Our great Carol - can custom stale her infinite variety?

Here she is, crunching figures on Countdown. There she goes, revamping gnome-infested landscapes on Carol Vorderman's Better Gardens. And, oh, could that be Carol spreading cholesterol-lowering margarine on toast in a commercial? Here, there, everywhere, the bright-eyed bushy-tailed brunette pops up, tirelessly telling us to buck up and turn our life around by decorating, gardening or reducing our chances of a heart attack. Yet we can't seem to get enough of her nannying: you don't need to be a whiz at Kumon maths (another favourite Vorderman pastime) to see that over the past few years Carol Vorderman appearances have multiplied 100-fold. She has burrowed her way into the television schedule and thus into the nation's consciousness. Once again, the British have a mascot.

Anthea Turner, the Lottery babe, was too much totty, too little teddy bear; and a gunman's bullet turned Jill Dando from potential mascot to martyr. So Carol it is. Her new status means she's on hand to help Tony Blair launch the government's Maths 2000 initiative (indeed, the launch had to be rearranged to fit in with her busy-bee schedule). As a national icon, she's got a shrine on the Internet (though it's been temporarily closed "due to perverts"); and she's even got a computer-generated newsreader modelled on her (though "Ananova"'s human characteristics are based on Posh Spice and Kylie Minogue as well).

Carol, then, has become a beloved institution. But is she really Best of British? Is she the brightest, the prettiest, the most interesting and talented? No. Nor the sexiest or most eccentric. Yet, surely, a mascot tells the world what qualities a nation prizes - and what we want outsiders to prize about us. That's why the French always choose an elegant stunner for their "Marianne"; why Italy's reigning mascot is the brilliant, entertaining exhibitionist Roberto (La Vita e Bella) Benigni; and why the mega-rich go- getting Bill Gates has replaced that erstwhile American mascot, Mickey Mouse.

The British, instead, will make do with a woman who's pleasant to look at (especially now that she's shed an excess pound or ten) but wouldn't get a wolf whistle if she sashayed past a construction site; who may be bright (she loves long division and her IQ measures at 167) but is unremittingly lowbrow. She's married, middle-aged and lives in Maidenhead with Mum - and husband and two kids. Despite a thorough make-over, she is still neither Vamp like Marilyn Monroe nor Virgin like Doris Day.

Indeed, the most one can say for our Carol is that she knowingly undersells herself. The Cambridge graduate is all too eager to spend time traipsing around gardens infested with gnomes, and interiors replete with beanbags shaped in a kiss. The high IQ is ever ready to lower its sights to one-syllable pieces to camera, and one-liners so flat they only get a burble out of canned laughter.

It is this perverse desire to hide one's light under a bushel that makes Carol such a perfect ambassador for Britain. She's captured that all too modest national spirit that emerged from the imperial rubble, a mood that says keep a lid on those ambitions, and for heaven's sake, whatever you do, think small. This is the wellspring of our suspicion of intellectuals, grandeur and great wealth. It is this enforced modesty that regards any attempt to shine as showing off and resists all suggestions of subscribing to grand visions - whether that be the European Union, or globalisation. Unlimited vistas, infinite possibilities, awe-inspiring aims: these send a shudder of horror through island folk determined to downsize their collective aspirations.

Charming self-deprecation has turned into a national neurosis that fears aiming for the moon. And that explains why a Cambridge grad should sell margarine rather than tackle macro-economics, and trade inane quips rather than deliver great speeches.

Every nation gets the mascot it deserves: in Carol Vorderman, we have a perfect symbol of that fear of putting your best foot forward - only to be overtaken.

This article first appeared in the 07 February 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The Prime Minister loses control