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Hollywood is providing the lines but not the substance

WARREN BEATTY'S new satirical comedy about American political life, Bulworth, begins with a scene in which a senator listens to his campaigncommercials, all of which begin with the same vacuous invocation of moment. "We stand at the doorstep of a new millennium," he declares, before identifying the native virtues of the American people: instinctively hostile to welfare handouts, naturally enterprising and self-reliant.

In his speech yesterday at the Centre for Policy Studies, William Hague had tinkered a little with the opening for local tastes - "I want to talk to you about Britain," he said, "Britain, now at the cusp of a new millennium" - but the speech that followed had more than a few unadulterated Bulworth moments - passages in which sweeping, emotional abstractions about the national character were enlisted for a particular political end.

As politics, the speech was straightforward. As social commentary, however, it was at times positively surreal - a strange blend of National Geographic prose ("We are reserved, polite, private") and glaring internal contradictions.

Early in the speech Mr Hague, who recently stayed at a hotel in Essex which flew the flag of St George, talked approvingly of how "a distinct English consciousness" is emerging - for which he calls in evidence not only football fans but Julian Barnes' recent novel England, England (which would have provided him with a far more acidic roster of national characteristics had he troubled to open it).

But just a little later he was talking darkly about "the first stirrings of the sleeping dragon of English nationalism".

Perhaps that Essex hotel turned out not to be so innocently patriotic - a cover for the Sons of Albion Defence League rather than aB&B. And by the end of Mr Hague's address, that "reserved, polite, private" people have strangely altered too - now they are a brassy, noisy crowd, snogging policemen at the Notting Hill carnival, holidaying in Florida and turning first to the sports pages of their newspapers.

Where does he get all this from? Another Hollywood satire might offer an answer. In Being There, Peter Sellers played a simpleton who rises to the presidency of the US because his naive remarks about gardening are interpreted as metaphorical pronouncements.

Mr Hague clinches the parallel when he supplies the evidence for his speculations. "I recently watched The Godfather again," he says. "I was struck by how many cousins Michael Corleone has, and how many of them join the family business." That's the Italians for you then, but us? "In Britain families tend to be much smaller. One of our most popular sitcoms is actually called Two Point Four Children," he continues sagely. An even more popular comedy is Keeping Up Appearances, but maybe Mr Hague thought that would be a little too close to home.