The revelation that Britain possesses world-beating capabilities at vaccine development, procurement and distribution prompts the question of what else we might be very good at.
No two Britons are likely to draw up the same list, and every list will contain categories which overlap, but here’s mine, compiled with the help of an ad hoc panel – including an 18-year-old student from Germany who proposed the final item:
Medical research, including large-scale testing of new drugs
Volunteering, and joining voluntary organisations
Pure research – Nobel prizes
Various other forms of advanced manufacturing
The rule of law
Constitutional monarchy and its attendant pageantry
The Armed Forces
Films, including special effects
Inventing and codifying games
Putting on sporting events (Racing, Wimbledon, the 2012 Olympics, the Premier League…)
Journalism (also at times very bad – as are most of the things on this list)
Making a proper cup of tea
Although I am heartened to have found 30 items, rather than the ten or 12 I expected, I must also admit that the whole exercise goes rather against the grain.
The claim that “Britain is the envy of the world” is so often out of date by the time it is uttered, may betray a sorry ignorance of how well these things are being done in other countries, and could also indicate an inner feeling of inferiority, as in the 1950s, when Britain was struggling to avoid admitting that we were no longer a world power: a point from which attention could be distracted by celebrating holding, as late as March 1956, all three major world speed records, in the air, on land and on water.
To compile this list smacks of boasting, and also of complacency. Most of these things could so easily be lost, or diminished, if we do not take care of them.
And many things in which we used to take pride – the Merchant Navy, say, or the Post Office – are lost or grievously diminished.
It is hard to know where if anywhere to put something like the railways, which in the last few decades have been revived, but where the first, fine, distinctly careless rapture, when Britain led the world, has not been recaptured.
It is also difficult, perhaps impossible, to know where, if anywhere, to put the British tradition of liberty: the freedom, amid great pressure to conform, to lead one’s own life and do one’s own thing; even to be eccentric.
I had intended to include the way in which many people are attracted to these shores by our tradition of liberty, and soon become British. But a member of my panel took strong exception to that idea, and I have conceded that it is perhaps too complicated and controversial to be reduced to an item on a list.