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.
Watch the new House of Cards series three trailerTV
Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards
Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears
Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants
TV ReviewThe intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 This restaurant has misunderstood the concept of 'cheese and biscuits'
- 2 Delhi bus rapist blames dead victim for attack because 'girls are responsible for rape'
- 3 PornHub turns masturbation into energy in bid to save the planet
- 4 Have sex with your iPad thanks to the new sex toy no-one asked for
- 5 The 'sex selfie stick' lets you FaceTime the inside of a vagina
Broadchurch series 3: David Tennant and Olivia Colman to return for third season, ITV confirms
Poldark star Heida Reed says show is not that racy: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
Harris' List of Covent Garden Ladies: Georgian guide to London sex workers acquired by Wellcome Collection
House of Cards season 3: Claire Underwood is based on an eagle, says Robin Wright
Game of Thrones season 5 spoilers: What we can expect according to George RR Martin's books
New theory could prove how life began and disprove God
'Jihadi John': CAGE representative storms off Sky News accusing Kay Burley of Islamophobia
This is what it's like to be dead, according to a guy who died for a bit
Ukip would cut billions from Scottish budget to fund English tax cuts
Nearly 100,000 of Britain's poorest children go hungry after parents' benefits are cut
End of the licence fee: BBC to back radical overhaul of how it is funded