"If I say, `Britain'," I asked, "what does that make you think of?"
"Your wonderful wartime prime minister, Sir Winston Churchill," he answered. "Or was that Canada?" he added.
An isolated case, you say. Not really.
Last summer, I sat at dinner next to an old friend, probably the shrewdest political commentator in America. He had never heard of Tony Blair. At about the same time, another "well-informed" Washingtonian revealed that he thought Britain had a socialist government.
At a time when the Tory party is swept by anti-European feeling, it would be good if our politicians were realistic about how Britain looks from the United States. But in the main they are not.
People in Britain have very little idea how little this country means to Americans. A few weeks ago a political writer in The Independent suggested in a light-hearted way that if Tony Blair were not elected prime minister, he could be made president of Yale University. That is inconceivable. It is safe to say that not one-tenth of the university's governing corporation have heard of him. A writer in The Guardian recently suggested that Britain might become the 51st state. A nice idea, but pure fantasy.
Many British people are so steeped in American popular culture that they think the US is not a foreign country. The reverse is emphatically not the case. Some Americans like this country. Many do not. For all of them, Britain is foreign, indeed the paradigm of foreignness.
The US, after all, was founded as a result of a rebellion against Britain. The British constitution, with its monarchy and its hereditary House of Lords, is profoundly offensive to the deepest-held of American political beliefs when it is not merely a matter for amused incredulity.
Tens of millions of Americans of Irish and other ancestry have been brought up to see Britain as a symbol of oppressive imperial power. That ancestral suspicion has largely dissipated. Britain is no longer seen as strong enough, or dangerous enough, to be worth disliking. Instead, it is seen as largely insignificant. Japan, China, Germany, even Israel figure larger in the news columns and in the American political imagination. Britain, as a real, contemporary society, as opposed to a historical memory, barely impinges on the American consciousness.
British conservatives, and especially those of the Thatcher persuasion, like to think of themselves as upholders of American values. Yet that is largely a delusion. Among core American values, after all, are matters such as a written constitution, the disestablishment of religion, a welcome for immigrants and legal guarantees of the freedom of the press - all anathema to the British right.
There is a subtext to Euro-scepticism. It is that the US somehow could, and should, replace Europe as Britain's political and economic partner. Why put up with Europe, runs the unspoken thought, when we have an alternative in our special relationship with the US? Why go along with statist, anti- business attitudes in France, or interference from Brussels, when an alternative is available in Washington?
That alternative does not exist. The "special relationship" was largely a carry-over of co-operation in nuclear and intelligence matters from World War II into the Cold War. Now the Cold War is over, the US no longer needs Britain as a defence partner.
The fact that there is no American alternative to active participation in the European Union is not a matter of preference, in either direction. It is not a matter of disliking close relations with the US. In many ways, American political civilisation is indeed more like ours than that of continental Europe. The matter of language is important. In a literal sense, at least, the British and the American understand one another. (In less literal senses, they often do not.) Most of us find American society more accessible, sympathetic, attractive, than many of the societies of Western Europe.
Nor is it a matter of a preference for Europe. Few of us are enthusiastic about the Common Agricultural Policy, the European Parliament or the bureaucratic jargon of the European Commission. Fewer still seriously contemplate widespread adoption by Britain of Europe's political systems.
It is quite simply that, as a matter of fact, whether we like it or not, close integration with the US is not an alternative to more or less close integration with Western Europe. Those such as Lord Tebbit and Bill Cash, John Redwood and Teresa Gorman, who deride all things European, are quick to accuse their pro-European opponents of being unrealistic. It is they who are living in Disneyland.
There is no practical possibility of replacing either our political or our economic links with Western Europe by political or economic integration with the US, and anyone who says or implies that such an alternative exists is being dishonest or fantasist or both.Reuse content