Book review: A homage to xenophobia
51ST STATE BY PETER PRESTON, VIKING, pounds 15.99
Friday 21 August 1998
Preston sketches British politics in the Michael Dobbs vein. All the British politicians are corrupt, unprincipled and overweight, and the journalists only interested in sniffing out what Preston calls rumpy-pumpy. The American politics are drawn in the Jeffrey Archer manner: that is, just as cynical but less knowledgeable.
So - a romp, and not to be taken seriously except by the pompous. But it is still surprising that Preston's picture of Britain is so very depressing, so steeped in theme-park cliche as a "peel of genteel poverty". Is this how he sees us? How he thinks readers see themselves? How he hopes American readers will want to see us?
Some of his assumptions, even for a joke, are breathtaking.
Assumption 1: Foreigners are all corrupt little twerps. The British hate foreigners. All foreigners - Frogs, Krauts, Slovaks, Pakistanis - hate Britain and are tricky. It is a world-view that would be politically incorrect for an editor of The Spectator, never mind The Guardian.
Assumption 2: Americans are not foreigners. Many British people really do seem to think that the United States is not quite a foreign country. I have never encountered a single American (least of all an American Anglophile, of whom there are surprisingly many) who was not absolutely clear that Britain is a very foreign country indeed.
I have pompous problems, too, with the politics on which the plot depends. If Britain were to become the 51st state, it would have to be accepted by the Congress. If England were one state, it would then have easily the biggest delegation in the House of Representatives, where delegations correspond to population. An England congressional delegation would have nearly 80 members of the House, or about 20 per cent of the total.
If, on the other hand, Britain were split into four or five or more states, then their eight or ten or more senators would hold the balance of power in the Senate. No way. After all, the citizens of Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, who fight in the US armed forces, have been trying for statehood in vain for decades.
None of this would matter, of course, if we were just talking about a romp for plane or poolside. But the suspicion lurks that the former editor is reflecting something a bit more serious than that. After all, metropolitan opinion does flirt with the dismantling of Britain. Advertising men think national insignia are bad business for British Airways. Blairite PR people prattle about the rebranding of Britain. Historians say the whole idea of Britain was a racket dreamed up by the upper classes.
At the same time, Britain does seem closer to America than to Europe. In the language, by which as Oscar Wilde said we are divided, we can at least communicate. More and more British people go to the US on holiday and have a wonderful time. There are massive American investments in Britain, and a shared political culture on Left as well as Right.
Still, we should not be led, even by such a romp, into kidding ourselves for one moment that Britain, to Americans, is anything other than very foreign. There is, for a start, the question of optimism. When The Washington Post rakes muck, it does so on the assumption that things ought to work better. The Guardian seems to find it hard to believe that anything could work in this country. Preston's utterly downbeat vision of Britain's history and prospects is steeped in what General de Gaulle called "morosite".
Not that Americans will find Preston's portrait of their country very flattering. His overall picture is not so very far from the old anti-American stereotype of crass men in Hawaiian shirts and women with hair under plastic hats stuffing themselves with giant hamburgers, in a country led by lecherous cynics mouthing cliches. Hard to explain why a society and a political system run by such buffoons could work at all, let alone as well as it does.
Not long ago, a famous American intellectual told me that what made Britain feel so foreign to him was the "sour resentment" he found here. If we want to join the American, as opposed to the European Union, we will have to get rid of that.
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