Jemima Lewis: The British defence... expect the worst

Every once-great nation suffers from self-doubt, but only we have made an art form of it


Lucky we're British; otherwise, we might feel a bit annoyed with Alex Gilady. The Olympic official has punctured one of our rare bubbles of national pride, by claiming that London secured the 2012 Games only because of a condition - hitherto more famous in stockbroking circles - known as "fat finger syndrome".

During the third round of voting, says Mr Gilady, one of the members of the International Olympic Committee accidentally pressed the wrong button. He voted for Paris when he meant Madrid, and as a result Madrid got knocked out; whereas - and you really need a flowchart and a degree in advanced mathematics to follow this - if Paris had been knocked out in the third round, Madrid would probably have beaten London in the final, because the IOC voted for London only to stop Paris winning. All of which seems a bit hard on Paris, but no one cares about that.

The organisers of the London bid are understandably dismayed by Mr Gilady's story. A spokeswoman described it as "folklore", pointing out that, since the ballot was secret, there can be no knowing which member meant to press what button. "The result is what matters," she said, "and we are not going to be drawn into speculation."

She's quite right: the result is what matters - and for many of us, victory is no less sweet for being accidental. On the contrary, it fits much more comfortably with our national self-image. On 6 July, when the IOC announced its verdict, the most noticeable expression on the faces of Londoners was utter disbelief. The crowds in Trafalgar Square missed a beat, convinced their ears must have deceived them, before erupting into wild exultations.

Even the people who worked on London's bid seemed completely unprepared for victory. Kelly Holmes staggered about open-mouthed, as though reeling from a blow to the head. In Singapore, Denise Lewis leapt from her chair and whirled round and round in a frenzy of joy.

Win? Us? Fair and square, on merit, against the French? It seemed too good to be true - and perhaps, after all, it was. But winning because of a muddle over buttons: now that makes sense. It's so mundane, so undistinguished - so perfectly British.

"The British nation," Winston Churchill once opined, "is unique in this respect. They are the only people who like to be told how bad things are - who like to be told the worst." Whereas Americans love nothing more than to hear about their own good fortune (hence the popularity of the Texan website HappyNews. com), we British are suspicious of anything that smacks of glutinous good cheer.

In 1993, when the newsreader Martyn Lewis suggested that the media should report more uplifting news, he was practically run out of town. Nor has our mood improved since then. Early this week, when this newspaper ran a front page entirely consisting of good news (democracy in Afghanistan, chocolate preventing cancer, the return of the corncrake) readers responded with a deluge of letters explaining why, on closer inspection, these were all disastrous developments.

This Eeyorish tendency is regarded by some as a national malaise, but it has its uses. It is what a therapist might call a self-protection mechanism: a way of softening the blow of Britain's decline in status. Every once-great nation suffers from self-doubt, but only the British have made an art form of it. Our sense of humour, which others so admire, is largely derived from a wry acceptance of impending doom. And the baleful pleasure we get from observing our own littleness makes our new position on the world stage much easier to bear.

The French, by contrast, have not yet mastered the language of failure - and they are suffering because of it. Their post-imperial identity crisis, though less severe at first than ours, is lasting much longer. We have just about accepted our humiliating position in the second rank: they are still amazed and outraged by theirs.

French bookshops are rigid with self-flagellating treatises, with titles such as French Disarray, French Arrogance and France in Freefall. Last summer, Le Figaro commissioned some 40 academics and writers to analyse the country's decline - an exercise in nostalgia and regret that far exceeds the gentle grumbling of the British media.

"How is it," mourned the philosopher Chantal Delsol in one of these essays, "that such a brilliant nation has become such a mediocre power, so out of breath, so indebted, so closed in its own prejudices ... To be French today is to mourn for what we no longer are." In other words, it's just like being British. The only difference is, it's still surprising to them.

The French, by all accounts, fully expected to win the Olympics. The British - with the possible exception of the granite-jawed Sebastian Coe - were cheerfully resigned to failure. It hardly matters whether we won through skill or luck: it seems like a miracle either way. That, as the French will eventually discover, is the key to living in the second rank: expect the worst, and you might be pleasantly surprised.

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