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Old World, New World, by Kathleen Burk

Cousins and competitors

Reviwed,Stephen Howe
Friday 26 October 2007 00:00 BST

Not many people enter New York by sea nowadays, except ferry commuters into Manhattan from New Jersey. Those who do are often surprised at how extensive and formidable are the city's 19th-century coastal defences. Still more surprising to most is the identity of the main potential enemy against which they were built: the British Navy.

The walls and batteries are a stark reminder of how tense or even antagonistic British-American relations often were, long after the War of Independence and the near-forgotten wa of 1812. US and UK troops may not have clashed directly in almost 200 years – except, cynics might say, in the horrifyingly numerous "friendly fire" incidents of the Iraq and Afghan wars – but their politicians, strategists and opinion-makers have done so repeatedly and often bitterly.

The idea of the "special relationship" conceals much and euphemises more. It's reported that when Bill Clinton first met John Major, one of Clinton's aides urged him to remember that obligatory phrase – rather, Kathleen Burk suggests, like reminding him to put the cat out. Clinton responded, "Oh, yes, the 'Special Relationship'", with a burst of sarcastic laughter. From the other shore, Burk tells us that in 1914-18, British agents found US codes and cyphers "amusingly simple to decode". It's tempting to see this as a metaphor for long-held British attitudes to the US. Even during the Second World War, there were "apparently ineradicable" US suspicions of British motives.

Yet if it's an ahistorical illusion to think of a singular, supreme, centuries-old bond, the two countries have undoubtedly had unusually intense, deep, multi-stranded relationships. There are vast specialist literatures from both sides of the pond, and from many keen-eyed third-country observers, on different aspects of these. But Old World, New World is apparently the first ever attempt to survey the whole story of Britain and America from John Cabot's first westward voyage in 1497 up to the Bush-Blair partnership. The scope and ambition are enormous, and if the execution in some ways falls short and the coverage across that vast field is extremely uneven, perhaps that was inevitable.

Not only does the book span 400 years of complex and often contentious history. One could even say that three fairly distinct projects are pursued within one – admittedly very stout – volume. There's a narrative of bilateral UK-US relations, economic, military and especially diplomatic; and a story of how the two populations, or at least elements among them, viewed one another: the imageries, stereotypes and sometimes bizarre misperceptions. And there are elements of a comparative history, where analysis of how, say, feminist or anti-slavery movements in the two societies influenced each other spills over into frankly hasty overviews of parallel as well as intersecting developments.

One could even say there are four semi-distinct books here, for Anglo-American marital relations – both literal and metaphorical – are a distinct major theme. Burk makes of the "union of American money and British aristocracy", the numerous transactions by which new wealth was traded for old titles, an essay in its own right. It's an entertaining one, but maybe disproportionately detailed compared to themes she omits or understates. There are an awful lot of the latter, though it's ungenerous to stress them.

Strikingly little is said about Ireland, or the extent to which British policies there and US hostility to them (far from confined to Irish-Americans), have perhaps strained relations more often than any other subject. Latterly, attitudes to Israel have also been divergent, introducing a newer element of discord Burk barely mentions. Discussion of the American Civil War – how it divided British imaginations, or brought the two countries again close to conflict – is surprisingly brief, especially by comparison with the far more detailed look at the lesser disagreements over Venezuela or the Alaska-Canada border.

Otherwise Canada, so long the third point in a triangular connection, is rather shortchanged. Canadian readers will certainly think so. A long chapter on "elements of everyday life", breaking the mostly chronological flow, is alternately compelling and frustratingly selective, with the treatment of popular culture notably thin and that of music downright tokenistic. Burk's final pages become breathlessly overcompressed, leaping over the 1990s and ending after consideration of Bush, Blair and Iraq with a mere three paragraphs of summing up. A more substantial conclusion would surely have been in order.

There are many insights and keen perceptions here, but perhaps few surprises. Burk suggests that across the centuries "the common language masked great differences in culture, assumptions and expectations". This is close to cliché: there's even a case for reversing it and saying that differing linguistic usages and manners conceal how much we have in common. She sees the long relationship as one of "love-hate", a "curious combination of attraction and repulsion".

She is surely quite right, though hardly original, in noting that many Americans saw a dichotomy between "Britain" (or indeed "Little England"), which they liked, and "Great Britain" with its empire, which they didn't. A similar dichotomy has worked the other way since 1945: appreciating American domestic qualities but disliking the global power.

Brits, Burk notes, seldom recognised the former dichotomy. Americans – not least those who rage against European "anti-Americanism" – fail to see the second. One of her most telling observations is that, in attitudes towards the rest of the world, "one characteristic which Great Britain passed on to the US was self-righteousness". Maybe it's just a variant on that unattractive trait that liberal or leftish Brits tend to feel that now, many conservative American Anglophiles are the wrong kind of people who love us for the wrong reasons, pitching their affection at a Britain which no longer exists – if it ever did. No doubt the converse is also true.

Stephen Howe is professor of colonial history at Bristol University; his books include 'Ireland and Empire' (Oxford)

Little, Brown £25 (847pp). Order £22.50 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897

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