Who are we? For we British, that's an oddly difficult question.
Although our national self-assessment usually notes a number of good points (we're inventive, tolerant, and at least we're not French), it lists a torrent of bad ones too.
Our society is fragmented, degenerate, irresponsible. Our kids are thugs, our workers ill-educated, our managers greedy and incompetent. We hate our weather. Our public services are abysmal. Our society is rude and unfriendly. We drink too much.
Our house prices are crazy, our politicians sleazy, our roads jammed, our football team rubbish. When a newspaper invited readers to put forward new designs for the backs of British coins, one reader wrote: "How about a couple of yobs dancing on a car bonnet, or a trio of legless ladettes in the gutter?"
Anyone reading today's papers would almost certainly come away with an impression of a society uneasy with itself, a land where racial and religious tension seethes only inches beneath the surface.
But if this is the case – and I doubt it – it's certainly nothing new. Contemporary multi-culturalism may pose challenges, but infinitely fewer than it posed in the past. The Viking version of multiculturalism generally involved a sword in the belly. The 16th-century version of a multi-faith society involved bonfires, stakes and heretics.
In any case, our confusion goes far wider and deeper than national, ethnic or religious issues.
Recent reactions to the war in Iraq exposed long-standing divisions about the country's attitudes to its past. When the British government chose to go to war, was it acting in its old role of imperialist bully? Or in its equally old role of global policeman and bringer of freedom?
The national debate displayed both responses, both equally impassioned. Should we be proud or ashamed of the former Empire? Or perhaps it has nothing to do with us any more? For all our love of military adventure, are we perhaps just a glorified adjunct of the United States, a kind of East Atlantic Puerto Rico?
Our Government is hardly keen to boast on our behalf. The Home Office recently published a booklet called Life In The United Kingdom, aimed at helping immigrants navigate the path to citizenship.
It's not a bad publication. It begins with a 25-page history, from Roman times to the present. The survey is balanced and accurate, if a bit bland. But what it leaves out is peculiar. It does say: "British industry came to lead the world in the 19th century" – but that hardly gets the point across.
If one were asked to pick out the single most salient feature in human history since the birth of Christ, it would be hard to avoid industrialisation, whose forge was 18th-century Britain.
At the peak of our industrial power, we dug two-thirds of the world's coal, refined half its iron, forged five-sevenths of its steel, manufactured two-fifths of its hardware, and wove half its commercial cotton cloth.
That's not simply leading others. That's being so far ahead of others that we were, in effect, imagining an entire new world into existence, a world that has utterly altered human expectations of health, wealth and technological possibility.
Likewise, the booklet comments that "the railway engine [was] pioneered by George and Robert Stephenson". Well, yes, so it was, but British inventors have also played key roles in developing the steam engine, the telegraph, aeronautics, the microscope, the screw-driven iron ship, industrial steel, multiple-print photography, the electric light, the chain-driven bicycle, the electric generator, pneumatic tyres, the telephone, television, radar, the fax machine, the computer, the jet engine, the pocket calculator, and the world wide web.
Those medical and public health innovations which Britons were most instrumental in developing – vaccination, integrated mains sewerage, antiseptic surgery and antibiotics – have saved far more lives than all other medical innovations put together. Are these facts really not worth a mention?
And why stop there? The Empire covered a quarter of the earth's surface, but used an army smaller than that of Switzerland to exert its rule. At the Royal Navy's peak, it owned more than half of the world's warships and made possible the 19th-century globalisation of trade and finance.
The world speaks our language. The evolution of such things as habeas corpus, trial by jury, due process, the abolition of torture, and the rule of law aren't purely British in inspiration, but they're all sticky with our fingerprints. The Magna Carta is not only significant in Britain's constitutional history, but marks one of the most important political developments ever.
Our remarkable history is often deeply misunderstood by us today. We regard Britain as a yobbish nation, for instance. Yet the facts contradict the stereotype.
We actually pioneered a politer, more civilised, less violent society. As far back as we can see, England (at least) was by far the least violent society in Europe. In the 13th and 14th centuries, murder rates had declined to a level that wouldn't be seen elsewhere until the 16th century.
What made us less likely to reach for the sword, pistol, knife or fist during an argument revolves around our systems of law and order. Not only were the courts available to sort out any quarrel, they were also there to punish those who chose to go about it through other means. That sounds obvious, but on the Continent a legal approach to resolving disputes was much slower to take hold, with family-mediated resolution common, and honour killings widely seen as appropriate.
Yet there's a general sense, and, I suspect, an accurate one, that confidence in our identity has declined sharply over the past few decades. That decline is at the same time easy to understand and hopelessly inappropriate.
As late as 1950, it would have been easy for any Briton to believe in British distinctiveness. That belief would hardly even have been a delusion. Certainly, the Empire was reduced (after India) and much weakened, but it was still the world's largest such entity.
Closer to home, with democracy still young in Germany and Italy, absent in Spain and Portugal, and shell-shocked in France, the depth of British democratic traditions must certainly have seemed distinctive, to put it mildly.
Within a generation or two, however, the empire vanished and democracy triumphed utterly (inside "old" Europe, anyway), as have the rules of law, industrial capitalism and all the rest.
After centuries of believing ourselves, with reason, to be different from "abroad", today's Britain suddenly finds itself looking very much the same as our counterparts elsewhere in the rich world.
Though we're certainly a bit more American than most (think of our labour markets, our scientists, or our jails), broadly speaking, we're just the same as everyone else – a bit better here, a bit worse there, not really so distinctive at all.
Indeed, we're also having to get used to the fact that some of our ideas and institutions haven't just been widely disseminated, they've been improved in the process and are being re-exported.
A free press, for example, may have taken root in Britain, but it took European legislators to enshrine freedom of speech in law, as recently as 1998. In short, our ancient, cherished, much vaunted uniqueness has vanished and is never likely to return. Which is to the good.
If we want to celebrate anything in our history, then nothing is more worthy of celebration than that loss of distinctiveness. To worry about it would be like a father getting upset by his son beating him at cricket, or a mother annoyed by her daughter's sparkling university grades.
Over a period of centuries – a millennium and a half, at least – the inhabitants of the British Isles came slowly to hammer out a concept of modernity that was largely free, fair, technically advanced, prosperous and peaceful.
That was their second greatest achievement. The greatest was simply this: to have exported that model so widely and so well that it no longer looks British at all.
By Harry Bingham