The UK is mesmerised by the American presidential election. The result will affect all our futures. But is it too much already? Vast resources go into the coverage, leading to a fabricated, even forced, identification with the hyper-power; a euphoric mood is daily whipped up by fervently Atlanticist pundits. Question the United States and you are slammed for "anti-Americanism". There are no equivalent sneers for those who, for example, criticise Russia or India. It is as if this country is an extension of the US. It is defiantly, patently not. In fact, the more this drama unfolds, the more intensely aware we become of how different we are. The ocean between us is physical and cultural.
Two observations ensue. It will be decades before Britain elevates a man of African ancestry to the position that Barack Obama has reached. On this, the US has shown us a face that is wholly to be admired, impossible to reproduce on these isles, as yet. On the other hand, we Britons would never cheer on, to teetering heights, a Sarah Palin. One reason is ingrained sexism – why the deputy leader of the Labour Party, Harriet Harman, is never given the respect she deserves. But also because British voters do not fall for the folksy and homely. What would we do if Theresa May started winking and acting cutsie, or Ruth Kelly brought her sprogs to hustings? It is unthinkable. The Tory MEP Daniel Hayman is critical of the "elitist, anti-populist nature of British democracy". Many of us are grateful for the serious standards maintained.
There is much to envy and admire in Jeffersonian democracy: its localism, liveliness, the way it engages citizens, the unpredictable and serious primaries. Britain does not manage as well the crucial balance between the majority will and minority entitlements. No decent democracy surrenders wholly to the first. Our system, by contrast, feels exhausted at times, stitched up by the powerful, and the result is growing dejection. It may prove lethal one day, this disenchantment. I do think, though, that some scepticism is necessary. Too many Americans believe the lies of their masters and did in the build up to Iraq. They have West Wing; we have The Thick of It and Yes Minister. I know which I prefer. And let us hope and pray that we will never have to endure the abusive and ignorant broadcasts of their shock jocks.
This spring, I went to the US for the first time since 9/11. It was good to go back and remember how exciting and inspiring is the country at its best. Yet culturally it felt more foreign than I remember, Starbucks and McDonalds notwithstanding. The shared language is diverging. Sometimes I had to ask what was meant, thwarted by the speed, vocabulary and embedded assumptions. With everyone from Stephen Fry to Simon Schama extolling the great US of A in books and TV series, it is as well to remember that many of us feel about the country more like Louis Theroux does, admiring, yet befuddled. In Italy and Spain, many Britons feel less alien, despite the barriers of language.
Reluctant Europeans we may be, but we have made common cause with EU nations on many key issues – abortion, gay rights, human rights, the place of religion in politics, international relations, climate change, and creationism. We do not have the violent, sometimes murderous, clashes of values dividing Americans. Millions of Britons no longer want this special relationship. They believe the obsession with the US is excessive. I think they have a point.
To whom do our politicians answer – us or the banks?
As financial institutions implode, political leaders tell us we are all in this together. Sure we are. Some, at least, can take breaks from the anxiety. William Hague and Ffion joined agonised (presumably) senior executives of Barclays Bank at a luxury hotel near Lake Como in Italy to discuss the crisis and how to beat the downturn.
Ffion advises the bank, which made me think. What about other such direct or indirect connections between political families and the mismanaged or vulnerable global businesses? Lord Baker of Dorking was the chairman of Lehman Brothers' European advisory council; Francis Maude and Alan Milburn have several "remunerated" directorships, as do Oliver Letwin and Lord Steel of Aikwood. Many spouses and children of politicians are similarly engaged too. Tony Blair and others, like Anji Hunter, his once right-hand woman, leave politics to be fast snapped up by conglomerates that pay eye-watering amounts of money for influence and advice.
Fine, if these ex public servants want to make bucks. But are they keeping tabs on the companies they serve or do they, for a fee, register only approval? I do wonder whether Kenneth Baker was at all aware that the collapse of Lehman was imminent? Perhaps those on the Barclays jamboree will enlighten us on exactly what these, "the great and the good", do. And to whom they are accountable.
MoD shouldn't mess with the WI's treats
Christmas is coming and we are still at war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the latter turning into a guerrilla conflict without end. Last week, a beautiful film, Jack, a Soldier's Story (BBC3), right, revealed what our young men (on £19,000 a year) are going through.
As if in a Monty Python sketch, the Ministry of Defence chooses this moment to stop boxes of treats – Cup A Soups, jelly babies, shoelaces etc, sent over by the doughty Women's Institute. Heartless, of course, but thick, too, these gents in charge. You don't mess with the WI brigade. Remember how they turned Blair to buttered toast and chewed him up at a gathering? General Sir Richard Dannatt should be quaking in his polished boots.Reuse content