Unusually for me, I have spent much of this week in the presence of Brits; first at a conference in Shanghai addressed by "civic leaders" from two Northern Cities whose football teams now contribute most to their GDP. One was an ex-teacher and the other an ex-social worker. Both were, as we say up North, "gobs on sticks" and both were (of course) Socialists. As representatives of modern Britain, they were - sadly - spot on. What was interesting was not what they had to say but the supreme confidence with which they said it. Here in one of the oldest continuous civilisations on the planet; the second largest economy after the USA; with one quarter of the world's people and one of the fastest growth rates anywhere, these mediocrities held forth with an arrogance born of never being challenged in the political desert they call home.
The Chinese participants were, as Chinese people are, very polite. They nodded as the "civic leaders" spoke of their cities' long-gone glory days. As they spoke I reflected that the city leaders of those times were not subsidy hounds like them, but shipping magnates and industrialists on the give, not the take. I am pretty sure they were higher grade human material than their modern equivalents. I am also pretty sure that the Chinese at the conference thought the connection to modern realities as tenuous as I did.
The next night I heard an English judge give a speech to assembled Chinese lawyers. I winced as he said how happy we were to help them develop their legal system. These people, m'lud, had a legal system when your ancestors were painting themselves blue. I am as proud of the English Common Law as the next lawyer, and probably more convinced of its usefulness in international commerce, but I am respectful (having practised law across the great Civil Law/Common Law divide) of the merits of other systems. His Chinese counterpart made a cheery remark about how a young lawyers exchange scheme had been discontinued because "we understand the British Government has some financial difficulties." You could see the twinkle in his eyes as he said it. What he didn't say (because stating the obvious is not a Chinese vice) was that If they thought there was real value in the scheme, their government has no such difficulties.
Perhaps I am being unfair. Most of the people at both UKTI-sponsored events were (a) serious and talented professionals and (b) nice people. It does strike me however that Brits are still - for all the humiliations of the last century - too quick to assume that there is something extra special about their knowledge and experience. We have as good a contribution to make as anyone else, of course - and the widespread use of our language makes it easier for us to make it - but quite what possesses the citizens of a small country with a crumbling economy to exhibit such collective bravado is beyond me.