Leading Article: Divided by the Channel, but increasingly united by everything else

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The Independent Online
British people tend to think they and the Americans are pretty much the same. They watch Friends and Boogie Nights and conclude that American society and institutions are broadly similar. It is a belief that has promoted and in turn been pushed by Euro-scepticism - it often seemed that Thatcherites saw Britain as the 51st state in waiting. Truth is, however, that the modern United States is profoundly different from Britain, and was before last 1 May. It is different not just in terms of ethnic mix and age structure or criminal justice, homicide or social security but decidedly different in the ways of its politics and law. The Clinton affair demonstrates the point: the dominance of lawyers is not a professional conspiracy but a manifestation of the American individualist rights-based culture where (Mrs Clinton was right about this) politics is regularly pursued through action in the court room.

That is not to say people watching ER or Fargo are somehow being falsely entertained; there is no cultural rule that says we should be more excited by Jean de Florette or Lucie Aubrac because France is closer to hand. But we must not let the prevalence and strength of American popular culture occlude the fact that Britain and France have more in common, as societies and political entities, than does Britain with the United States of America. Because the French are so ready to proclaim their difference and are (in our view) so touchy about language and diplomatic standing, this simple truth gets forgotten. It has nothing to do with joint membership of the European Union. Britain and France are not just similarly shaped societies but are getting to resemble each other more and more in the habits and life chances of their citizens.

The editors of Social Trends, the great annual compilation from the Office of National Statistics, seek to ginger up their tables with an introduction taking a sideways glance at the figures. This year's brings together a set of observations on Britain and France and - even if the curves and the pie charts are not identical - the similarities are striking. They go beyond the observation that all post-industrial societies are going to look alike - larger numbers of their young people staying on in education so entering the labour force later, fewer and fewer of their workers toiling in the fields and in mines, more and more of their women working outside the home in paid employment.

Britain and France have become service-based economies, employing virtually the same minority proportion of their workforces in manufacturing production. For all those hectares of vineyards along the Loire, Rhone and Garonne and for all the clout still apparently wielded by French farmers, only 5 per cent of the French workforce is now in agriculture, compared with 2 per cent in the United Kingdom. Evidently, the French and British economic cycles are not in synch but trends in pre-school provision, achievement at 18-plus, morbidity and mortality are well in line. The French - confirming the national stereotype - are more prone to die from drink and smoking Gaulloises; the British from heart disease and breast cancer. Whether because of the Train a Grande Vitesse or not, a higher proportion of French passenger journeys are taken by rail (seven as opposed to four in Great Britain), yet the French and the British use their cars in almost exactly the same proportion.

And look here - a turn up for the Euro-sceptics - the unionisation of the French workforce is historically well under that of the British, but trending in the same direction, downwards. For all the allegations made (from the left) about Margaret Thatcher's social stewardship, "inequality" turns out to be pretty much the same in both countries, at least as measured by the distribution of wage income. The proportion of French households living well below the national average of income is somewhat smaller than in Britain, which may reflect the effectiveness of the French welfare state. The conclusion from these tables has to be that, yes, there are differences, but they appear remarkably slight, especially when viewed through a transatlantic lens. And that applies as much to Britain's proximity to Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany.

In and of itself, the fact of structural similarity adds nothing to the argument for delaying British membership of European Monetary Union, nor does it subtract from the case for the presence of British warships alongside the naval forces of the United States of America in the Persian Gulf. But Social Trends is a useful and timely reminder that difference of language, and the fact that French soaps are never scheduled in prime time, must not hide vital similarities in the societies on either side of the Channel.