We know county voting totals in Georgia but can’t name the French prime minister — and import American ideas too uncritically
Here’s a question for you. Who’s the leader of the opposition in Germany? That’s tough, I admit. The answer is that there are joint opposition leaders, Alexander Gauland and Alice Weidel, both of the Alternative für Deutschland party.
So here’s an easier one. Who’s the current Prime Minister of France? Still stumped? Jean Castex. Yes, I did have to look it up. What about the Prime Minister of the Netherlands? Or the Prime Minister of Spain? The answers are Mark Rutte and Pedro Sanchez. Hats off if you knew them all. But it’s a safe bet that a lot of other readers didn’t.
None of this is very surprising. Days, weeks, even months go by without some of these people being mentioned in our newspapers, let alone on the BBC early evening news. But that’s nothing new. Crossing the Channel for our holidays is one thing. But look across the Channel for our news? No thanks.
What about looking across the Atlantic, though? Ah: that’s a very different story. I’m writing this two weeks after the American presidential election, and on the menu across the top of the BBC website, the third item, after “Home” and “Coronavirus”, is still “US Election”. Day after day has brought more long profiles of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. I have friends who can practically recite the county-by-county voting totals in Georgia and Pennsylvania, or who swoon at the very mention of CNN’s touchscreen guru John King. I also know people who were genuinely angry that, the day after the US networks crowned Biden the winner, the Sunday editions of the Sun and the Mail ran headlines about the coronavirus instead. Lead on a pandemic in Britain, rather than an election thousands of miles away? How dare they?
Having written two books about the United States myself, I’m probably on dodgy ground, but I think our obsession with American politics is completely out of hand. I’m not the first to say that, of course. As far back as 2008 the BBC came under fire for sending 175 people to cover Barack Obama’s first run for the White House. This time, naturally, the pandemic brought a more restrained approach. Even so, the corporation still sent 13 different correspondents to Iowa and New Hampshire at the beginning of the year. For two consecutive evenings, Newsnight’s Emily Maitlis broadcast live from Iowa, having flown over specially.
This isn’t going to be another tirade about BBC waste; there are enough of those already. In fairness, there’s clearly an appetite for American politics. The BBC’s Americast podcast, which Maitlis presents with Jon Sopel, regularly appears in the iTunes top ten. And at Westminster, the obsession with American politics has deep roots. Even in the 1960s, Harold Wilson branded himself, comically, first as the British JFK, then as West Yorkshire’s answer to Lyndon Johnson (“I’m not a Kennedy. I’m a Johnson. I fly by the seat of my pants.”) And it’s rare to find an MP who doesn’t swear by Robert Caro’s LBJ biography, a perennial desert-island choice. Michael Gove even read one volume of this endless, mammoth work while waiting for his wife to give birth. It’s hard to imagine a multi-volume life of one of Johnson’s European contemporaries—Kurt Kiesinger, anyone?—inspiring such devotion.
That the British political class is so obsessed with America is hardly surprising. The United States has been our chief ally since 1941, and remains the world’s leading power. Crucially, Americans speak English. And there’s no doubt that American politics has a swagger, a style and self-importance, that British and European politics often lack. When I was doing my Cambridge PhD, I was often embarrassed to admit that I had first become interested in American politics after being mesmerised as a teenager by Oliver Stone’s film JFK. But one day my supervisor told me that, as a boy, he had got interested in American politics after seeing a picture of the assassination of the Louisiana populist Huey Long, and I didn’t feel so bad.
Few obsessions, though, are healthy. Our fixation on all things American might have been understandable in the Reagan years, when the Anglo-American partnership was the central axis of the Cold War alliance. But now it is positively ridiculous. The United States of 2020 is no longer the United States of 1980, let alone the United States of 1941. It is more Asian, and far more Hispanic. With the rise of China, its politicians and business leaders are probably less interested in Britain—and Europe more generally—than at any time in history.
There is more to this, though, than merely high politics. For almost a century, people have worried that British culture was in danger of becoming “Americanised”. As long ago as 1927, no less a figure than Lieutenant-Colonel Reginald Applin DSO, OBE, Conservative MP for Enfield, told the House of Commons that with the advent of the cinema, British youngsters were becoming deracinated. “They go to see American stars; they have been brought up on American publicity,” he lamented. “They talk America, think America, and dream America. We have several million people, mostly women, who, to all intent and purpose, are temporary American citizens.”
But Americanisation in the 1920s—or in the 1940s, when George Orwell lamented the decline of the English murder, or the 1950s, when campaigners attacked American “horror comics”, or the 1980s, when the high-minded shook their heads at the popularity of Dallas and Dynasty—was different from Americanisation today. Back then, it was the uneducated, the unenlightened, the poor and the ignorant who were supposed to be at risk of falling into the embrace of Uncle Sam.
But today it is the highly educated, the self-consciously progressive, the champions of “social justice”, who are the most likely to be Americanised, and to see the world as merely an extension of the United States. Nothing reflects that better than the Black Lives Matter movement. The slogan itself was borrowed directly from across the Atlantic. The trigger, the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, happened thousands of miles away, in a city the vast majority of ordinary Britons have never visited and have barely even heard of.
Yet in the next few months, unthinkingly, uncritically, American ideas were ripped from their context and transplanted into Britain. Crowds in cities across the country protested against police brutality; yet probably no police force in the Western world works harder than Britain’s to achieve good community relations, and the statistical likelihood of a young black British man being murdered by the police is so remote as to be virtually non-existent.
Campaigners even talked of “white supremacy”, an American idea fast gaining ground in British academia. The idea of white supremacy certainly makes sense in the United States, where millions of people were slaves until the 1860s, and where their descendants were forced to lead segregated, second-class lives until the 1960s. But does it make sense in Britain, a country where the non-white population was minuscule until after the Second World War, and where most people had never laid eyes upon a black man or an Asian woman? Yes, we have our own histories of prejudice and discrimination; but those words our own are crucial. They are simply not the same as the histories of Georgia and Alabama, Chicago and New York. Does it make any sense to talk of “white supremacy” in Shropshire, or Lincolnshire, or Wales, or Cornwall? Do we really have to see our history through an imported American lens?
And there’s another cost to this, which brings me back to Messrs Gauland and Castex and Rutte and Sanchez. As a society, we can only talk about so much. The BBC website only has room for so many headlines; even the thickest national newspaper can only run so many stories. It is an unarguable fact that the more we read about America, the less we read about our close neighbours, whose affairs arguably make far more of a difference to our lives here in Britain.
Just think, for example, of how many stories you’ve read about Mr Trump and Mr Biden, and then ask yourself how many you’ve read about Angela Merkel. How much do you know about the US Supreme Court, and how much about the politics of the Republic of Ireland, our closest neighbour? How well do any of us understand the politics of Italy? Where do the Dutch stand on Brexit? What’s going on in Catalonia these days? What’s happening in Poland?
“I hadn’t quite understood the full extent of this,” Dominic Raab said earnestly in 2018, not long after becoming Brexit Secretary, “but if you look at the UK and look at how we trade in goods, we are particularly reliant on the Dover-Calais crossing.” He was pilloried for it at the time, of course. But if we’re honest, are the rest of us so different? When we look across the Atlantic, we see lights blazing in glorious Technicolor. But when we look across the Channel, we see merely a thick grey fog.
But perhaps, in a sublime irony, Brexit will make a difference. When we were merely another EU member state, we could get away with turning up late to the meetings, sitting at the back with the free biscuits and checking our phones for the latest updates from the Pennsylvania count. But not now. Now that we’re out, we might actually have to turn our infatuated gaze away from our distant cousins, and take an interest in our next-door neighbours. And shocking though it might seem, we might find they’re more interesting than we thought.