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20 September 1999

Now give us a brand new Britannia

Widdecombe, Lumley, Ford? Annabel Heseltine offers a shortlist for our national icon

By Annabel Heseltine

On a green oasis of calm opposite the Houses of Parliament stands a statue of a warrior-woman on a horse. Two thousand years ago Boadicea, Queen of the Iceni, took up her sword and led an army of Celts against their Roman oppressors. Boadicea was defeated and then murdered by traitors from her own army, but her acts of courage and patriotism have embodied the image of Britannia ever since.

Or, I should say, until now. Queen Boadicea looks set to be toppled from her bronze horse for ever and, to add insult to an old lady, it is again the fault of those continentals. For recently, France announced its shortlist of women who could be their “Marianne” – the mythical creature embodying the virtues of the French revolution, “Liberty! Equality! Fraternity!” – of the millennium. The French resolution has raised the question: maybe it is time to update Britannia?

Not that the new Marianne and Britannia will have much in common. The French made their Mariannes warrior-like and maternal in the 19th century, and, in this century, glamorous: Mireille Mathieu and Brigitte Bardot in the 1960s, and Catherine Deneuve in the 1970s and 1980s (her marble effigy currently adorns all 36,000 town halls). French mayors, faced with the dilemma of what kind of woman they should vote for on 30 September, have agreed on a modern working woman who will encapsulate “solidarity, openness and tolerance . . . the civic values of the 21st century, but also a woman of her times”. Or so they would have us believe.

Few would object to a little fraternising with any of the five fantastically good-looking women picked – they include a singer, a model and a television presenter – but only the journalist Daniela Lumbroso can reasonably claim to be an ordinary working woman. Tellingly, French mayors are each being sent a photograph of the five contenders to hang up on their wall . . . I mean, to help them in their choice.

If the French see Marianne as an issue of style, for the British, Britannia is a question of substance. As Europe becomes an inevitability, even new Labour must admit that our identity is threatened. The pound is almost gone, and the Tunnel has brought everything conveniently but alarmingly closer. With the Dome still under wraps and the Blairites little more than a blur, Tony needs a sensational woman to make his “project” flesh. To help him, I have a shortlist. There are a few notable absences – Princess Diana and Jill Dando, both perfect national mascots; and Margaret Thatcher, simply too terrible to contemplate. The candidates I suggest are not models, singers or game-show hostesses, and I fear there’s not a Blair Babe among them (not one has managed to capture our collective imagination); but as a potential national muse, a bold, banner-waving figure at the helm, any one of these women would perfectly personify the qualities the British cherish about themselves.

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Take the formidable Anna Ford, who took over the job as sole presenter of the one o’clock BBC News in May. The 55-year-old widow and single mother of two teenage daughters proved her mettle when she continued to read the news after an intruder hurled himself through the glass windows of the BBC newsroom; and when she called her boss, the BBC director- general John Birt, “pathetic”. Although her impeccable left-wing credentials have won her invitations to Nos 10 and 11, Ford is not bona fide new Labour. She had little hesitation in tearing into the new zeitgeist pervading the corridors of power. “We have such political correctness in this country, it drives me potty and makes me want to tear my clothes off and swear in public,” she fumed. Ford showed her feminist streak – a prerequisite for Britannia in the days of Blair – when she pushed Robin Day into the roses after he famously told her the only reason she was given a TV job was because men wanted to sleep with her.

Not a problem Ann Widdecombe has had to grapple with too often. A self-confessed virgin and admired for her frankness – “I know I’m short, overweight and ugly” – the shadow health secretary admits to caring little about her image or clothes, but nevertheless has a freezer stuffed full of Lean Cuisine. Widdecombe, with her anti-abortion, anti-divorce and anti-working-mothers stand, may not quite be in tune with Blair’s new Britain, but her formidably intelligent, courageous and implacable persona would prove, when the chips are down or the country’s wobbling with pre-millennium nerves, rather comforting.

If Widdecombe is all Britannia then Zoe Ball is all beer. Which, according to the 18th-century clergyman Sydney Smith, makes the Radio 1 DJ eminently eligible for the post: “What two ideas are more inseparable than Beer and Britannia?” he once asked. Ball’s iconic status was recently sealed when she won the Sony Radio Award for “her contribution to the public image of UK radio”. She has also resurrected the institution of marriage so dear to Blair (if not to Gordon Brown) by marrying Norman Cook, alias the dance star Fatboy Slim – and immediately announced that she would turn her back on fame to be a wife and mother.

Finally, we have Joanna Lumley, whose ghastly Patsy in Absolutely Fabulous taught us a lesson about 1980s consumerist greed. Instantly recognisable, a blonde with a brain and a sense of humour to boot, Lumley defies age with an irrepressible charm, emerging as a true “people’s heroine” in her late 40s.

When 10,000 Britons gather under a huge round tent on the eve of the year 2000, the real star of the millennium should not be a beautiful 203-carat diamond stumbled upon in Zaire, but a home-grown woman, tried and tested and strong enough to hold the reins of Boadicea’s horse and Britain in her handbag.