Matthew Norman: Turn us into the 51st state? Why not?

The upsides of the UK becoming part of the US would more than dwarf the regrets

Thursday 05 March 2009 01:00

A friend emailed the other day to report that she and her family are coming home in the summer after a few years in DC. She didn't seem overjoyed. "I love America," she wistfully wrote. "Wish I was a US citizen.".

There was a time when I'd have snorted and emailed something waspish straight back. No longer. All I could think to reply was, "Wish I was too," and comparing the transatlantic coverage of Gordon Brown's visit yesterday did nothing to dampen the desire.

Here the media fixated on this crucial trip, albeit the reporting dwelt on the refusal to grant the PM the open-air, double-podium press conference that significant leaders generally enjoy. The excuse was that the rose garden lawn was covered in snow, this diplomatic version of the coitus-declining headache hinting that the "special relationship" has already progressed, after that quick stop at "special partnership", to "special marriage".

It wasn't polite, but who can resent the disdain when to America this visit isn't so much irrelevant as unknown? An hour spent scouring the US political websites yesterday unearthed barely a reference to Gordon. In the Slate digest of major US news that pings daily into the in-box, his name didn't feature at all. And this on the day of his address to Congress.

More attention would have been paid were he the governor of a medium-sized state in Washington to pay homage and beg for federal funding – and in a less imperfect world that's precisely what he would be. For decades every sub-Ben Elton stand-up has counted on an easy laugh by calling Britain the 51st State. They entirely missed the point. Becoming the 51st State of the Union would be a colossal promotion.

There would be downsides to yielding what passes for our sovereignty, of course. The Sovereign would have to go, and most of us would miss her and the amusement her family selflessly provides. Any residual misplaced sense of superiority would need to be jettisoned as well.

But the upsides would more than dwarf the regrets. At a stroke we would inherit a written constitution – and what a constitution – guaranteeing such essentials for a functioning democracy as fixed-term government, proper checks and balances to executive power, and freedom of speech. We'd be defended from the worst ravages of economic collapse by belonging to what will, with the euro facing mounting pressure from the imminent bankruptcy of member countries, remain the world's premier reserve currency. We would have a political leader to revere, for eight years at least. And in the US tradition of slightly out-of-the-way cities holding the honour, we could make Norwich our state capital, with the Union Jack replaced as flag by a pot of Colman's Mustard.

Almost equally tempting, we would be entitled to vote for and against those who hold our fate in their hands. Gordon's recklessness at the Exchequer may have worsened matters, which is why his redirected rural mail will soon have "ex-Chequers" stamped on it. But as he has been known to point out, the source of the disaster was the Bush White House and US financial institutions. "No Disintegration Without Representation" should be the rallying cry of our application to join the Union.

Now there will be objections, and not just from royalists. Some, fretful of our place in the pecking idea, will feel slighted at ranking 32nd in size between Louisiana and Mississippi. But New York state's square mileage isn't much more, so size couldn't matter less. Others may think us too distant to make it practicable. Yet we're only a few hundred miles further away from the US mainland than Hawaii – a state with a useful recent record of producing Presidents despite having four electoral college votes to the hundred or so that our population would merit. Any presidential candidate from Britain would start with a massive edge over the field. Imagine the thrill of hearing Alice Arnold begin a Radio 4 bulletin: "In a tough, no nonsense counterstrike, President Opik will later today warn Tehran ..."

It is ever more apparent that on its current path, or rather trapped in its current stasis, Britain is absolutely stuffed. Whatever ersatz prestige devolved from London's status as global financial services capital has gone, while the tacky veneer of the "young country" of Mr Tony Blair's lively imagination faded long ago. Britain is a befuddled geriatric, roughly cared for by a political class without energy, original thought or compassion, its populace too fatigued and apathetic to care about the incessant infringements on personal liberty.

Dribbling and muttering incoherently about the glory days when the map was suffused with pink and the sun never set, clinging to the permanent seat on the Security Council like the second childhood security blanket it is, its wizened face lights up pitiably on rare outings to the vibrant daughter who ran away from home in 1776, supplanted it as head of the family 60 years ago, and now sticks it in corner with a cup of tea (not a beverage she ever liked much herself), spraying the room with air freshener and glancing impatiently at its watch until the delusional old fool can be packed off back to the care home.

All of which begs the obvious question of what could possibly be in it for the United States to have us live with her in a granny flat 3,000 miles round the corner. Apart from the strategic value of adding a gigantic air base in western Europe to the control she already exerts over our "independent" nuclear deterrent, the health tourism possibilities might appeal while Obama strives to deliver universal health care. And, er, as they say in Private Eye, that's it.

But would it hurt to ask? What would it cost to burst into tears and beg when all America can do is say no? All right, that would certainly be a humiliation. But once a US President has cut short a meeting with a British PM, hyped over here as potentially world-saving, for a rival engagement with America's Boy Scouts, be prepared to admit that it's a little late to worry about that.

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