Leading Article: A search for a hero that helps us to define ourselves

THE TODAY programme's poll for "person of the millennium" seems over-optimistic: how can 1,000 years of human endeavour possibly be condensed into a single name, however stellar? And how can one limit that search to inhabitants of the British Isles?

But the poll is not as ridiculous as that first reaction assumes; one can understand how it has captured the public imagination as more than a diverting parlour game. As we approach the millennium we will come increasingly to consider who and what we are. Searching for a single representative of our achievements is a part of this process. The millennium celebrations will mean nothing if they do not give us the opportunity to redefine ourselves.

British heroes will inevitably resonate more than those from other shores, however important their achievements. Many of those voting have preferred Winston Churchill for this reason. There is no doubt that he stood out as a brave leader in the perilous late summer of 1940: he saved Britain from an ignoble "peace" with Germany. But is he really the hero for a whole millennium?

Britain has had other saviours. It is partly because his deeds are comparatively recent that we so lionise Churchill. Fewer now remember Queen Elizabeth I's diplomacy, which brought England relatively unscathed through an era of internecine religious war, and defied imperial Spain with England's puny resources.

Remembering her highlights the shortage of women among the candidates. Elizabeth herself is so far the first woman in the list, unjustifiably standing rather alone in the field of politics. The feminists of the early part of this century strove to effect the greatest political upheaval since the establishment of parliamentary sovereignty itself. It was they who finally secured the principle that all mentally able adults should be entitled to vote, an ideal that civil rights movements the world over were to mobilise.

The Pankhurst sisters and their suffragette campaign played a key role in securing political rights for British women. Mary Wollstonecraft's writings served as an inspiration for a generation of radical women. Such campaigners should have attracted more votes.

We should also consider those from beyond our borders, if only to provide a sense of perspective. The great Mogul Emperor Akhbar conquered much of the known world, and attempted to unite his conquests under one ecumenical religion. More recently, Gandhi and Mandela have brought succour to oppressed peoples. Britons should remember how lucky they are: they have secured their liberties without requiring such charismatic leadership.

Gutenberg gave birth to the modern media by inventing the moving typeface. Galileo, by insisting that Earth was one planet among many, altered man's sense of place in the physical universe. Martin Luther forced the medieval Church to re-consider its secular purpose. He did not intend to, but laid the groundwork for the rise of rational and worldly inquiry. After such men, nothing - and nothing in Britain - would be the same again. Their names are instructive of the rise of northern Europe as opposed to the Mediterranean and Arab world which had dominated the first millennium, shaped by Jesus, Constantine and Muhammad.

These names also demonstrate how Japan and China, ancient civilisations forged on Confucian thinking, have been isolated and in eclipse for much of this millennium, losing their head-start over Western civilisations.

Shakespeare's presence in the list is a warning not to focus on politicians, scientists and philosophers. The joy still imparted by the music of Mozart, the plays of Chekhov or the novels of Proust loom large for many. But there is nothing wrong with settling on a figure from public rather than artistic life; civic duty needs every encouragement in an age deeply sceptical about politics.

If we are to accept the Radio 4 rules, we can narrow the field to three candidates, whose thought was so profound as to alter the entire intellectual world. Charles Darwin, whose work was scientific, but seeped into religious, philosophical and political discourse too. Adam Smith, a Scot in a list failing to reflect their vital contribution to British history, established modern economics as a discipline, claimed as inspiration by economists as different as Marx to Milton Friedman.

The man who combines all that we are looking for is often overlooked. His name is Benjamin Franklin. As a scientist, he tamed lightning: the lightning conductor was his brainchild, allowing man to build unafraid of the elements. Thunder and lightning had belonged to God: now they belonged to man. Technological advance since Franklin's time, from computers to space travel, has relied on the electricity he harnessed.

His confidence was remarkable. He became one of the most fervent of Americans once the British connection was irretrievable. As a letter-writer, his erudition is legendary. The first of the "natural men" whose bourgeois mores were to come to dominate the globe, he declined to wear a wig while ambassador in Paris. He was self-made, a printer and publisher, the first of a new breed.

He was a master of the modern political art of compromise, striving to avoid the breach with the mother country. He conceived the compromise between the rights of states and the popular vote, and the two-chamber Congress containing both a Senate and House of Representatives, that made the US possible.

Franklin replaced religious absolutes with what was practical, an American injunction that has since become world orthodoxy. And by happy coincidence, he was born a loyal colonist - a Briton through and through. The next millennium will probably uncover as its hero a woman born in Lagos, Sao Paulo, or Nanking. But it is Franklin we humbly submit as person of this millennium.