OF late the British have become inured to taking lower places in league tables of achievement or social conditions than our EU partners. Whether it is scholastic performance or punctuality of trains, the UK always seems to be beaten by the Scandinavians. Yesterday, though, there was a pleasant surprise when the authoritative publication Jane's Country Risk put Britain ahead of all but one - Sweden, of course - of our EU friends in an assessment of stability and prosperity. Even so, the company Britain kept was odd -- in order, The Vatican, Sweden, Luxembourg, Monaco, Gibraltar, San Marino, Liechtenstein, and then, in 8th place, Britain, closely followed by the Netherlands and the Irish Republic. The editor of Jane's Country Risk, which analyses 235 countries annually, said that all of the top 20 countries (among them Spain) are stable. The United States is ranked 22nd and, surprisingly, Switzerland is no higher than 17th. The ratings take into account a country's political structures, social and economic trends, military and security risks and external relations. Britain scored the maximum of 100 for its politics, economics and external relations but finished with a 97 point rating overall.

Perhaps, after all, Britain is doing better than its many denigrators claim? The countries at the bottom of the list are only too familiar - with four African countries including Zimbabwe at rock bottom and Haiti, Ivory Coast, Afghanistan, Sudan, Somalia and Gaza/West Bank only marginally better.