There is, sad to report, a new reason for national embarrassment. Unusually, it has nothing to do with Jeremy Clarkson, Julian Fellowes or Simon Cowell; indeed, unlike those Britons, this source of shame can be relied upon never to say anything controversial. Time magazine has just announced its annual Time 100 list of the world's most influential people. No British politicians appeared on the list, but the Middleton sisters – one a new princess, the other the sister of a new princess – are included, heralded as "avatars of aspiration".
Surely Time has discovered, not before time, a sense of humour. But, no, this is not satire. "Latter-day Mona Lisas, they smile mysteriously and keep their mouths closed," reads the citation. "In an age of bleating, tweeting, confessional celebrity, the middle-class Middletons show real class."
The British media clearly agree with this mind-boggling assessment. Having despaired of being able to write anything interesting about the Duchess of Cambridge, the press has promoted Pippa Middleton as a figure of endless fascination and glamour. This week, she did something in France – snog a Frenchman, was it? – and her activities have been the subject of slavering coverage.
There is nothing wrong with a woman in her twenties gadding about in Paris, but the idea that she should be considered as someone to be envied, emulated and even admired reveals just how silly and defeatist our culture has become. In what way do the values embodied by Pippa Middleton represent "real class"? She became famous simply by virtue of her sister becoming engaged to a prince. When the wedding took place, it proved so uneventful that desperate editors made a story out of the shape of her bottom which became the unofficial symbol of the event. She does a trivial, part-time job for the family firm, and shows no inclination to do anything interesting with her life apart from going to parties. She has not used her fame to any charitable effect, but has availed herself of a £400,000 publishing advance for a book, presumably ghost-written, on party-planning. In her smiling, dimpled way she has done more harm to the cause of women than any airhead celebrity or Page 3 girl.
No ambition, lots of parties and a much-photographed bottom: Pippa's way of life is all right, if limited, but when one of the world's best-known news magazines ranks it as more significant than that of any political leader, something odd and alarming is going on. If Pippa Middleton has had any influence, it has been to remind the world that looks, connections and social class are still what matter most in 21st-century Britain. Time's "latter-day Mona Lisa" offers these simple aspirations for a young British woman: don't work, keep your bum trim, and, above all, develop a talent for smiling and saying nothing.