Matthew Norman: We are the world leaders in ineptitude

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The Independent Online

Comedy is all about timing, as everyone knows, but even by the immaculate standards we expect from our rulers it seldom comes better than on Wednesday evening. Barely had David Cameron sipped the Moët to toast Gordon Brown's survival (not a celebration he shared, one imagines, with David Davis) than news broke of those intelligence reports left on a Surrey-bound train from Waterloo by a senior security officer.

Whether this chap, now suspended, although not from the sturdy oak of Gordon's fantasies, was the same MI5 figure whose national security briefing reportedly swayed the Democratic Unionists to save the PM's skin (nothing to do with those ever so convincingly denied bribes, then) we cannot know. But perhaps that's asking too much in the way of bulldozer irony.

Only one of the two files was thoughtfully labelled "Top Secret", but neither was the most important document mislaid by the British government this week. That dubious distinction falls, of course, to poor old Magna Carta, which Labour prime ministers will keep forgetting to take back to Downing Street with them when they leave the palace after kissing Her Majesty's gloved hand.

Even so, this latest security slapstick offers some cause for optimism as we contemplate a future in which such fuddy-duddy fripperies as habeas corpus increasingly join rickets, powdered egg and the Kray Twins on the roster of items we recall with the warped fondness of the professional nostalgist.

It's all very well passing laws (should this latest idiocy ever reach the statute book; less likely than ever, surely, in the light of Mr Davis's rousing theatrics) that pass ever more alarming powers into the rapacious hands of our splendid police and security services. Having the basic competence to apply them is quite another matter, and you'd have to say that a future modelled on Blade Runner, Minority Report or any other filmic portrait of monstrous authoritarianism looks a long shot so long as Carry On Cocking It Up is the only main feature playing at Odeon UK.

According to a little known convention of our unwritten constitution, a new entry must be added to the honour board of fiasco every few months, and a wilfully anachronistic random selection of recent classics gives the flavour. There was the laptop containing classified information about a new air-to-air missile system found in a Stevenage skip; the 46-page report on how to respond to terrorist attack outside a supermarket; documents listing 62 vulnerable sites at Heathrow found by a motorist; and, a personal favourite, the laptop containing military plans for the first Gulf War stolen from an RAF officer's car while, presumably discontent with that model, he nipped into a west London car auction.

Even without revisiting non-security-related debacles like the child benefit discs, there are plenty of others, such as the computer packed with weapons system specifications left in a taxi by an MOD official as he headed to Whitehall from Waterloo. When it's a railway incident it's always Waterloo, and it's tempting to muse on the different path British history might have taken had Wellington been as slapdash with military plans for the battle that gave the station its name. Logic suggests that, had Napoleon won and the French gone on to take this country over, we'd be in a slightly better state today (passing over the trifling matter of Churchill in 1940). The want of any involvement in Iraq might be compensated by a magnificent health service, excellent schools, restaurants that mark up wine by less than 350 per cent, and Carla Bruni as our Première Femme. For all that, wouldn't you be prepared put up with Jonnie Halliday and an insane reverence for the work of Jerry Lewis?

Alas, the Iron Duke kept his intentions to himself, so today Britain can consider herself a world leader in only one area (apart from the ratio of CCTV cameras per inhabitant and the size of the DNA database), and that is breathtaking incompetence. Given that these security lapses never amount to much, if only because so few al-Qa'ida operatives commute home to Surbiton and Esher or comb rural ditches for MI5 dossiers, their most significant contribution to national life is reinforcing the sense that there is no longer anything at all at which Britain is remotely efficient.

We make no goods anyone else in the world wants to buy, except armaments of the kind that appeal to such friends and value-sharers as the Saudis. We cannot educate our children, much less effectively lift them (or the elderly) out of poverty. We can ring Heathrow with tanks for no apparent reason other than scaring votes out of credulous electors, but cannot open a new terminal there without total humiliation. We cannot run train services on Bank Holidays (a good thing, by and large, since it limits the scope for mislaying top-secret files), build desperately needed nuclear power plants without a 350-year debate, or decide whether our future lies primarily with Europe or as a client kingdom of the United States.

We are phenomenally useless at just about everything, and for those of us who grew up in the 1970s there's something oddly comforting about this reassertion of all-encompassing British ineptitude. For 20 years, from the middle of the Thatcher era to the latter days of Blair, it often seemed that this country had shaken off the paralysing hangover that attends all post-imperial powers as they wake to life among the global also-rans. Now that it is so clear this was a mirage – that the economic resurgence was founded first on North Sea oil (gone), and then on turning the country into a giant whore to service the desires of those paid fortunes to gamble with other people's money in the City of London (about to end) – the natural post-war order has been duly restored.

Not much consolation there, perhaps, for those about to lose jobs and homes in a forthcoming recession sure to be made drastically nastier by Gordon Brown's reliance on irresponsible credit card borrowing and an uncontrolled property boom to disguise the absence of manufacturing industry. And very little either for the minuscule number of brown-skinned fellow subjects who'll be banged up in Paddington Green for six weeks purely because some Scotland Yard schlemiel confused a Mohammed with a Muhammed on one of those rare computers that hasn't been deposited on public transport. They must be consoled by an HM Treasury cheque for £42,000 instead.

The good news, however, is that the nightmare David Davis envisions, or affects to, isn't going to happen. The creation and maintenance of a police state demands discipline, rigour and fierce competence, so if we want one of those we'll have to call in the Chinese, the Belarussians or surviving veterans of the Stasi, and hand the Home Office over to them. As with everything else, we British wouldn't have the first clue how to make it work.

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