Notes towards the definition of a third-rate power

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The Queen's visit to India might have gone totally unreported here if there had not been a diplomatic incident to liven it up.

What do we mean by a diplomatic incident?

We mean quite the opposite. We mean an incident in which someone has been undiplomatic.

In this case, the President of India allegedly said, while on a previous visit to Cairo, that he didn't want a third-rate power like Britain intervening between India and Pakistan in the Kashmir dispute.

This would seem a fair enough comment to most of us. After all, the last time that Britain intervened between India and Pakistan, in a little episode called Partition, we managed to create the conditions for the deaths of millions of people. Lord Mountbatten, our self-inflated representative out there, was always rather adept at sinking his own ships, but he had never arranged a head-on collision between two countries before. Even by his standards it was a triumphant disaster ...

A reader writes: Dear Mr Kington, I don't think it was the turning down of our offer to mediate that annoyed everyone. It was when the President of India described us as a third-rate nation.

Allegedly?

A reader writes: Yes, sorry. Allegedly described us as a third-rate nation.

Oh. I see. Is that supposed to be an insult?

Yes.

Why?

Well, when you call someone third-rate, that implies that they are ... well, third-rate.

I see. Is that bad?

Oh, yes. It tends to suggest that you think that they are not first- rate.

Yes, but hold on. We all know there aren't many first-rate nations. Hardly any. In fact, there may not be any. There are some second-rate nations. There are also third, fourth and fifth-rate nations. You can't have one rate without having the other rates.

We can't all be first and second rate.

You're on tricky ground here, but go on.

In the same way, you can't make football teams all top division. You can cheat a bit by renaming the First Division the Premier Division, and then moving the rest up so that the old Second Division becomes the new First Division and so on, but there are still going to be some third division teams. Indeed, there are some teams below that. There are all the Vauxhall Conference teams. A Vauxhall Conference team is below the Third Division, and yet it is never used as an insult. I mean, if the President of India had turned round and said ...

Allegedly said ...

I think the Vauxhall car people might have been a bit upset.

Or pleased. They might have taken it as a good bit of free publicity.

Ye-e-e-s ... What is a Vauxhall Conference, anyway?

I don't know. I have always visualised it as a large five-door conference centre on wheels, with small walnut desks and every passenger connected by screens, so that silvery-haired executives called Ted and Harry can get together and drive up and down the M1 and thrash out their marketing policy for the exciting new lemon-flavoured brand of cider they have dreamt up, and have it all decided in the Vauxhall Conference instead of actually going to a country hotel and wasting a lot of money on a conference suite with audiovisual aids that break down.

And each passenger gets a small chintzy lamp, like the ones you see in motorway coaches which go past you at 90mph?

No. That's for tourists. I fancy that each passenger gets a small mini- bar and a leather folder. And a lapel badge with his name and rank on?

Why do you need that?

It will be very helpful if the car crashes at speed, because all the bodies can be instantly identified as they are pulled from the wreckage.

Ouch. That's a bit of a third-class joke, isn't it?

Are you calling my jokes third-class?

Allegedly. Anyway, it's no worse than calling Britain a third-rate nation, surely?

Yes, but what IS a third-rate nation? Is it possible to be third-rate without having Little Chefs and Happy Eaters? Does having the best football hooligans in the world make you first-rate? If the British were really passionate about culture, wouldn't there be hand-to-hand fighting at the Booker Prize ceremony? Tomorrow, the debate continues.

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