope and women, a "good friend" was once again behind the trap. And, in the week preceding the marriage of Mr and Mrs Eddie Windsor, who was it who sold an ancient photograph of the bride-to-be flashing a right breast? Her "good friend" Kara Noble.

Did Kara, a successful DJ on national radio, really need the pounds 100,000 she was paid for her old pal's semi-topless picture? It seems unlikely. She was merely participating, like so many other good friends and lovers of the famous, in the great new national sport.

Exhibitionism, public grief, private betrayal. There are some areas, we should remember, where Britain can compete with the best in the world.