Ye olde Brits, don't give up on the Mickey Mouse image

What do you think Britain is, in the global scheme of things? The world's oldest parliamentary democracy, an industrial giant, a successful economy . . .? No. It's Merry Olde England, it's the Changing of the Guard, Cotswold cottages and Wordsworth's lakes. In short, anyone outside this country sees Britain as a tourists' theme park, with the royal family and the Romantics replacing Mickey and Donald, and nostalgia, not fun-rides, as the main attraction.

Now, if you are a nation that takes itself seriously, it is very hurtful to find yourself regarded only as a Mickey Mouse country - even when, as is true in Britain, tourism provides employment for a hefty 6.6 per cent of the population. It's a bit like being dismissed as a bit of fluff when you see yourself as a woman of great depth and many parts. You want to boast about your booming economy - especially as just about everyone else is in a recession; about your tough-guy military positions - Iraq and Kosovo; and your special relationship with Uncle Sam. Instead, everyone keeps treating you as if you were just a pretty face, cooing about your quaint customs and your marvellous heritage.

It's all a bit demeaning, especially to a government that is so image-conscious and to a prime minister with Europe-wide ambitions. But they can rest easier now: the Disneyworld image has had the stuffing knocked out of it with the foot-and-mouth crisis. Self-imposed quarantine across acres of countryside, not to mention images of burning carcasses flashing around the world, have replaced the idea of a green and pleasant land with the mental picture of a rural inferno. Events from horse races to triathlons are being called off, as the state of emergency spreads from county to county.

Visiting backpackers and millionaires alike are making a quick about-turn - and who can blame them? The "leper of Europe", as one Irish official branded Britain, doesn't quite have the tourist-friendly ring of the Bard of Avon. As a result, hundreds of bookings are being cancelled, and countless hotels, restaurants and pubs stand empty.

The rural tourism industry has already lost £200m, and the English tourist council, which estimates the countryside trade to be worth £12bn a year, said business is 75 per cent below normal. This is a far greater tragedy than the farming crisis - which affects an industry, after all, that brings in only £1.2bn and employs less than 2 per cent of citizens. No wonder the government is planning an ad campaign to draw visitors back to the countryside.

Perhaps, though, the slump in tourism will ring timely alarm bells: and perhaps, once they've been kicked where it hurts, Britons will stop taking their Mickey Mouse status for granted.

Well before today's countryside tragedy, Britons had seemed bent on destroying the trademarks that made their nation number five in terms of attraction for tourists. New Labour and its enthusiasm for the new, and the EU with its desire for the uniform, unleashed a destructive double-whammy that left only a few beloved traditional landmarks in its wake. Where have the pomp and quintessentially English snobbery of the House of Lords gone? And the costume-drama appeal of fox-hunting? What of double-decker buses, red telephone booths and black cabs? These are, the world over, the nation's best-known features. Yet, instead of preserving them with the care of Madame Tussaud's wax-workers, Britons conspired with Blair and Europe in carrying out a make-over that dragged their country out of the lyrical nostalgia of yesteryear and into the tarty banality of Cool Britannia.

Patriotism, as Michael Wills tells the NS this week, is a bone fought over by both new Labour and the Tories. While the two parties quarrel about ethnicity and immigration policy, foreigners will cling to their very different view of Britishness. For them, the Union Jack is the table-mat backdrop to a mounted, red-coated hunter with his hounds; or wrapped around a tin of sweets in the shape of a red phone booth.

This article first appeared in the 26 March 2001 issue of the New Statesman, How the rich rule politics again