Great British Inventions
“British inventions have done more to influence the shape of the modern world than those of any other country. Many - footballs the steam engine and Worcestershire sauce, to take a random selection - have spread pleasure, goodwill and prosperity. Others - the Maxim gun, the Shrapnel shell and jellied eels - have not. Others still - modern atomic theory, the bagpipes - are capable of doing good, but in the wrong hands can have dreadful consequences. It is into this category that a British invention currently colonising the world falls.
“First introduced in Letchworth Garden City in 1909, the roundabout ... represents not just a clever solution to a common inconvenience, allowing vehicles to swirl rather than stop at empty crossroads, but also the triumph of co-operation over confrontation. Yet roundabouts tend to work only when motorists observe the British virtues of fair play and stick to the rules. Alas, this is not always the case ...
“The fate of roundabouts abroad thus repeats in miniature that of another British export, parliamentary democracy - another fine idea that backfires when mixed with jiggery-pokery. Just as democracy tends not to work without a free press, an independent judiciary and other helpful institutions, so roundabouts need decent drivers, straight police and reasonable infrastructure to function. The lesson of both is that fine ideas can wind up looking naive if they take no account of context and history. Swindon wasn’t built in a day.”