Behold, the best of British

Mark Lawson reviews the honours list, fitting curtain-raiser to a celeb ration of high-flyers such as, er... It is rather like Nero announcing a `Best of Rome' festival as the flames rose The award would lead a Martian to suppose honours are a kind of therapy
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The Independent Online
One of the year's most amusing news items, attracting less attention than it deserved because of the seasonal media closedown, was the pre-Christmas announcement that the Major administration is planning a "Best of Britain" festival in 1995. The c areer-twilight brainchild of the Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, this event - part celebration, part seminar - will reportedly stress the surviving international significance and reputation of this nation. Mr Hurd apparently believes that it is time to redress the tendency of modern Britons to "talk down" their country.

It is rather like Nero announcing a "Best of Rome" festival as the flames rose around him. And this is a particularly bad week to take up the Foreign Secretary's challenge and consider what this country might have to be proud about.

It began with the death of John Osborne, who in 1961 was regarded as a traitor for writing words - "Damn you, England. You're rotting now, and quite soon you'll disappear" - which are, these days, virtually standard small-talk at sherry parties in the Home Counties. It went on with Radio 4 listeners selecting as their "Man of the Year" not the peacemaker or statesman of tradition but a minor hoofer, jazz trumpeter and children's television star, Roy Castle. It continued with England losing so heavily toAustralia at cricket that there is a serious possibility of our international XI no longer being invited to play full five-Test series abroad but sharing foreign summers with minor playing nations like Sri Lanka or Zimbabwe.

And the week culminates in today's New Year's Honours List, itself in theory an annual "Best of British" festival. But which icons were selected to receive a medal from our increasingly beleaguered Queen, herself a symbol of national convulsion?

The two main political awards celebrate failure and tragedy respectively. Sarah Hogg receives a life peerage, not for her previously distinguished career in journalism but as a consolation for having held and lost the post of head of the Number 10 PolicyUnit during a period in which her employer became the most unpopular prime minister in political history. Elizabeth, the brave and admirable widow of John Smith, is rewarded not for her own achievements but as a consolation from the nation for her terrible bereavement.

The award of a knighthood to Nicholas Scott - who left the Government ignominiously after the debacle over the disabled rights Bill - would further lead a Martian to suppose that the honours list is a kind of welfare or therapy service rather than a celebration of excellence.

But it is two of the entertainment awards that really give the game away. There is a knighthood for David Puttnam, most famous for producing the film Chariots Of Fire, which was deeply nostalgic for an England of sporting excellence, patriotism and decency. There is an OBE for Jimmy Hill, televised soccer's cheerleader for a lost age in which lads with long shorts and short hair played fair. How appropriate that it should be the Order of the British Empire that Hill gets.

Other awards are simply mystifying. Has the television meteorologist Bill Giles received the OBE for getting the weather right more often than his colleagues? Or for making people smile despite the British climate? Does the medal for the actress Joanna Lumley show official approval for Absolutely Fabulous, or does it, like previous awards for comedians, reward charity work or support for the Tories? There is no way of knowing. Similarly, is the OBE for Delia Smith a tribute to her cooking, or he r Christian evangelism?

Perhaps the only good news for the planners of next year's Britfest is that the commentator Paul Johnson - who earlier this year published a book-length, Osborne-style polemic called Wake Up, Britain! - appears to have had another of his celebrated changes of mind, taking to the pages of the Evening Standard on Wednesday to declare that Britain was indeed Great and the festival would have much to celebrate.

The Foreign Office has so far provided two examples of the kind of achievements that might be dramatised in a festival or discussed in seminars. The first is the fact - an answer in Trivial Pursuit, as it happens - that English is the international language of air traffic control. Paul Johnson believes that this is because of the economy and clarity of the language. He reported that when his books weretranslated into Spanish, the world's second most-spoken tongue, they became 25 per cent longer.

There are those who might believe that the best international language would be one in which Paul Johnson's books got shorter, but he and the Foreign Office are deluding themselves in their excitement about English being the dialect of the sky. The main elements of the language of Shakespeare employed in air traffic control are "OK", "Roger" and "Christ!"

The international reputation and influence of British television is the second example offered for the festival's intended championing of Albion. And, here, it is true, is a genuine and exceptional treasure. But the Conservative governments of the past 15 years - organisers of this Britfest - have worked consistently to undermine the structures and traditions of a system founded on public service television, through bullying about political bias and the introduction of market reforms to both ITV and theBBC.

So - England leads the world in cockpit lingo and, though with no help from the current government, in television. What else might the festival organisers find? Perhaps they could look at Radio 4's 1994 "Man of the Year", hoping to find there a great modern Briton. But what were people voting for when they chose Roy Castle? His victory is one of the more opaque cultural moments. He, clearly, did not win because of his talent: alive, he would have figured nowhere in the poll. Was it a propagandistic recognition of the most high-profile victim of passive smoking? Was it a tribute to his - if anything rather un-English, un-Radio 4 - unshakeable born-again Christianity? Was it the crossed-fingers gesture of a secular society seeing that death can be borne without apparent terror?

Some time next year, the Foreign Office will presumably engage an advertising agency to promote the "Best of Britain". What posters might they produce? A picture of Sarah Hogg in ermine with a variant of the old anti-drugs slogan: "Screw It Up And BecomeA Heroine"? A snap of the ravaged Roy Castle with the caption: "The British - Good At Dying"? A photograph of an English batsman bamboozled by Australia's Shane Warne, with the slogan: "The English - Good Losers"? An image of Bill Giles at the Palace receiving his OBE, beneath the words: "The Weather May Be Crap But The Weathermen Are Fine".

Or, in line with the main official suggestion for the festival so far, a large picture of air traffic controllers at work, with the slogan: "English - It Stops Planes Crashing (Most Of The Time)"? At the moment, Anglophone foreign pilots look like the closest Britain comes to high-flyers. Perhaps it would be wise not to leave too much space in your 1995 diary for the "Best Of British" festival. John Osborne, the late author of "Damn you, England" will, I think, be smiling in his grave.