But this will not do. We have plenty of institutions to be proud of. The trouble is, we fail to move with the times and recognise new institutions for what they are.
There are the brass hats for starters. They have been around, doing nothing very obvious, but doing it very well and at considerable expense for ages. What people such as Sir Michael need to face up to is that unless we get rid of the dirty, messy stuff such as aeroplanes and tanks, then we as a nation won't be able to afford a properly equipped military bureaucracy. And then where would we be?
Well, probably in Marks & Spencer, as it happens, which has taken over from the Royal Family as the institution that holds England together and is particularly admired abroad. It is probably where Sir Michael will have slipped off to after being reprimanded by Malcolm Rifkind. Say what you like about Britain, when it's been a hard day, there is always another M & S goat's cheese, custard and tarragon sandwich to try.
Then there are the railways, whose inefficiency has been a valued and much-loved part of our national life for generations. Most mornings, waiting without much hope for the 8.56 Mortlake to Waterloo Flying Commuter, I recall the letter sent by Sir W S Gilbert to the Metropolitan Line in the early years of the century, which commenced: 'Sir, Sunday morning, although recurring at regular and well foreseen intervals, always seems to take this railway by surprise.' And I cherish the warm inner glow of tradition passed down from Briton to Briton.
Speaking of which, what about Merchant-Ivory films? This annual ritual has developed from the enthusiasm of middle-class children for dressing-up games and 'larks' generally. On the day when the latest, The Remains of the Day, is released, let us admit that they are certainly an institution worth cherishing, complete with the Oscar for Emma Thompson that invariably follows their release.
At the risk of being misunderstood as partisan or snide, I would also like formally to welcome back a great national institution that some of us had feared was becoming extinct. I mean the Guardian typo, or misprint. The newspaper carried a fine apology this week which will have delighted traditionalists everywhere: 'Owing to an editing error, Hugo Young's column yesterday described Michael Portillo as 'a conman of a different order of seriousness and coherence from any of his rivals'. What Hugo Young wrote was that Portillo is 'in command of a different order of seriousness'. We apologise to both.' Why apologise, guys? You were terrific.
On the spiritual side, though the Church may be in decline, other institutional providers of enlightenment are springing up all the time. There is Charter 88 (very nicely spoken young people) and the Thatcher Foundation, whatever that does. Then, for oldies, there's the Royal Opera House, where all the top politicians go to pray. At least I assume that's what they're doing with their eyes closed. If the Church of England used to be called the Conservative Party at prayer, maybe Covent Garden is now the Tory Party asleep. (I can't remember who said a Wagner opera was the sort of thing that starts at six o'clock and then after a few hours, you look at your watch and it says 6.20.)
Then there are our marvellous silly prizes, in particular the Booker and the Turner. Both are carefully contrived to cause the maximum amount of synthetic outrage in the public prints. Thus we have the time-hallowed Ritual of the Fatuous Judges: interest in the Booker is whipped up by the chairman saying something grandly silly, such as that Vikram Seth's novel was considered to be 'too long'. Next year, I suppose, we'll have a book being excluded for having too few words on each page, or too shiny a cover.
The Turner Prize, by contrast, is awarded with punctilious fairness to the artist who has managed most successfully to turn the art critic of the Spectator crimson. This can be achieved by a number of old-fashioned techniques, such as hurling a bottle of sun-dried tomatoes at the gallery wall and calling it Pieta, or arranging 200 Prittsticks in a straight line. The Spectator man is then led round the Tate Gallery with a Dulux paint-chart until his face matches the 'rich crimson' gloss, and the winner can be declared. No one, I contend, does this sort of thing as well as the British.
If these institutions have been somewhat elitist, not all our new ones are. Some are televisual. There is the magnificent Blind Date, which ritually humiliates members of the working classes; and A Question of Sport, which does the same thing. There is Spitting Image, which has certainly become an institution: way, way back, in the dawn of history, it was said to have been funny. No one alive can remember this, or confirm it. But does it stop us tuning in? Certainly not. We are made of sterner stuff.
We are indeed. We are a country of institutions, all the way through the book from the AA to the Zoological Society. The Treasury itself, Sir Michael's main target, is a highly successful institution, whose lustre shines ever more brightly as the country around it gets shabbier and duller. The Truculent Chancellor is an institution. And so, come to think of it, is the Whitehall lobbyist. Isn't he, Sir Michael?Reuse content