Britain: The 51st State

November 21, 2012 7:00 pm

America is so hot right now. In fact, according to Britain, it always has been; rarely have we been able to tear our star-struck eyes away from the land of hope and dreams. The air of sheer thrill that hovers over the Atlantic between Britain and the US, beginning in Hollywood and bleeding into music, art, clothing, food (fast or otherwise) and, most poignantly, politics, has become an omnipresent buzz; Britain’s tinnitus. The recent US election gave rise to a flurry of activity from the British public evident, largely, through the ever-expanding prism of social media. Facebook and Twitter were awash with Brit after Brit holding forth about election campaigns, binders full of women and swing states as if they not only knew what they were talking about, but were also actually rolling their sleeves up and following Obama to Ohio themselves.

Was such anticipation and fervour evident on 7th May, 2010, when the country awoke and, squinting into the sunrise, glimpsed a Conservative government on the horizon? Or was it almost possible, instead, to hear the country shrugging and sighing that the parties involved were ‘much of a muchness’ anyway? Two years on, things don’t seem to have improved a great deal: the fear and likelihood of a turnout of below 15% for the imminent police and crime commissioners’ elections speaks volumes on the subject of our country’s level of sheer disinterest in its own internal developments. As an additional aside, it could at this point be mentioned that, in a poll carried out in January of this year to celebrate the release of the Thatcher biopic, ‘The Iron Lady’, the fictional head of state whom the public would most like to see become David Cameron’s successor was ‘The West Wing’s Josiah Bartlet. No points for national pride there. So, why are we more interested in US politics than we are in our own?

Certainly, no country could be faulted for attempting to maintain its sense of global awareness. Equally, Britain cannot be blamed for taking an interest in American developments. As Timothy Garton Ash comments in his book ‘Free World’, Britain is, historically, a child of Europe and a parent of America. Culturally, intellectually, gastronomically, economically and politically, we are intertwined with both Europe and America; our loyalties and attention are divided. The economic situation in the US is of particular significance to the British owing to the potential impact any such alterations could have on this side of the pond. America remains the world’s largest single economy, and British business thrives there. We make stuff they want. Last year, the US received the most British export goods of any other country (a robust £31, 712m), allowing it to sit comfortably ahead of Germany and France and solidifying its position as, in the words of the BBC’s Business Editor Robert Peston, ‘Britain’s most important trading and investment partner.’ This being the case, why shouldn’t we have a vested interest in the political activity of a country whose fate is so inextricably entwined with our own? A reasonable point indeed. Another reasonable point, however, is that it seems rather unlikely that there will be even half as much frenzied media coverage when the time comes to select a new Treasury Secretary, a decision which, given the state of flux surrounding current global financial systems, is as important for Britain as the selection of a new President. There must be something more.

Britain continues, to this day, to be seduced by the idea of the American Dream. Some might say that this country has come to allow moan-and-accept tactics to replace any concerted effort to strive for better. Indeed, it is quite conceivable that our national sensibility and stiff upper-lips could, if left unchecked, leave us eyebrow-deep in the cyclical quagmire of ‘there’s no point in trying because things won’t get much better anyway.’ We have not, however, reached that point quite yet. The British continue to care deeply about their government and are still, in many cases, proactive in attempting to affect change – think back to the protests at London Metropolitan University in September over the revocation of the university’s ability to host foreign students. The problem, it seems, is not so much disinterest as disillusionment with the perceived lack of action, change, and, perhaps most importantly, any form of connection with and consequently respect for the British government. Disenchanted with the state of our own country, our attention wanders across the Atlantic. Lo! We see a hefty portion of political activity with an equally large side order of glitz and glamour. We see a country of ‘yes’, ‘we can’ and ‘we will’; a country in which political leaders chill out with Springsteen and Jay-Z, have barbeques and do spontaneous press-ups; a country with sun, sand, Hollywood and, of course, lots of money. We then think back to Britain. What do we have? We have Cameron in his Converse and Boris in a bike helmet. A tough sell. Political activity in the US is quite the celebrity drama and we, the British, sure do like to settle down with our nachos and watch it unfold. In America, we see vital, inspiring leaders; we hear speeches that instil faith, hope and the belief that things can be better; we hear the messages that we wish were emanating from the lips of our own leaders. In addition to this, it is far easier to guffaw at the binder-based blunders of Mitt Romney than it is to come to terms with the flounderings of those who are meant to be in charge of our own country.

Perhaps Obama is more attractive to us because, where powers of oration are concerned, he tears strips off any British leader. That man can really speak, and he can do so not only with authenticity but also with a level of confidence so highly contagious it is virtually tangible. We Brits don’t seem to be able to do it like that. Is this because Presidential campaign strategies require candidates to be trained up as thespians, allowing them to become speech-giving machines with a tremendous command of language? Who cares; it works. Perhaps American Presidential candidates are able to achieve ‘celebrity’ status much more easily than British politicians owing to the differing natures of their roles as leaders: the American President is required to be far more of a public figure-head than the Prime Minister. There is also, of course, the small matter of communication. In this year’s presidential election, 60% of voters aged between 18 and 29 cast their ballot in favour of Obama, as opposed to the 36% who favoured Romney. Obama reaches all generations rather than simply his own. He gets himself out there; he shakes hands; he hugs people; he is inclusive. While the ‘you are all my family’ line from the presidential acceptance speech of 2012 may induce a severe bout of eye-rolling in some, it cannot be denied that there is a far greater sense in America that the public are concerned and involved with their own politics than there is in Britain. Could this be because they feel that they are actually included; that anyone can make a difference and take steps in affecting change? The British government falls at the hurdle of bringing politics to the masses. The general level of public political apathy seems unsurprising under a government that is unwilling to spend money on posting details of candidates for the aforementioned police and crime commissioners’ elections to potential voters. Who can blame the British public for turning to America when their own country is apparently controlled by what continues to simulate a terribly clever and clandestine Old Boys Association?

Compare ‘The West Wing’, an American political drama verging on documentary outlining the internal workings of the West Wing of the White House, with ‘The Thick of It’, a British television series that aims to satirise today’s British government. Mark Thompson, former Director General of the BBC and now Chief Executive of the New York Times, in a lecture on the importance of rhetoric and public language at the University of Oxford in November, 2012, suggested that satirising political activity can be beneficial owing to its capacity to clarify what is, in fact, going on in politics for the public. This may indeed be true- perhaps many British viewers of ‘The Thick of It’ have gained vital insight into the way in which their country is run. The Americans, however, do not seem to require irony, sarcasm or the ridicule of their leaders to understand the internal workings of their government; quite the opposite. ‘The West Wing’ is erudite, well-scripted and humorous – but not at the expense of the country’s figure head. It aims to increase confidence in American values rather than to deride them.

Could it be time for Britain to reassess its attitude to its own government rather than seeking solace in watching that of America from the outside? As attractive as Obama may appear to us, and as sharp the relief into which he throws Blair, Cameron and Johnson may be, what must not be forgotten is the extent to which, concerning broken and unfulfilled promises, Britain and the US are all too similar. Obama never fails to be charismatic, authentic, confident, and a damn sight more appealing than David Cameron, but he certainly did not keep all of the promises made in 2008; in fact, many were broken. The economy has not been fixed, Guantanamo Bay Detention Centre remains open, and the Freedom of Choice Act remains unsigned. Of course, we are in the happy position of being able to let such details wash over us. We are outsiders, comfortably partaking in as much American ‘cafeteria politics’ as we please by basking in the exhilarating drama of it all without having to concern ourselves with the reality. It is not America that we prize but the American Dream.

Britain has acted like the 51st state at the expense of its own politics for too long. Our vested interest in the US is both understandable and wise, yet we cannot continually look across the ocean, or indeed, to our laptop or television, and blind ourselves to what is taking place in our immediate vicinity. We hear talk of the destruction of welfare provision and public healthcare systems, tax breaks for the wealthy and arts cuts in relation to the American government without necessarily realising that such problems are a current reality in Britain. The 2015 British election allows us the opportunity to wake up, drink an espresso and address the issues on our own doorstep. Undoubtedly, the idea of using the fervour and positivity characteristic of American leaders to spur us on to achieve greater things cannot be faulted, but we must see the process through in full. We must act upon such inspiration and apply it to Britain rather than appreciating the political energy of America from a great distance and then continuing to be disheartened with our own situation. We cannot simply look for our very Own-bama, either (thinking of Boris, this seems even more true); if change is to be implemented, there must be public investigation into the proposals and manifestos of parties rather than simply wallowing in assumption. We must put the American government into perspective and remember that it, too, is flawed. Britain can, and will, move forward; the only obstacle is ourselves.

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