Review of the year: Life of the nation

An excruciating orgy of self-recognition
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They're not always comfortable, those rare times when the mood around an event reaches a consensual tipping point that can be said to tell the nation something about itself. But this year's great defining orgy of self-recognition was so excruciating that one hesitates even to bring it up again. When I say that England's performance in the World Cup was the most embarrassing thing ever, I'm not talking about the embarrassing team, their embarrassing manager, or their embarrassing wives and girlfriends. I mean the embarrassing groundswell of loony, hubristic, flag-waving delusion that gripped the vast majority of the population like a national vice, and managed to sustain itself through rubbish game after rubbish game until the inevitable happened and England were out. Is it a coincidence that Scotland found a new enthusiasm for independence in the aftermath of that riotous festival of empty jingoism? I don't think so.

God, people were carried away. The faint - in fact, imaginary - aroma of victory acted like a horrible truth gas. The worst thing was that when the scales fell away and the heroic team was revealed as a cohort of men who had talent and skill, but simply didn't have much to go round in the way of emotional maturity or discipline, it really was time to suck on the fact that they were by no means alone.

All England, it became obvious, had been just as impetuous, arrogant and graceless as many of the players. Rich in hyperbole, poor in wisdom, we'd collectively behaved like a bunch of silly, spoilt children, desperate to be in on the great triumph that we'd conjured up for ourselves out of nothing.

And, let's face it, there was even consolation to be taken from the fact that we weren't the only ones. Zinedine Zidane's playground head-butt in the final may have been a moment of ignominy for international football. But it was still a resounding stamp in the genitals of anyone who might have been thinking that English football was in a uniquely parlous state. Ha, ha. That'll teach them all to call us names.

Still, the debate about the cross of St George was worth having, if only because it served to raise the curtain on more troubling issues about multiculturalism and integration. Debate about the veil - itself a veiled attempt to talk about radical Islam's place in a modern secular society - was proven to be necessary simply by the way that such a huge reservoir of opinion was unleashed by Jack Straw and his disingenuous article in a local newspaper.

There were reports of aggressively assertive behaviour towards veiled women, but the consensus, when it all died down, was positive. People aren't at all keen on niqabs, but they like hijabs well enough. There is no real political appetite for banning anything, which is good. But at least, with the exception of the 1 per cent of Muslim faces that are covered, everything's out in the open now.

In a promising legacy, the issue of integration is now being looked at more critically. Newsnight's important recent report on the vast and rising cost of translation services for non-English-speaking residents is just one example of a new willingness to question the wisdom of accommodating unwillingness to integrate so lavishly.

The sight of a Turkish woman of some years' British residency insisting that it was her right to be given smoking-cessation counselling in Turkish by the NHS was instructive. So was the angry insistence of a woman who'd lived in Tower Hamlets for 22 years that her failure to learn any English was the result of intrusive cultural mollycoddling. The nurture and protection of a shared lingua franca is vital, because it is the essence and definition of Western nationhood. Every effort must be made to pursue this agenda.

Essential agendas were hammered home to us all in a much more convivial way by the fabulous summer heatwave that saw Britain transformed into a sultry Mediterranean paradise. The unchangingly lovely climate did manage to put a dent in that most British of non-conversations, the year-round moan about the impossibly woeful weather. But it boosted the Dunkirk spirit among the nation's gardeners, who all developed impressive muscle tone in their limbs from heaving watering cans about and jealously watching the neighbours for signs of water profligacy or suspicious lawn lushness. It was no great surprise to learn that this had been the hottest year on record. It was still pretty hot well into December.

Nor did we really need the Stern Report to tell us that it all definitely was going breasts-up, in a spectacular fashion. But the Treasury's breeze block of an ode to doom helped to make 2006 the year when only the extremely nutty people carried on with climate-change denial. Everyone's gone green now, but mainly just with envy about the good old days when we didn't quite understand what trouble we were heading for. Much like smokers who marvel at the halcyon days when everyone was smoking themselves to death but didn't actually know they were doing anything remotely self-destructive.

The final moment of shared experience in this year, I guess, has been the universal shock and revulsion that greeted the Ipswich murders. It's too early to say whether the effect is temporary or not. But one of the more positive things that has come out of this awful crime has been a general willingness to understand and sympathise with the women whose lives have been lost.

The problems of women who sell sex on the streets include child sexual abuse, drug addiction, care-leaving, poverty, mental illness, poor educational attainment and all the rest of the usual stuff that makes people unable to compete on the inside of our skills-based market. One keeps on hoping that the capable population will wake up to the complexity and intractability of social exclusion, and find it in themselves to blame a little less and understand a little more. It would be a decent legacy to the Suffolk women who died.