A British political and media class that spent four years bitterly divided over its relationship with Europe finally is showing signs of moving on — leaving behind Brexit for an infatuation with American politics.
British newspaper columnists, paid to write about current affairs with some insight, opine solemnly on events in DC they watched on CNN from the safety of their North London armchairs. Our broadcast news updates us throughout the day on events Stateside. But both have to compete with the authentic American content that we can get such easy access to: Lockdown walks are accompanied by American political podcasts, there is an abundance of Republican or Democrat ‘hot takes’ just a click away and if you wake up too early and log on to twitter before most of your countrymen, you will discover just how many fired-up, indignant and outraged Americans you follow.
Perhaps the final chapter of Brexit was just too boring and predictable for those who have gained a taste for drama and tension through politics. After all, how can a reciprocal trade deal truly compete in the ratings with such events as rioting, racial conflict, claims of election fraud, a psuedocoup and an impeachment?
And it has been addictive. Just as America hooks people on its fast food with a perfectly calculated amount of sugar and salt, so its politics keeps us coming back for more with its extraordinary cast-list and dramatic plot-twists.
Leave produced no Proud Boys or QAnon, Remain had nothing like Black Lives Matters and didn’t even think of creating an autonomous state of Remainia in Bristol. And however much Carole Cadwalladr may have wished otherwise, Facebook and Twitter did not ban Nigel Farage or Boris Johnson from social media nor purge Leave supporters from their platforms.
As well as the regular diet of ‘historic events’, there was also the scent of real danger in the events at the Capitol, violence and the threat of violence can, of course, intoxicate even from afar. There was no such thrill in Brexit — the threat to withdraw some passages of the Internal Market Bill or the proroguing of parliament, wasn’t quite in the same league of danger.
But like too many things out of America, an addiction to its politics and accompanying world of news and opinion, is bad for your health. But more seriously, beyond just distorting the perspective of individuals, Transatlantic voyeurism is bad for the body politic.
While this current bout of obsession has been particularly noticeable, there is, of course, nothing particularly novel about British political people taking a deep interest in American affairs.
In the 1970’s, Thatcherites drew inspiration from American free-market thinking in the Reagan era, then New Labour was infatuated with Bill Clinton’s Democrats. In both those cases there were actual links, meetings, exchanges and advisors. More recently, Corbynistas imagined that Bernie Sanders was a kindred spirit while Farage tried to ingratiate himself with Trump.
Those latter two examples are important because, like so much of the actual ‘special relationship’ between the two states, the attraction was rather one-sided. Sanders had understandably little interest in Corbyn and Trump never gave Farage anything more than a “what a guy!” slap on the back. We may kid ourselves there is some bond between our two countries, that justifies our excessive interest, but there really isn’t.
And so it has been in the recent chapters of the culture wars. While street demonstrations in the UK, enthusiastically mimicked BLM and adopted their slogans, (utterly incongruous in the British context), British footballers ‘took the knee’ like NFL players and politicians started to spout lines about “systemic racism”, there has been no reverse influence. Outside of the New York Times’ comedic coverage of the UK, there has been utter disinterest in matters on this side of the pond.
And indeed, why should Americans, especially at a time of deep polarisation and instability in their country, care about the relationship between the UK and the EU, Boris Johnson’s government, or anything else that happens over here? That is no surprise. What is striking though is how, like a child tugging on a parent’s arm, the politically active in the UK, continue to see value in absorbing themselves in American politics.
But, once the entertainment factor is put aside, there really is very little to be gained from this mania.
Thatcher and Blair both learned valuable lessons for their projects from the US in their times, but there is close to nothing for British conservatives to learn from the Trump Republicans (or any other modern Republicans for that matter), likewise Kier Starmer’s Labour Party can gain little insight from the Biden-Harris campaign or the wider left-wing effort in the US.
Both the American left and right’s political struggles are deeply specific to their country and the key dividing issues in the U.S simply do not exist in the UK. We have no debate around gun control, our issues around race are very different, private ‘health insurance’ is some optional extra in professional employment and in the public space at least, we ‘don’t do God’.
Sure, there are some overlapping issues. Johnson’s need to satisfy the demands of ‘Red Wall’ constituencies does mirror the GOP’s new relationship with the American working class but it is doubtful that any advisor to the government would glean much from Trump’s administration on ‘levelling up’. Labour are trying to reconnect over issues around patriotism and the family, hardly an agenda that Biden and Harris, with their woke activist base, are likely to offer any insight on.
But the problem with the excessive interest is not primarily that there is little functional value in such a focus — but rather that the obsession leads to seepage into the UK and the risk that the poisonous polarisation in the States becomes engrained in our own political culture.
We can see this in the tendency towards exaggeration, a common trait in contemporary American politics (and American life in general), which is now increasingly present in our own debates. The American left could never settle for describing Trump is an incompetent authoritarian but had to place him as a Hitler figure.
Last week’s events at the Capitol, brought absurdly inappropriate comparisons to Kristallnacht and 9/11. Likewise the American right seems unable to oppose woke or cancel culture without comparisons to communism. Trump’s rhetoric about ‘radical socialists’ to describe Democratic opponents who, if anything, represent the most corrupt, capitalist party in the Western world, was equally ridiculous.
It is no surprise this extreme rhetoric led to so-called ‘antifa’ on one side and people in Nazi sweatshirts on the other. It took continental European politics the best part of 40 years to escape from the ‘reds v fascist’ divide (and some countries still remain trapped within that division) but it has taken America just four years to recreate a version of it in a country which, when communism and fascism really were powerful in the world, was fortunate to experience neither.
The problem with the hyperbole that turns political division into a war narrative is that unsurprisingly it often leads to violence — another aspect of American politics that we should do our utmost to avoid. We were served a warning in the summer when the BLM protests in London did indeed imitate the violence of America’s streets. There was also something of Trump’s America in the way those scenes were responded to by a ragtag bunch of football hooligans and military ‘veterans’ defending the war memorials.
The British media too risks following the American descent into ultra-partisan click-bait. The Guardian is the most obvious example of a newspaper that, like the NYT, ‘feeds the base’ rather than informs a broad debate but similar trends can be found on the right and in online media. Emily Maitlis’ monologue at the start of Newsnight, during the media/political campaign over Dominic Cummings’ travel during lockdown was a sign of CNN and Fox News style partisan editorialising infecting the BBC. Indeed, the Cummings affair as a whole had the strong whiff of American politics — a frenzied and hysterical media campaign leading to the ugly sight of screaming protestors harassing a public official outside his home, egged on by opportunist politicians seemingly unaware of the fire they are playing with.
The traditional British tolerance of difference of opinion has been lost to the imported cancel culture, the clearest example of how the American domination of social media has a real and real-time impact on our political and intellectual life. American ‘Campus free speech’ issues used to be something looked at with curiosity from afar but now ‘no platforming’ and ‘cancelling’ causes damage in our own academic institutions.
It no longer feels alarmist to see America as a country which may yet descend further into extremism, discord, violence and major civil disorder. Indeed, it would be remarkable if the Biden administration were to be able to truly ‘heal’ the country in the coming two years or so before the next round of primaries begins and the whole soap opera of a bitter presidential election starts up again. There appears no vaccine for this virus.
The United State is a basket-case — a dysfunctional, corrupt republic, riddled with drug and other deep-seated social problems, divided by racial animosity and extreme economic inequalities, with a heavily armed populace and heavy-handed police, all of which is somehow meant to be resolved by an archaic political structure dominated by two parties, both heavily influenced by their radical bases. The US media no longer offers anything close to a balanced and reasoned coverage of all this with cable news eagerly engaged in monetizing division.
Now is surely the time for us to turn our attention elsewhere. America offers very few positive learning points for our country but rather stands as a warning of where things can go if a political culture is allowed to rot. But more seriously for us, the seepage, is a real threat to our own culture and politics and we would be better off, individually and collectively if we now turn away and switch off the show.
That is not to say that we should not look outside our island for new ideas, strategies or inspiration. There is much to be learnt from all over the world but it is time to stop looking to America first. It is telling that any attempt at debate over our health service quickly becomes reduced to a comparison between the NHS and America’s healthcare ‘system’ when there are examples throughout Europe and the world of modern public healthcare systems that we could learn from. Yet who ever talks about Dutch or German healthcare systems? For all their supposed Euro-enthusiasm, Remainers are as guilty as Leavers (if not more so) of being excessively focused on American examples rather than those closer to home from more similar societies, cultures and economies.
When it comes to what should be the vital post-COVID task of nation-building there are all manner of examples that can be looked at, of countries, that have built up their institutions, improved their education, transformed their economies and strengthen families. There are things to be learnt from countries in East and South East Asia for example, from Eastern Europe and Scandinavia.
There is something deeply pathetic, embarassing, given the history of our relations, in the British infatuation with America.
As Britain searches for a post-Brexit identity, tries to find its purpose beyond trade deals, it is surely the ideal moment to re-set our relationship with our former colony.
Let our diplomats and the trade missions do their work in Washington but when it comes to our culture and in particular our political culture, the rest of us need to declare our independence.