Sophie Morris: Lessons we can learn from abroad

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I found much to love about Icelandic society during a visit to Reykjavik last week, which was unexpected given that the country is practically bankrupt and in the throes of revolution, albeit a fairly tame one. But I stumbled upon an open and optimistic society, apparently untrammelled by the class mores which overly trouble so many English people. They are in good health, walk clean, safe streets and are incredibly attentive to the importance of family.

Maybe I should be more optimistic myself, but these good things just emphasised all that is wrong with British society, sentiments echoed in a new book by a French television correspondent about the three years he spent in London. In Le Naufrage Britannique, Jacques Monin compares Britain to his native France, and the title of his book roughly translates as "The British Shipwreck".

Monin sums up Britain's societal depravity as "reason sacrificed on the temple of economic growth" which has led to a "crisis of morality, and of identity". This isn't news to anyone. We are constantly reminded, usually by people working in my own industry, of how excessively fat, thin, alcoholic, selfish, greedy, violent, drug-addicted, lazy, racist and intolerant we are.

Icelanders were, like us, contented consumers until last year's abrupt economic crash. Yet, paradoxically, that crash might well have averted a much more serious crisis – one of morality – and preserved some of the more important things in life. At Christmas, for example, instead of focusing on how to buy on a budget, as we did here, many Icelanders re-engaged with forgotten traditions. The holiday season was celebrated as time to spend with family, instead of time to spend money in shops and bars.

Only a year ago the now defunct conservative government of Geir Haarde had a popularity rating of 72 per cent. Since the crash, one of his weak excuses has been to tell his erstwhile supporters they would have complained, back in the good old days, had he not allowed the banking sector to swell as rapidly as it did. Anyone who suggested the brake pedal should get at least a squeeze was called a communist.

On the surface we have much in common with Icelanders. Our daylight hours are not quite as pinched as over there, but we're well accustomed to seasons of grey days, and seek relief from the serotonin-inhibiting gloom in alcohol. They love their fish and chips, and their dogs. But where we have obesity, they have Sportacus. Where British women wait to establish a career before having babies, and find it very difficult to hang on to that career if they then become single mothers, Icelanders fit babies in around studies and work (and vice versa) from a young age, and relatives pick up the slack.

When you scratch beneath the surface of course there is plenty to criticise in Iceland. In particular, the opportunities granted by a good education system – few are privately educated – soon diminish if you don't have the right connections. The so-called world's longest continuous democracy has revealed itself to be rather weak of late.

I'm not going to celebrate whole-heartedly Iceland's wake-up call when the after-effects will be brutal for many years to come, but it might just have saved the country from the bleak prospects that Monin finds in Britain.

Why can't we all have what Natasha wants?

Is Natasha Kaplinsky to be the latest woman to fall foul of the work-life balance conundrum? She is due to return to Five News next month and has asked to work part-time at first so that she can put baby Arlo to bed after presenting the 5pm bulletin.

Kaplinsky falls into the opposite camp from the French Justice Minister Rachida Dati, who raced back to cabinet meetings five days after giving birth only to be pushed into a faceless role in Europe. Dati was desperate that her new baby would not impinge upon her professional life and has been criticised for setting an impossible example to other new mothers.

Come on. The average working mother is not a senior cabinet minister of a major European power. Yet Dati has been treated by Sarkozy as if she is everywoman, and side-lined before the baby's demands started to get the better of official matters. Kaplinsky, on the other hand, is requesting the sort of reduced, flexible working hours which should be available – without prejudice – to all mothers. But she too has a much sought-after job.

I hope Five are kinder to her than her former employer might have been – Kaplinsky's news anchor skills came to the nation's attention when she replaced Sophie Raworth as presenter of the BBC News at Six when Raworth was on maternity leave, and held on to the post when Raworth returned to work. Kaplinsky should be keeping an eye on her popular stand-ins, Matt Barbet and Isla Traquair, to check they don't perform the same trick.

Perhaps Kaplinsky counts herself lucky that, as a recently-married woman in her early thirties bound to get clucky very soon, she got hired in the first place.

* So scientists' jaws dropped when they found that cows who are given names are happier bovines and produce more milk as a result. Since when was it a revelation that that living creatures great and small respond well to a little love and affection?

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