This island was once populated by an upbeat, outgoing sort of race - the kind who rallied together in adversity, bailed out each other's houses in times of flood, and popped round to neighbours with a casserole if someone sprained an ankle and couldn't cook. Nowadays, it is more than likely that people would be too busy investigating which authority to sue for the unexpected rainfall, and the victim of an injured ankle would be too absorbed with putting together a personal injury claim to eat a donated dinner.
Since the mid-1990s we have created an entire industry of "fear entrepreneurs" - lobby groups, campaigners, regulators and inspectors - whose livelihoods depend on fuelling concern about the dangers of everyday life.
We probably would not want to return to the days when we were so cavalier about risk that we thought nothing of trying out a smallpox vaccine on unsuspecting milkmaids. However, this collective timidity is now so serious that it is posing a threat to our willingness to take on almost any sort of challenge. We are bound up in a risk-reducing bureaucracy that threatens our commercial competitiveness in world markets.
A growing anxiety about what one might call the dangers of fearfulness has led Gordon Brown to ask the government's Better Regulation Commission (BRC) to produce a document presenting a "fully and more rounded presentation of public risk" as soon as possible.
It is not clear whether anyone has dared to ask him exactly what he means, but the raw material he wants built on is a BRC report called Risk, Responsibility and Regulation: Whose Risk Is It Anyway?, produced last autumn.
The report warned that concern about risk in all aspects of life, and the ensuing plethora of bureaucratic regulation, were endangering Britain's economic performance. It is not a redundant concern. The US is the only country in the world that shares our risk paranoia, and last year another report, com missioned by Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York, warned that the city's pre-eminence as a financial centre was under threat from too many directives and risk "regs".
It remains to be seen if the BRC - which moved in June from the Cabinet Office to the new Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, will get something done about whose risk belongs where. Last year, there were 33 acts of parliament and more than 1,000 new regulations aimed at reducing various forms of risk. The BRC announced a target for government departments and agencies alone to cut 500 regulations that would reduce administrative costs by £2bn.
The commission's report called for Whitehall training schemes for the management and communication of risk, warning that fear of being blamed haunts ministers and civil servants, driving them to legislate even when an obvious practical solution is staring them in the face.
At the time, the BRC chairman, Rick Haythornthwaite, declared that our national resilience, self-reliance and spirit of adventure were being destroyed by a pervasive cultural demand for the elimination of all risk. He announced that the BRC was to produce red-tape reduction proposals for private industry, which could save further billions.
Haythornthwaite, who is also a managing director of the investment management company Star Capital Partners, says that Gordon Brown's new injunction will mean the existing BRC work plan will have to be put on hold.
Others are doubtful that anything much will happen at all. "There have been loads of these reports in recent years," says Paul Sanderson, a senior fellow at the University of Cambridge Centre for Business Research. "The government message is: 'Learn to love risk - we can't protect you from everything for ever,' but there is not much evidence so far of any change in practice." Nonetheless, he himself is organising an academic conference in September, optimistically entitled "The End of Zero Risk Regulation". The intention is to propagate the message that elimination of risk is not only undesirable, but unattainable.
Elsewhere, the aspiration to zero risk is being positively encouraged. The laudable intentions of the BRC are already being undermined by a proposal from the erstwhile Department for Constitutional Affairs (DCA, now the Ministry of Justice), which says it would be better if more people could get compensation for personal injury claims. Consultation ended on 13 July on "streamlining" new arrangements for such insurance claims, removing, in many cases, the need for legal representation. It is predicted that under the new rules the number of compensation payouts will increase by 40 per cent.
Critics argue that the proposals will mean that the concept of an accident will finally vanish from our collective consciousness. If you fall over on a pavement made slippery by dead leaves, then someone should have swept it. If you fall off a cliff, someone should have checked you by putting up a notice warning that it is too far to jump.
The damaging knock-on effect of this mindset will inev itably be a reluctance to take on life's big risks and challenges. Andrew Caplan is on a Law Society working party discussing the implications of the DCA proposal, which is being pursued by the new Ministry of Justice. "A huge number of personal injury claims put through by trade unions never see the light of day because they are filtered out as invalid," he said. "Most of them would only be worth a few thousand anyway, so it will be cheaper for insurance companies to pay rather than contest them. But it is sending totally the wrong message."
Caplan has reason to be bitter about personal injury claims. He has seen at first hand the results of the compensation culture in his role as legal adviser to the Scout Association. He says there is a steady year-on-year increase in claims and a fall-off in adult volunteer helpers because of the extraordinary attitude of parents. His most memorable recent battles include a couple who sued because their nine-year-old was not allowed to ring home at 3am when he was homesick during a one-night camping expedition. The boy continued to attend Cub Scouts meetings even as his parents continued their legal action.
Others such as Martin Bare, president of the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers, say the compensation culture is an inevitable consequence of the abolition of legal aid and the passing of the burden to insurance companies, with claims-management companies constantly touting for potential litigants and a slice of the payout. "The intention is to give more people access to justice, but I'm not convinced this change will really make the system any more workable," Bare says.
There is undoubtedly real anxiety about the consequences of the prevailing social attitude to risk. A parliamentary group on adventure and recreation has been established, as has a campaign for adventure training, and there are many other efforts to promote the benefits of challenge. A national kite mark system called Go4It, promoted by the Heads, Teachers and Industry (HTI) organisation, is being launched in schools nationwide next term; the aim is to reward those seen as most willing to offer pupils physical and psychological challenges. "We want to tackle the change from a can-do society into a can't-do one," says Anne Evans, the HTI chief executive, who is herself a former comprehensive school head teacher.
She faces an uphill struggle. Risk aversion is a recent social phenomenon, but it is now all-pervasive. The rot set in seriously only as recently as 1993, following the drowning of four teenagers on a badly organised canoeing expedition in Lyme Bay, Dorset, in March that year. The tragedy led to the creation of a sweeping new law and a licensing system for activity centres. About half of the 1,500 similar organisations operating in the early 1990s disappeared because they were unable to meet the stringent requirements. There is now a shortage of such facilities for eager children, arguably contributing to our spiralling childhood obesity rates.
Meanwhile, opinion polls consistently show that people who want risk regulated out of their lives as far as possible are equally balanced against those who kick against such regulation. Others manage to hold both opinions simultaneously.
Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at Kent University and a leading commentator on the nature of attitudes to risk, says widespread concern about subjects such as climate change and fears about the future of mankind feed into a general pessimism. No senior politician will take the risk of publicly allying him or herself with the pro-risk campaigners, for fear of being blamed for the next disaster.
He ascribes the creation of phantom risk to the absence of real danger or adversity in our lives. "Safety has become a commodity which has a value of its own," he says. "It is not something you discover through trial and error: it is something you hold on to and do not change. I think that attitude will change only when there is a genuine external threat, like a war or a really serious disaster."
And that is something really worth worrying about.
Risk cases that have entertained us
An injured commuter called Brian Piccolo could win up to £1.5m in compensation after he slipped on a stray petal outside a florist’s shop at Marylebone Station. A high court judge ruled on 17 July that staff should have cleaned up outside the shop.
In April, a primary school teacher was awarded £12,958 out of court after falling off
a toilet seat. The woman dislocated her hip after toppling off the bowl, intended for use only by children under the age of 11.
In 1999, a family in Upper Mayfield, Derbyshire, sued the people who had sold them a 250-year-old cottage because, they said, the sellers failed to disclose that it was haunted. A county court judge threw out the claim.
A man won a £200 claim against a doctor he said had given him a cold. Trevor Perry, who got the sniffles after seeing Helen Young for a check-up, said she must have made him ill, as he’d not been in contact with anyone else. A judge reversed the verdict in 2002.
A deputy head teacher in Bristol sued her former school for £1m after it failed to replace a chair that made flatulent noises whenever she moved. Sue Storer, 48, claimed it was a “regular joke”, part of a catalogue of sexist behaviour that had undermined her position. She lost her case in 2006.
A binman made a claim against his local council after being “startled” by a dead badger that fell out of a rubbish bag . . .
Research by Marika Mathieu