Mark Steel: Britain is best (it's just that nothing works here)

'In Finland, even the tramps sat neatly and placed their empty beer cans tidily in the bin'
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The Independent Online

What must foreigners think when they visit this festering country?

On Sunday I returned from Finland, and watched hundreds of them staring in bemusement outside Heathrow airport. They'd all bought tickets for the underground and been told they had to get a bus, as there were no trains. Is this legal? Can I set up a fishmonger's where I take the money for a piece of haddock and then say: "You'll have to catch it yourself. I suggest the west coast of Scotland?"

So everyone crowded into the bus station, where there were no buses. Whenever one arrived, the driver would announce that he couldn't let anyone on, as he was as much in the dark as anyone. As it got more surreal, I expected a bloke to arrive with a set of spanners saying: "London Underground told me you all need a plumber." The chaos built, and masses of people laden with suitcases and fraught children begged to anyone who looked official for some form of transport, and any Americans must have assumed it was a re-enactment of the fall of Saigon. Although if it had been the British in Vietnam, the deputy manager of the embassy would have had to plead with the Viet Cong to hold off a while as the helicopters had been delayed because of engineering works.

In the end, the journey from London Airport to south London took 30 minutes longer than the journey from Helsinki to London. On arriving home, I wondered whether a voice from nowhere would boom: "Congratulations, you have completed the first task in your quest to become a Mighty Defender of the Zargon Galaxy. Now you must defeat the many-headed eagle of Xeros."

Amongst the crowd there were probably Rwandans thinking: "Blimey, this country's in a mess." But the British are used to it. It's the same embarrassment you feel on the Eurostar, after it's bolted through France, the driver proudly announcing "We have now reached our maximum speed of 240 kilometres per hour." Until it crosses the Channel and wheezes through Kent, eventually creaking to an unscheduled halt near Ashford, when you wonder if the driver will say: "We have now reached our minimum speed of nothing with no explanation as poxy usual."

The transport fiasco is typical of the mean-spirited inefficiency that pervades British officialdom, and that becomes so apparent during a trip abroad. To be British in Europe is to feel like a dog that's been beaten by its previous owner.

Even in weedy Estonia, ravaged by centuries of Tsarism and Stalinism, it's slightly disconcerting how everything works. Or that you wander into a bar with kids, and instead of a surly manager bellowing that they haven't got a children's licence, they do the weirdest thing and welcome them. In most of Europe, major workplaces provide childcare, whereas here there's no point in even asking.

Yet, despite our services, working conditions and licensing laws being the worst in Europe, we're the country that insists that we're the best. No matter how much evidence points to the opposite, our beaches are the cleanest, our beef is the safest and our democracy is the finest in the world. If you stood up in the House of Commons and said Everest was huge, some MP would say: "Nonsense. British mountains are the highest in the world."

This is obviously a legacy of our history, though if the place had always been as it is now, the English would never have won a single battle. The main speech in Henry V would be from the driver of the coach taking the troops to Agincourt, and it would go: "Once more we've broken down, my friends. We hope to get you there in time but there's another coach stuck in front of us just outside Sevenoaks. So you'll just have to flare your nostrils a while, I'm afraid."

Yet some tourists still seem to come. Maybe they're like these people that take their holidays in health farms, or camps where they have abuse yelled at them for a fortnight to reinvigorate the mind, or something like that.

None of this is to suggest there's no good in Britain at all. The staff at Heathrow were all as friendly as they could have been. And a country needs a bit of grime. In Finland everything worked perfectly, but it was just all too squeaky clean. Even their tramps sat neatly on pristine benches and placed their empty cans of Special Brew tidily in the bin.

So, as there's an uncertainty about our relationship with Europe, here's my suggestion: let's say we're allowed loose in places such as Finland for about a month, long enough to spread around a few broken escalators, flood most of the public toilets and whack "Out of Order" signs on all the air machines at petrol garages.

And Europe has to start playing cricket and drinking proper beer. In return, they can do what they want with us, and see if they can do something with this cesspit. In Europe and completely run by Europe. Portillo's supposed to be on a political journey. Let's see if he takes that up as a slogan.