Hons, thugs and Eton stir-fries

In a week of depressing news stories, I have been unable to get a particular bulletin out of my mind. Historians should get hold of a copy, because it revealed more about the state of Britain than a thousand ministerial speeches.

It was broadcast on the morning of Saturday 17 June on Radio 4. The lead item concerned the impending violence in Belgium. Some fighting had already taken place, but our boys were awaiting the arrival of German fans for the real business to commence. The second story gave details of the latest honours list. I cannot recall which of the Queen's several birthdays these honours commemorate, but we learnt that Her Majesty would be graciously handing out medals to Lulu, Carol Vorderman and Michael Ashcroft, making him, I suppose, Sir Michael Ashcroft or, for all I know, Lord Sir Michael Ashcroft, or Sir Lord Michael Ashcroft.

Before we had time to raise our glasses and toast the great business leader of Belize, the bulletin had moved on to Prince William's 18th birthday celebrations. Apparently the poor sod had agreed to be photographed cooking a stir-fry with his friends at Eton. If listeners were excited, they had to restrain themselves as there was more to come. In the next item, we heard that William Hague was stepping up his Save the Pound campaign in advance of the European summit. He and his lorry were heading for a town in Middle England, knowing that, on this subject at least, he chimes with majority opinion.

So there we had the ingredients of a typical news bulletin, so typical that my fellow listeners did not raise an eyebrow at this snapshot of Britain: a preview of the grotesque hooligans' latest foreign venture; the Queen's latest honours list; Prince William's 18th birthday, accompanied by celebratory photos in his private school; and the leader of the opposition finally winning plaudits as he hails Britain's notoriously unreliable currency, which has done its economy so much harm for so long. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to modern Britain. Please stand for the national anthem.

It got worse as the week progressed. There was an under-reported Commons debate on the proposals for a reformed House of Lords. The Wakeham Committee wants a largely appointed Upper House. So does our modernising government. Margaret Beckett revealed that the government broadly supports Wakeham's recommendations, although I am told further reform will await the land of milk and honey known as the second term.

In a week when many people must have despaired of Britain's image abroad, I hand over, briefly, to Ken Clarke, who made a genuinely modernising speech in that debate: "The Lords has been reduced to a quite ridiculous situation. It is hard to explain to people overseas while keeping a straight face. The present composition of the Lords after the earlier action of the government has produced an extraordinary institution of 92 hereditary peers elected by hereditary electors on a most peculiar basis. The rest is dominated by a huge number of recent appointments made by the Prime Minister and leaders of other political parties. We have a second chamber that is an extraordinary creation at the beginning of the 21st century . . . I am fairly confident that the average British citizen will accept nothing less than elected representatives in the Upper House of our parliament holding the executive to account."

I recommend a reading of his speech in full for compelling arguments as to why the Commons and an elected second chamber could complement rather than undermine each other.

Let us imagine, briefly, a world without honours for celebrities, where Prince William could be liberated from his royal duties as he clearly wishes, where cooking stir-fries at Eton did not lead almost inevitably to Oxbridge, where English people paid for goods in euros rather than pounds, where all our legislators were elected. Would this change the culture that produces the louts who go abroad in the name of their ancient, imperial country? No one knows for sure, but I bet my season ticket at Tottenham Hotspur - admittedly not a great loss - it would make a huge difference.

One of the more favoured Blairite words is "modernisation". Even John Prescott sometimes uses variations of the verb "to modernise". The Deputy Prime Minister has let it be known he is not a great "boom and bust" man, nor has he much time for the phrase "opportunity for all", but as far as I know he is still a "moderniser". Sometimes ministers have "modernised" without doing a great deal in practice. They have "modernised" the welfare state, in the same way Peter Lilley did. They have "modernised" the transport system, without improving it. It is a conveniently flexible word, suggesting something virtuous and radical without being too precise.

Yet most of the time we all know what the government has meant by modernisation. The term encompasses reforms of outdated institutions, a more positive approach to Europe and greater social tolerance. The Scottish Parliament, the London mayor, the abolition of the hereditary peers, or most of them, a painstaking engagement with Europe, a sexual tolerance reflected in the composition of the Cabinet itself - all these reflect a genuinely modernising instinct.

The government has moved us on from John Major's England of warm beer and cricket. Sotto voce, ministers have occasionally taken on the xenophobia of the newspapers they are so desperate to woo. They are starting, belatedly, to modernise our public services, too. While other governments have promised significant constitutional reform, only to be knocked off course, this one has implemented some historic changes.

But, in a few years' time, might I hear another news bulletin like the one I heard that Saturday morning? I fear so.

This article first appeared in the 26 June 2000 issue of the New Statesman, We made the people-smugglers rich