Join me in Dr Johnson’s New Year Diet – it’s a piece of cake

Now a psychiatrist might look at these symptoms and conclude that the British are somehow needy. We seem to want some kind of comfort. We are evidently anxious. After all, you drink when you need to drown your sorrows or in some other way deal with reality. You compulsively buy stuff when you want to make yourself feel better. And the classic analysis suggests that you eat more than you need when you are unhappy about something.

So what is up with us? I suppose it might be some kind of Weltschmerz, a general disappointment that Britain is no longer incontestably the most powerful country on Earth. Some people might even argue that our overeating is all caused by the gloom of the media. Perhaps it is the travails of the euro that is sending us to the fridge, or doubts about the durability of the Arab Spring. Perhaps it is the BBC economics guru Robert Peston who is causing us to motor through the custard creams. It’s possible, but somehow I don’t think that is how people really behave. They don’t eat or drink or overspend in response to external political events.

It’s much more likely to be all about us and how we feel about ourselves. We live in a media-saturated age where we are constantly told that we would attract greater admiration from other human beings if we looked better or owned a smarter car or a newer pair of gym shoes. People feel challenged to possess this or that useless item, and we judge ourselves harshly when we fail. The consumerist boom has been accompanied by a widening gap between rich and poor, and it follows that there will be more disappointment out there – more unhappiness, more jealousy and more self-punitive overeating.

Food gives us that fix of calorific comfort that we need, and of course we are sometimes so horrified by the results of our overeating that we have to console ourselves with some small pleasure, and so we eat even more. We need to end this mad cycle, and the first and most important step is to end the national cult of self-dissatisfaction, our envy of others when we have material things our grandparents could only dream of.

Some might say that we need to cure our unhappiness and associated overeating by massive redistribution of wealth. Well, they tried that in places like Russia and Cambodia and it wasn’t a roaring success. They had Marxist-materialist societies in which elites hoarded wealth and privilege in a way that was all the more disgusting for being done in the name of the people. Others might urge a more ruthless programme of NHS-funded stomach stapling. Apart from the expense, it does seem a curious denial of personal responsibility.

Surely what we need, if we are all going to lose weight, is to create a less insecure, hung-up, envious and self-hating kind of society. Easier said than done, I grant you – but that is the root of the problem. If you have the time before going back to work, I recommend a film called Dodgeball. Here we see a world of two gymnasiums – Average Joe’s and Globogym. We celebrate the triumph of physical mediocrity over the hysterical body fascism of White Goodman, played by Ben Stiller, who makes his money by persuading people they are the wrong shape.

That is what is required: a Britain where we are so happy in our skins that we don’t stuff our faces. Somewhere along the line we managed to lose religion without finding any alternative source of spiritual nourishment. Hence the use of food, drink and consumerism. Some day a prophet will arise – perhaps in these pages – who will teach us a new form of self-control and moral wisdom. But until that glad day I leave you with my patent diet. Lay off cheese. Avoid alcohol. Cut out potatoes, bread, pasta and stuff like that. Eat stupendous quantities of kale and apples and perhaps the odd small piece of dried fish. It’s a piece of cake – which is what you will certainly deserve if you keep it up for more than four weeks. Happy New Year!

Olympic lessons from when we really were running on empty

So we lurch liverishly towards our Olympic Year. Gloomily we ponder the global economy, and now — just as we are wondering how we can afford it all — is exactly the moment to look at the astonishing achievements of this country. Let us peer back to the last time London welcomed the world to the Olympic Games. You only have to read Janie Hampton’s delightful account of the Austerity Olympics to see that all this talk of post-war “decline” is utter tosh. When the world came to London in 1948, they not only found a bombed-out capital, with weeds still sprouting in the rubble. We were so poor that British athletes were asked to make their own shorts and to train on the beach at Butlins. We couldn’t even afford to build the venues on our own. The Swiss donated the gymnastic equipment; Finland contributed timber for the basketball court; and the Canadians gave two Douglas firs for the diving boards at the Empire Pool.

Olympic village? You must be joking. The world’s athletes were told to bring their own towels and bunk up in makeshift dorms in school classrooms. The London organising committee of the day took money from any sponsor it could find, including Brylcreem, Guinness and Craven A cigarettes. Somehow we ferried 4,000 athletes between 36 venues with nothing but a fleet of clapped-out pre-Routemaster buses, and the entire logistics of the Games was done from a Roman Catholic Church hall in Wembley with the help of three blackboards headed “Today”, “Tomorrow” and “The Day After Tomorrow”. We weren’t just poor: we were half-starved. Our athletes were so badly nourished that they sometimes conked out during training – and no wonder, when their rations were restricted to 13oz of meat, 6oz butter, 8oz sugar and one egg a week.

The British were eating less in 1948 than in 1945, and a pitying world sent food parcels to the Games. The Danes contributed 160,000 eggs; China sent oiled bamboo shoots; the Mexicans sent kidneys, liver and tripe. The Americans insisted on supplementing their diet with daily flights from Los Angeles to Uxbridge, bringing fresh supplies of white flour and fruit. The French were so appalled by food in London that they sent a special refrigerated train from Paris, laden with steaks and supplies of Mouton-Rothschild – in fact, they despatched so much wine that the suspicious British customs officials impounded it on the grounds that it could not be for personal consumption.

As a country, we felt so destitute as to be embarrassed, ashamed to be the object of global scrutiny. When the Olympic year dawned, London’s Evening Standard commented bitterly: “The average range of enthusiasm for the Games stretches from lukewarm to dislike. It is not too late for the invitations to be politely withdrawn.” A magazine called London Calling asked: “Are the Olympic Games of today worthwhile?… Are they more of a headache than a pleasure to all concerned?” This mood lasted right the way through the preparations, and when visitors began to arrive they were struck by the doleful absence of razzmatazz. A few flags hung limply in Piccadilly Circus. There was a general welcome sign in three languages at Paddington Station, while another in the Harrow Road announced bleakly: “Welcome to the Olympic Games. This road is a danger zone.”

And if you are under the impression that we were all much nicer and better behaved in those days, you should think again. The 1948 London Olympics were deeply sexist – partly because the authorities were still convinced that women would succumb to premature senility if they ran more than 200 yards. Trying to sum up what was great about Fanny Blankers-Koen, who won four golds in spite of being a 30-year-old mother of two, the Daily Graphic said: “She darns with artistry. Her greatest love next to racing is housework.” British society was much more class-ridden than it is today: take the case of Olympic hurdler Joseph Birrell, who was turned down twice for Sandhurst for having a northern accent. Nor were we notably more honest. When the Australian team arrived after a hellish boat trip, they found a dock strike in progress. Their luggage was stranded on the quay and all their tracksuits were nicked. The French concert pianist Micheline Ostermeyer amazed the world by winning both the shot put and the discus – only to have someone steal her medals.

As for old-fashioned sportsmanship – do me a favour. The boxing was halted by angry demonstrations, first they were Starting boxing with the rowers that had a huge punch-up at Henley and when one Italian dropped the baton in the 4 x 400 hurdles the next Italian hit him on the head. As for the weather, it was so hot during the opening ceremony that several athletes fainted, and thereafter it rained so torrentially that the track was flooded.

To cap it all, we did rather feebly – taking only three gold medals (compared with 84 for America) and coming 12th in the table. We were thrashed by the French, the Swedes, the Dutch – and the Germans and Russians didn’t even come. And in spite of it all, the 1948 London Games were a fantastic triumph. Huge crowds went to watch such extraordinary athletes as Blankers-Koen and Emil Zatopek. The nation was united in excitement and pride and the world’s press returned a rapturous verdict on the general jollification.

In the words of the Wembley chairman, Sir Arthur Elvin, “the dismal johnnies who prophesied failure have been put to rout”. And guess what – it made money! There was a profit of £29,000, some of which was demanded by the taxman.

Look at us today. We are incomparably richer and better fed. Our equipment and training are the best in the world. We are, as a nation, faster, taller and stronger than we were in the era of our grandparents. We have almost completed the Olympic venues, on time and on budget. Team GB is now working hard to ensure that we repeat our amazing success of 2008, and come fourth in the table of Olympic medals. If there are any dismal johnnies who worry about whether Britain should be putting on the Games in this new age of austerity, I have no doubt they will be routed again.

EU crisis: The Frogs do love us – they’re just hopping mad with Germany

“This is quite unacceptable,” the Liberal Democrat leader is supposed to have fumed at the French government.

I don’t know if the French have been chastened by this rebuke, but I think we should urge Nick to relax. Look at the polls. Anyone would think that Nicolas Sarkozy and David Cameron began that summit with a secret meeting, at which they agreed to help boost the other’s domestic ratings. “I’ll bash you if you’ll bash me,” they said. “Our voters will love it!” And hey presto. The Prime Minister takes a principled opposition to plans for a Fiscal Union (FU), and shoots ahead of poor old Ed Miliband in the polls.

Sarkozy bolsters his own election hopes as he launches an ever-popular tirade against les rosbifs and their appalling belief in free markets. It’s win-win. That is the point about the pantomime xenophobia between the French and the British: it is essentially innocent — or more innocent than almost any other form of xenophobia; because in our hearts, au fond, neither side really believes it. We have to admit there are times when we enjoy a good old orgy of gratuitous Frog-bashing. There are times when we are all prepared to read how our continental cousins are a bunch of garlic-breathing Strauss-Kahns with a deeply suspect interest in structuralism and gloomy films. In this stereotypical world, their women fail to shave their armpits, they have a weird obsession with suppositories and a fanatical lust to eat our children’s ponies.

As for the French view of the British, I am afraid that there are times when they can be heard to say that we have terrible food, that we prefer hot water bottles to sexual intercourse and that most of the men in our ruling class (this was a tart observation by former prime minister Edith Cresson) were not the marrying kind. This is the kind of cheerful abuse that we have been directing at each other for generations, and ever since the battle of Waterloo it has not been meant very seriously.

Deep down, all reasonable English people know that the French have an extraordinary culture, that their understanding of cheese-making is god-given, that they have high-speed trains of a kind we are still trying to imitate and that it is a shame that we (and our children) are so feeble in our mastery of their beautiful language. You can tell that the British secretly love and admire the French by the sheer numbers who go to France for their holidays, and who make their homes in the Dordogne.

As for the French, they know in their hearts that for all the 20th-century misunderstandings between us — Verdun, Mers-el-Kebir, Suez, de Gaulle’s “non” — we remain indispensable allies; and all civilised French people understand that we also have our good points: humour, gardens, custard, pubs, democracy, the theatre and everything else that makes this country great. That is why so many hundreds of thousands of French people have moved to England in the past 20 years, and that is why London is now the sixth or seventh biggest French city on Earth. In fact, there are now so many talented French people living in the English capital that a special MP has just been appointed for outre-manche.

Victor Hugo said something about how the French and the English needed each other, because they both did well from the competition — and he was right. And the final reason to be cool about the gall of Gaul is, of course, that we are not the real object of French wrath. It isn’t Britain whose dithering is causing the continuing and growing uncertainty over the euro. Downing Street is not responsible for the failure to reassure the markets with a credible plan to guarantee the sovereign debt of the peripheral euro nations.

The French are really disappointed with Germany; and it is a golden rule of European politics that when France is angry with Germany, Britain gets the blame. That is because a rant against Germany is a very different thing, with a much heavier charge. Sixty-seven years after the war, the French are facing up to the reality that the European experiment has failed to contain German economic might, and that the Germans are unwilling and unable to help other countries cope with the agony of the euro.

That is what is really making them angry — but that is taboo. Much better to chuck a cow at les anglais.

We’re right about the euro – that’s why Europe is angry

No, they aren’t really angry with us for opposing the new Treaty for Fiscal Union. The reason our brother and sister Europeans are so chronically enraged with the British is that we have been proved completely right about the euro. For more than 20 years, British ministers have been coming out to Brussels and saying that they just love all this single-market stuff, but that they doubt the wisdom of trying to create a monetary union. And for more than 20 years, some of us have been saying that the reason a monetary union won’t work is that you can’t do it without a political union – and that a political union is not democratically possible.

We warned that you would need a kind of central Euro-government to control national budgets and taxation, and that the peoples of Europe wouldn’t wear it. Now look. It wasn’t the Anglo-Saxon bankers who caused the trouble in the eurozone, Sarkozy mon ami. It was the utter failure of the eurozone countries – starting with France, incidentally – to observe the Maastricht rules. It was the refusal of the Greeks to control their spending or to reform their social security systems. In Greece and Italy, the democratic leaders have been effectively deposed in the hope of appeasing the markets and saving the euro; and what makes the leaders of the eurozone countries even more furious is that it doesn’t seem to be working.

They blame David Cameron for “vetoing” a new EU treaty, when really he has done no such thing. It is perfectly open to the other EU countries now to go ahead and form their own new fiscal rules. If they want, they can decide to create an economic government of Europe. They may decide that now is the time – even though electorates are already feeling alienated from the political process – to hand sensitive decisions on tax and spending to unelected bureaucrats. It strikes me that this would be an amazingly dangerous thing to do, since the peoples of this Supra National And Fiscal Union (Snafu) would rapidly discover that they could no longer remove their government from office. I doubt very much that it would work, since there seems no particular reason why national governments should respect a collection of new “binding” rules any more than they respected the “binding” rules of Maastricht – not unless there is some secret proposal to enforce them by violence with a Euro-army.

But even if the Snafu has little prospect of success, there is no reason for David Cameron to commit this country to a project that is intellectually, morally and democratically bankrupt. He was quite right to say that Britain would not participate; and the reason the others are angry with Britain is that the row conceals the real failure of the summit – and that is to come up with a solution for the problems of the euro. The best hope now is for everyone to cool off and look at the things that the citizens of Europe actually want from their institutions. The euro may or may not be saved – though it seems unlikely that it will still exist in exactly its current form a year from now, and the best thing would be if the Greeks (and perhaps others) were allowed an orderly exit from their pain.

But there are still plenty of things that the European Union could provide its struggling peoples. In January, it will be 20 years since the dawn of the “single market”, and yet there are still all kinds of non-tariff barriers to trade. Here we are trying to create an economic government of Europe, and yet we haven’t even passed the services directive, which would allow everyone from opticians to estate agents to insurance brokers to set up more freely in other European jurisdictions. We are telling the Greeks that Brussels must effectively run their economy – and yet we can’t even agree on a common European standard for plugs.

Everyone is now worried that other European countries will “punish” Britain, perhaps with new directives on financial services designed to damage the City of London. Well, in so far as that is a problem, it is not a problem that has been made any worse by this summit; and in so far as we need to assert our European credentials, now is the time to set out a positive vision for a Europe that actually helps individuals and businesses. Next time these leaders have a summit, let’s lock them in until they agree the services directive and come up with a Europlug.

The gospel of Clarkson puts bread on the tables of Britain

I was standing beneath my car the other day, and as I looked up I felt awe and pride. As I inspected its miraculously unrusted underbelly, I asked myself once again why people are so darned rude. This is a machine that has done about 120,000 miles. It is rained upon and snowed upon and sometimes towed from bogs. It has attained the ripe old age of 16 — and if you reckon that every car year is the equivalent of seven human years, then this vehicle long ago received its telegram from the Queen. And still it goes like a train. It always starts first time. It never misfires and its exhaust is perfectly acceptable — as pale and wispy as the breath of an elderly monk doing physical jerks in the cloisters before Christmas lunch.

It can carry eight adults effortlessly up Highgate Hill; and yes, it is true that it did start to make a noise a bit like a wounded Spitfire, and that was why it was necessary — for the first time in its life — to take it into the garage, winch it up to head height, and inspect its nether regions. You know what the problem turned out to be? A nut had come loose on the exhaust. That was it. After 16 years of blameless service, one nut had come loose. The problem was so trivial the mechanic could hardly bear to charge me.

Amid yells of appreciation from his audience, he bombs them, burns them and fires them off Beachy Head with a trebuchet; and so the country is conditioned to hunger for newer models. With his brilliant meditations on “torque” and “grunt” and “handling”, he invents personalities and virtues for these inanimate objects. He collaborates with the manufacturers to feed the myth, that if we buy these cars then something of their individual style and ethos will rub off on us. He is the mastermind of the entire superstition that persuades people to trade in their indefatigable old bangers and spend their cash on a new car; and he is, of course, indispensable to the economy and to the livelihoods of some of the poorest and hardest-working people in the country.

We are going through a soul-searching time, when capitalism is deemed to have “failed”, or at least to have been gravely deficient. Around St Paul’s and elsewhere there are good people – many of them too young to remember the command socialism of the Soviet bloc – who wonder about an alternative. They hope for a different world, in which we are not all addicted to “growth” and “profit”, and in which we might be happy with things we need rather than things we want. They imagine a society in which brands no longer have their awful cachet, and in which one family no longer imagines that they are somehow superior to another because they have a swankier house or a flashier car.

I can see why they feel this, can’t you? In these tough times I reckon many of us have a generalised horror of the waste and profligacy – public and private – of the bubble years. There is something deep within us that responds to the idea of restraint and simplicity – and on that theme, quite frankly, I am going to run my old car until it dies beneath me. But we must accept that if everyone acted in that way then we would simply be compounding the present economic problems. If people failed to heed the gospel of Clarkson, and failed to buy shiny new cars, then tens of thousands of people in manufacturing and other businesses would be at risk of losing their jobs.

Of course no one really needs a new Jaguar or Range Rover Evoque. People buy these machines because they want to say something about themselves - that something usually being “I am jolly important” or “I am considerably richer than yow”. But if they didn’t take part in this capitalist conspiracy, then we would be taking bread off the tables of families across Britain - a country that is now making more cars than ever before, and which has more independent car manufacturers than any other country on earth. At a time when we are being warned to expect six years of stagnation, we need to get the economy moving: by investing more in infrastructure, by helping young people into work, and by giving businesses and consumers the confidence to spend money when they can.

Until we come up with a better idea, it is the consumerist free-market economy that offers the best hope of generating the taxes that enable us to pay for pensions, welfare and everything else. In that respect Clarkson is not only the king of automotive consumerism; he is helping to pay for the public sector. By goading the nation to lust after new machines, he helps to keep the motor of the economy turning, and if he didn’t exist I am afraid we would have to invent him.