Britain: Whom, sir, are you calling small?

At the G-20, Prime Minister David Cameron was “clearly irritated” by a remark made by a top aide to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It was “an astonishing insult,” said Macer Hall in the Daily Express. On the sidelines of the G-20 meeting in St. Petersburg last week, a top aide to Russian President Vladimir Putin told Russian journalists not to pay attention to British suggestions about Syria. “Britain,” said spokesman Dmitry Peskov, “is a small island nobody pays any attention to, apart from the Russian oligarchs who bought up Chelsea.” It wasn’t clear whether he meant Chelsea the soccer team, owned by Russian tycoon Roman Abramovich, or Chelsea the London neighborhood, home to many of the Russian billionaires who have relocated to the U.K. Peskov later denied making the remark at all. But Prime Minister David Cameron was “clearly irritated” and launched into a spirited defense of British achievement that reminded many of the pivotal scene in the movie Love Actually, when the British prime minister played by Hugh Grant denounces American arrogance and lists what makes Britain great.

Cameron’s impulse to speak out was understandable, said Rod Liddle in The Sunday Times. “It’s partly the vestigial tail of our colonial past wagging away.” But it did seem a bit defensive, didn’t it? He invoked Shakespeare and the Beatles as evidence of our excellence and then got rather muddled and added the boy band One Direction. Perhaps he’d have done better to emulate the Russian style of insult by getting an aide to sniff that “at least we didn’t enslave half of Europe for 50 years under a regime characterized by brutality and stupidity, nor are we yet a mafia state, and also at least we treat our homosexuals quite decently.” That would have hit home.

Instead, Cameron made a slew of ridiculous assertions about our alleged superiority, said Stephen Moss in The Guardian. Let’s take his boasts point by point. That Britain helped clear Europe of fascism: Maybe, but “by being arch-appeasers during the 1930s, the U.K. helped make Hitler possible.” That Britain helped abolish slavery: “Only after we had profited from slavery for 300 years.” That we invented the world’s sports: We didn’t, not even cricket—we just codified the rules. That our culture is supreme: “We would get an A for literature and score highly for pop,” but elsewhere we are weak. Here’s what we really used to be good at: “our stiff-upper-lipped modesty.” Where did that go? “If you need to boast of your greatness, it probably means you are not very great.”

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The Russian taunt “hit home because we fear its element of truth,” said The Daily Telegraph in an editorial. Britain’s opinion is not the first sought. At the G-20, for example, Cameron “cut a somewhat forlorn figure, not entirely irrelevant but not entirely relevant either.” In that uncomfortable setting, his speech sounded a little too much like “a desperate plea for attention.” Shorn of its imperial power for decades now, Britain seems to be struggling “yet to find a role.”

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