A competition to find the greatest Italian? Or greatest German? It wouldn't happen
Julius Caesar. Leonardo. Dante. Michelangelo . . . who was the greatest Italian of them all? RAI, the state-funded television station, is holding its viewers' poll: day in, day out, scantily clad Cicciolina lookalikes boom out the results of the latest votes, while A-list and B-list celebs present mini-biographies of Italy's heroes.
Before the BBC starts suing for copyright, we should note that such a programme would never take place. Nor would it take place in France, or Germany, or even, God knows, America. No, only Britons need to mount such a depressing spectacle. Only Britons need the reassurance offered by an endless parade of their bestest and greatest. Berlusconi in Italy, Chirac in France, Bush in America - all, however much you deplore them, have been capable in their different ways of filling their peoples with a sense of national pride. Tony Blair has failed to do so. Under his leadership, Britain has been portrayed as America's poodle, the odd man out in Europe, al-Qaeda's vulnerable next target. No wonder that the national broadcaster feels duty-bound to trumpet Britain's heroes and heroines. Yet what the BBC has offered is not Britain's real history, but a nostalgic, Disneyfied version of it, where personalities count for more than ideas, where fame breeds fame, and feel-good is all. Any list of heroes that places Beckham on a par with Shakespeare, Diana on a higher rung than Darwin, is flawed.
If a people want to know about themselves, public opinion polls can prove useful - and genuinely interesting. For instance, it says something about Italians that most of them regard themselves as happy or very happy, whereas Germans, with higher incomes on paper, are much gloomier.
You can learn useful things from surveys of lifestyle and its relationship to life expectancy - for example, that sunshine and olive oil bring you longer life and more enjoyment than self-denial.
But a competition inviting bored television viewers to vote on the greatest Briton? What do they mean by greatness? Intellectual prowess? Contribution to national well-being? Moral or physical courage?
There is as little to gain from such a spurious game as from watching a nearly naked beauty display her assets while reading out a roll-call of Italian heroes past.