Bemused by America, Terrified of Europe?

The politics of identity in Britain from Blair to Cameron

Palace of Westmister
Bemused by America, Terrified of Europe? : The politics of identity in Britain from Blair to Cameron - David William Ellwood


The financial crisis and the approach of Britain’s general elections have given a new twist and urgency to the long-running British debate on national identity. The British governing class and Gordon Brown in particular, have responded to the consequent political and economic challenges in three ways. They have intensified the debate on identity and citizenship. Brown himself has inspired a major new reflection on Being British: the Search for the Values that Bind the Nation. Secondly, they have carried forward long-developing and quite radical plans for constitutional reform. Finally they have continued to draw on the United States for models, examples and precedents with which to pursue the ‘modernisation’ of Britain. These trends all point to a decisive shift in the nation’s political development: towards the production of a written constitution. The evidence suggests that London will look first to American experience and expertise when this historic moment arrives.

Who do we think we are?

It’s a well-known moment in the Churchill – de Gaulle relationship of the Second World War. Urged by the French leader to move closer to Europe after the conflict and lead its reconstruction, the greatest Briton supposedly replied: “If you press us to choose between Europe and the United States, we shall always choose the open sea.” With the imaginary narrowing of the ocean in the subsequent decades, Tony Blair felt free to choose an architectural metaphor for his personal vision of the nation’s role in the Atlantic world. Britain, he insisted in 2000, would offer itself as the ‘bridge’ nation, explaining Europe to the Americans and vice-versa, facilitating dialogue, providing common ground or a meeting point.[1] With the collapse of this fantasy in the trauma of the Iraq war of 2003 – a shock from which the British have still not recovered, judging from the latest of the five official enquiries into it – a renewed sense of disorientation has flooded into debates about which way the United Kingdom should stand when facing the profound political and economic challenges coming simultaneously from the US, Europe and the rest of the globalised world. As the 2010 general election looms, the comforting old off-shore, semi-detached formulas are looking more care-worn and tired than ever. But how to replace them, and with what new vision or narrative?

Over recent years, the concept most often called upon to take the strain of analysis in this situation has been ‘Britishness,’ in other words national identity: the old ‘who we do we think we are?’ question revived once more. In his, Patriots. National Identity in Britain, 1940-2000, the historian Richard Weight demonstrated how the 1990’s witnessed the most intense inquiry into the nature of Britishness since the Suez drama of 1956. The political scientist Joel Krieger explained in 1999 how:

...The boundaries of inclusion and exclusion (are) fluid and vexed, the representations of nation hotly contested, the attachments at once robust and uncertain…[2]

This post-Cold War effort of self-interrogation has never ceased and is still going on.[3] Like France, the land has for twenty years been caught up in self-conscious and politically-oriented debates on its ideas of citizenship, community, ethnicity, nationality and other identity characteristics and labels, debates led these days from the top, in Britain’s case by the Prime Minister himself. Compared to President Sarkozy however, Gordon Brown has
preferred a more discreet approach, using speeches, interviews and debates and, as we shall see, inspiring an important essay collection.[4]

The financial crisis and all that lies behind it has simply made more urgent to the governing classes in Britain the dilemmas faced by their long-established national settlements. From the 1990s onwards, deep anxieties began to emerge over everything to do with ‘Europe’, around immigration and multiculturalism, the unity of the kingdom, the monarchy, the structure and function of the armed forces, the welfare state, the mass media, and the education system. Now the debates center around the balance of the economy: the hegemony of financial services and the marginalisation of manufacturing industry, the reliance on a bloated universe of private credit and ever-increasing housing prices, the resentments of the winners and the losers in the trends of the last 20 years.

By looking at all this through the lens of ‘identity’, such issues have become in a sense domesticated. Sovereignty and hence a sense of control have been reasserted, however illusory. The nation-state nexus has apparently been re-vitalised, and ‘globalisation’ contained. The persistence of identity debates in every corner of Europe (and perhaps elsewhere: Russia, Turkey, Israel, Japan even the US itself come to mind) is beginning to suggest that in a post-ideological age, this is the place where national political leaders will try to locate the biggest, most enduring political questions of the times.[5] “Economics is global, politics is local,” Martin Wolf of the Financial Times, said recently, in one of his reflections on the meaning of the great financial drama of 2007-9, unwittingly reviving old debates from the 1920s and 1930s when the full consequences of ‘inter-dependence’ were first discovered.[6] How to manage the balance between these two dynamics and with what political, intellectual and moral assets? With what explanations of how the British got to where they are, and where they might look for a new way forward?

In the pages that follow I would like to suggest that one of the resources the British governing class feels it is able to count on in the emergency is ‘America.’ Not American policy or money of course, not even that ‘Special Relationship’ which London clings on to so desperately and forlornly.[7] Instead it’s an inspirational version of the United States, a source of models, examples, energies, ideas, stimuli, standards, an invoked America whose soft power influence and prestige never fade. It is a form of virtual political capital that the Thatchers, Blairs and Browns feel they can draw on to compensate them for all of their frustrations in Europe, their humiliations in the wider world and the intractability of their problems at home. As previous versions of this essay have shown, there has long been an American question in Britain’s identity debate.[8] It has not been put there by artists, experts, army officers, sports personalities or even Rupert Murdoch. It has been imported systematically and with great persistence by the governments of the last thirty years, and with it they have brought a series of possible answers. The underlying purpose has been to solve the identity crisis by way of ceaseless efforts to ‘modernize’ the nation, to renew its democracy but also to raise its ranking in those league tables of world competitiveness which the land of Darwin takes so seriously, and – of course – to distinguish it from everything supposedly going on in the European Union. Where better than America to find inspiration and encouragement for this permanent revolution of change the governing class relentlessly insists on?[9]

And all the while the great paradox remains: the American question is the dog that does not bark, that provokes no comment, that which is ducked or elided in every discussion. “Just how like the United States do the British wish their society to become in the future?” that is the American question. It refers of course not to the many hundred varieties proposed by the real America, but to a luminous, visionary edition as imagined by successive governments in London since 1979. From Mrs Thatcher on, British prime ministers have provided their own distinctive, forceful answer to the American question, and the financial system in particular embraced this response with enthusiasm, following the ‘Big Bang’ moment of de-regulation in the City in 1986. It was that event which ‘ushered in the Americanisation of the City’ a banker remembered ruefully in September 2008.[10] Now that this experiment has crashed in ruins, one might reasonably expect a more critical, conscious and detached outlook to have emerged following thirty years of top-down Americanisation. But there is no sign whatsoever that this is happening. Instead there is every indication that David Cameron and his crew will enthusiastically continue this curious, unrecognised tradition, supplying a response sourced in the United States to the great conundrum: who do we think we are?

Gloom and doom again?

These are not happy days in the United Kingdom. One of the nation’s celebrity historians, Simon Schama, speaks of ‘a time of deep and unrelenting trouble for the people of Britain.’[11] The Times recently featured a poll suggesting that a significant majority of citizens were unhappy with the direction in which the nation seemed to be heading.[12]“Now, British society is atomised,” editorialised Deborah Orr in The Guardian, “…and the most cursory glance at the bottom quintile is enough to justify contempt and repulsion. They are bad – bad parents, bad kids, bad lots, just bad.”[13] In The Economist’s ‘World of 2010’ special issue, the historian Paul Kennedy, long since emigrated to Yale, deplored “the growing coarseness” he saw, suggesting that “the mixed fabric of British society… is fraying in so many ways, notably in the general sense that a yobbo/hooligan culture is taking over.” On the global stage, said Kennedy, the nation’s real resources were falling well short of its governments’ ambitions and strivings. It was time to stop pretending that the UK could “punch above its weight” (a notorious boxing metaphor invented by John Major’s Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd), i.e. somehow exert influence abroad in the national interest well beyond what the objective power of its economy or armed forces would predict. In pre-election mode, the Tory Party talks of “Broken politics, broken economy, broken society.”[14]

The immediate cause of the misery is, of course, the great financial crash of 2007-9. Confidence collapsed and macroeconomic stability vanished between 2008 and 2009. A huge fiscal deficit emerged: up from 3% of GDP in 2004 to 12.4% in 2010. From 40% of GDP before the crisis, overall public indebtedness shot up to 60%. There was talk that this debt might lose the triple AAA status awarded by the US ratings agencies that it had always enjoyed, which would add to its cost. Notoriously, one minor and three major banks had to be bailed out, to the tune of £70 billion. The Bank of England spent over £200 billion on buying government debt by printing money (the ‘quantitative easing’ tactic.) Unemployment, inflation, and bankruptcies began to expand in ways not seen since the 1970s and tax revenues fell off a cliff. The British had become used to 3% growth a year; however, between April 2008 and the end of September 2009 it declined 5.9%.[15]

So where does all this leave the long debate on Britishness? The eminent political philosopher John Gray writes:

The passing of the Thatcherite settlement may seem to be only marginally relevant to the character of Britishness, yet it is bound to have a far-reaching impact on Britain’s public culture. All three parties have converged on a consensus on the role of the state at just the moment in history when that consensus has definitively ceased to be viable.

That agreement involved a limited role for the British state, one where government – as Tony Blair put it in 2001 – has “less to do with detailed day-to-day policy…and more to do with project management and delivery.”[16] No longer. “This image of Britain is one of the casualties of the financial crisis,” says Gray and “as a result, politicians lack a narrative that is capable of interpreting events that are happening to us every day.” The only prospect, concludes the Cambridge philosopher, is to fall back on old-fashioned British makeshift and muddling through.[17]

National destiny after the disaster

John Gray’s reflection came in an essay that fed into one of the most provocative contributions to the post-crisis debate on ‘Britishness’, the edited volume inspired directly by Gordon Brown and entitled Being British: The Search for the Values that Bind the Nation published at the end 2009. This is an extraordinary collection, not least since its contributors were chosen, and the whole book edited, by one of Brown’s more severe journalist critics, Matthew D’Ancona of The Times. Among the 35 personalities present, both men and women, are senior clerics and politicians, a banker and a number of academics, a senior policeman, together with psychologists and musicians. The metropolitan media village is heavily represented, and there are high-profile essays from the Muslin community of England. No economists, scientists, doctors, judges, business leaders or military figures were invited to the party. There are, regrettably, no contributions from the Royal family or the landed gentry (which still survives). Although there is much hand-wringing over the break-up of the United Kingdom, Scotland and Wales are almost completely absent. Ireland merits one historical chapter. As usual in Britain, this is London speaking.

The whole point of the exercise is spelled out by Brown himself, who introduces the collection. For some years now this worrisome, restless politician from Scotland, heir to a political tradition adept in placing its men (no women) at the top of UK government, has taken up the question of national identity forcefully. Here, in his latest attempt to promote a wide-ranging debate on the topic, the Prime Minister offers his own version of what the traditional narrative still looks like:

Britain today – with its centuries-long history of resilience, adaptability and outward-looking engagement with the world; its inventiveness and creativity; and its traditions of openness and internationalism, tolerance and respect for liberty – has much to be proud of and much to give: both to us, its citizens, and to the world beyond its borders.[18]

Brown is anxious to celebrate the ‘intuitive empiricism and rationalism’ of the ‘island trading nation’, its long-nurtured ‘combination of duty and liberty, of rights and responsibilities’, all adding up to a very distinctive shared idea of ‘fairness’ and ‘fair-play’, of respect for the rules and consideration for the norms of civilised co-existence. The British heritage of civic pride and community spirit, suggests Brown, has provided a solid basis for the nation’s own version of multiculturalism. Its quirky institutions and constitutional arrangements have supported the long development of a healthy, Orwellian culture of patriotism: understated, moral, emotional, not in any way intellectual. The sense of common destiny which enabled the Union to function harmoniously from 1707 on, (give or take an Irish misadventure or two), will, if renewed, enable the extraordinary variety of immigrant communities now present in the land to strike their own balance between distinctiveness and assimilation, suggests the Prime Minister, enriching the nation’s ‘common values, behaviours and traditions.’ More specifically:

…We need to both to build on the successful constitutional changes introduced by this government
since 1997 [year of election of the first Labour government of which Brown was a member], and to fully describe the covenant that the state makes with those who hold UK citizenship, across the whole range of rights and responsibilities involved.[19]

This indeed is the nub of the question that successive Labour administrations – and Brown in particular – have raised in the last 13 years. ‘Covenant’ is the key word or concept, an idea of a convention, accord, or pact, between the state and all its components, down to the last stake-holding citizen. In this view it must be comprehensively debated and radically redefined if the whole – Great Britain, the United Kingdom, the British Isles or whatever it cares to call itself – is to survive and go forward beyond the torments of the times, of which immigration is the biggest and the financial crisis but the latest (and mentioned in the book in the way that a natural disaster might be).

Throughout Being British the notion of ‘covenant’ keeps re-appearing. It’s particularly prominent in the essay by Sir Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, “Covenant and the Remaking of a National Identity”, which insists that such are the nation’s crises at this point that it must face up to an unaccustomed challenge: conscious society-building, by way of a “politics of narrative and the language of hope,” all embodied in rituals, re-dedication and openly-expressed faith in the future of British freedom.[20] But only one of the contributors dares to speak the name of the final destination to which such considerations must inevitably lead. That individual is not Michael Wills, the Minister of State for Constitutional Renewal (sic) at the new Ministry of Justice, present in the volume with an essay on “Belonging and being British.”[21] It is instead the Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, Trevor Philips, in his reflection on “Fair Play: It’s What We’re About”:

We need to learn to be more explicit about the way we interact, bottom-shuffingly uncomfortable as that may make us…the time has come for a written constitution which might define more closely what we aspire to in British citizenship… This guarantee would be a powerful public declaration of what people can expect from public authorities and the state. It would be another step towards institutions being compelled to comply with basic principles of fairness. We can no longer, in this changing world, take our inheritance of parliamentary democracy, the rule of law, freedom of expression and protection from tyranny for granted.[22]

By any historical standard of governmental practice and culture in Britain, it’s a remarkable statement, pointing to the great weight of what is thought to be at stake: no less than the need to rebuild the very foundations of the ways of life and functions of this history-encrusted nation-state, this ‘muddle of monarchy and ultimately democracy’ by which the British are still governed.[23] But not only is Philips’s declaration consistent with what a number of very distinguished essays in the book spell out, it’s also a logical product of one of the biggest and yet the most discreet and soft-spoken of all the projects of the Labour governments of the last 13 years.

‘The Governance of Britain’

In a pamphlet of March 2008, A brief guide to the governance of Britain the Minister of Justice, Jack Straw, a central member of the Blair-Brown cabinets of these years, explained one of the key purposes of his new department:

When the Government was elected in 1997 it began an ambitious programme of constitutional reform. The measures it passed included:

• Devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, passing power closer to the people.
• Human Rights Act, enshrining your fundamental rights in UK law.
• Freedom of Information Act, giving you the right of access to public information.
• Removal of 90% of hereditary peers from the House of Lords.
• Making the Bank of England independent.
• Creating an independent Supreme Court.

The Government are thinking about two basic questions: how we should hold power accountable, and how we should uphold and enhance the rights and responsibilities of the citizen.

So Straw went on:

Now is the time to build on that by transforming the ‘software’ too, and work towards a new constitutional culture, which entrusts Parliament and the people with more power. The aim is to create a renewed relationship between government and the people it serves, to bring people closer to decision-making so they are, and feel, engaged in the choices that affect their lives. If we can revitalise our political system, and articulate and celebrate what it means to be British, our society will become stronger and more confident. We will renew our sense of purpose and national unity, equipping us to meet the challenges of a world changing at a dizzying pace.

The Government wants to achieve its goals by reforms in four areas: it wants to limit its own powers, to make itself more accountable for those powers it retains, to reinvigorate our democracy and to build a new relationship between the citizen and the state.

Along the road the Minister promised a review of citizenship, a major consultation on a new British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities, and “an inclusive national debate to develop a British Statement of Values.”[24]

In January 2008 the Ministry of Justice carried out its own opinion poll on “Belonging, Identity and Values.” The results were presented as follows:

“Which four or five of the following, if any, would you say are the most important values for
living in Britain?”

[Note that respondents were asked to pick “four or five” items from the list shown in the table.
On average, each picked about four items and so the percentages add up to more than 100%.]

The evidence suggests that in its reforming zeal, it is to America that the Labour governments look for their models in creating the new democratic Britain. By 2010 the Justice Ministry – spun off from the old Home Office and a major systemic innovation of 2007 – had launched a wide-ranging review of citizenship, introduced US Congress style hearings in the House of Commons, and created out of the old House of Lords Judicial Committee the newSupreme Court, launched on the 1st of October 2009, whose expanded powers included a degree of judicial review. The former Attorney General called for children to pledge allegiance to Britain (or the United Kingdom?) in regular citizenship ceremonies. As these lines were being written (March 2010), Gordon Brown was talking again of a reform of the basic voting system in general elections, while Jack Straw was alleged to be on the verge of demanding nothing less than the abolition of the House of Lords. A new assembly – probably to be called ‘The Senate’ – would take its place, elected on new principles of suffrage.[26]

That American question

The Senate proposal is but the latest of a long line of imports of methods, structures, ideas and people from the U.S., by all the governments since Margaret Thatcher’s time, a trend which I first documented in 1996.[27] These include innovations in labour market policy, in crime and justice management, in policies for innovation and entrepreneurship, in health care, education, media and of course governance itself – the so-called New Policy Management paradigm, dating back to the 1980s. This was the enabling, delivery-oriented State mentioned above, ruled by the priorities and private business methods.[28]

Chancellor, Gordon Brown was tireless in his efforts to get Britain’s business “to rival America’s entrepreneurial dash,” as he told Daily Telegraph readers in December 2003, with speeches, conferences, educational programs and other forms of propaganda, including visits from stars such as Bill Gates and Alan Greenspan. Brown, who has made no secret of his great admiration for America and his scorn for the European project, as Chancellor promoted broad policy thinking that was all imported from the US, as the Financial Times explained in 2006.[29] This included “the promotion of enterprise, tax credits for research and development, central bank independence.” Even a pet project, the idea of setting up a national youth volunteering service in Britain “had roots in US ideas,” said the paper. As Prime Minister, Brown has promoted the idea of a British day to emulate the 4th of July, is planning a permanent exhibition of historic documents – as in the National Archives in Washington – and wants his fellow citizens to put out more flags. In a 2007 speech on Britishness, Brown said explicitly:

And just as America is strengthened by the institutes that encourage discussion on the very idea of America, an Institute for Britishness could encourage debate on our identity, and what documents from Magna Carta onwards mean for today.[30]

A close reading of Brown’s speeches over the years, not perhaps the most absorbing of tasks, will reveal that Brown’s political and personal identity is inseparable from his ideas and perceptions of America. Like Tony Blair, he is the living embodiment of Joseph Nye’s Soft Power theory at work: the capacity to generate by the magnetism of example a situation where others come – apparently spontaneously – to desire what the hegemon desires, preferably in foreign policy.[31]

While one might assume that the Conservative opposition would be of a different mind, it has, during the Blair-Brown era, been even more enthralled by the American inspiration. Tory leaders were much taken by President George W. Bush when he arrived on the scene. A reporter from The Times listening to the first speech of then new party leader, Iain Duncan Smith, in May 2002, found its themes and slogans to be exactly those he had heard covering the Bush campaign of 2000. On his return from VIP treatment in the United States, Duncan Smith wrote an article entitled “My Manhattan project for a transatlantic conservative revival.” His successor as Tory leader, Michael Howard, was the Thatcherite Home Secretary who led the way in bringing the reforms made to America’s penal system to the United Kingdom, a process that is still continuing. After 9/11, as Shadow Minister of Homeland Security he appeared for a while in the parliamentary party’s front rank.[32]

At the top of the Tory Party’s foreign policy program in the 2010 election campaign is the creation of a new National Security Council, with its own National Security Adviser. The other three points of the program are all too familiar: cleaving to the United States through thick and thin, as little truck with the EU as possible, sticking up for our own interests everywhere. They could have been written at any time in the last 50 years, although only now would it appear normal that they come from of a resident of the Heritage Foundation in Washington D.C.[33]

The principal parties have long used electoral marketing as developed across the ocean, and in the current election period have relied heavily on veterans of the 2008 campaigns in the US. For the first time, a series of live TV debates between the candidates took place in April 2010.[34] Following Tony Blair’s use of Bill Clinton at the annual Labour Party congress, David Cameron has imported the voice and image of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Choosing a rather different Austrian émigré as his inspiration compared to Mrs Thatcher, with her passion for Friedrich Hayek, Cameron is said to see in Schwarzenegger “a key role model…a charismatic centre-right politician whose bipartisan approach and trail-blazing green policies have won him popularity in a traditionally liberal state.” But once the election campaign started in earnest, Obama became the example, right down to the way Cameron would start his public appearances by discarding his jacket, undoing his collar and rolling up his shirt-sleeves, in exact imitation of the American hero’s campaigning style.[35]

But Cameron’s affiliations in America are deepest in parts of California where even T. Blair does not reach, in particular the Google Corporation. A featured speaker at Google Zeitgeist conferences, Cameron is said to believe that the internet revolution as configured by Google, “meshes with the modern conservative mission – flattening hierarchies and empowering people…a revolution which is flipping the balance of power from – for instance – Fleet Street to the high street.” With repeat visits to Silicon Valley and Google in particular by Cameron and his strategists, this is the place where they find the ideas to rebuild post-recession Britain, says an admiring journalist, a land where “a dynamic economy meets the family-friendly work-place…where hard-headed businessmen drink fruit smoothies and walk around in recycled trainers.”[36] Expert on-lookers are not convinced. In Being British, Charles Leadbetter, a web designer and internet consultant, condemns the superficiality and opportunism he sees in the new Tory leaders’ efforts to present themselves as ‘the Google generation.’ Compared to the world-class success stories of technological innovation and modernity on display in Finland, South Korea, Japan, India and of course the US, the Tory posturing look very puny, says Leadbetter.[37]

Why it matters

There is very little evidence that the weight of these developments and debates is making any great impression at all on voting intentions, social attitudes, economic confidence or popular sentiment generally, as the British people attempt to find their way out of the recession. On the specific question of the impact of the American model of modernity, the Financial Times asked its readers explicitly in April 2008 whether they felt the nation was becoming the 51st state. The blog-space attracted four non-descript comments in a week.[38] Back in 2004, the BBC’s in-depth investigation of national identity never thought of asking the question, and repeated investigations of Englishness, Scotland’s re-creation, or those functional areas where American innovations are highly visible – the health service, the media, sport, business or even language – seem quite unable to contemplate this reality, let alone fit it into the overall debate about Britishness. In Being British, the aforementioned Minister of State for Constitutional renewal notes that “the imagined community once populated with monarchs and the British Grenadiers now shares space with Tom Cruise and Starbucks and dreams of self-fulfillment.” In the very next sentence his discussion moves on to the importance of a strong sense of national identity, not to reflect on America’s place in it, following the logic of his own suggestion, but to ask where Islam might fit in.[39]

The financial crisis threw into sharp highlight the areas of convergence between the American and British economies and their governance: the weight of free-market ideology, the centrality of over-extended banks, the deliberately-contrived undermining of regulators, the vast reliance on personal credit, the appropriation of extraordinary amounts of wealth by tiny minorities of plutocrats, the short-termism and the avarice.[40] The rest of the world, and the continental Europeans in particular, gloated for a while at this come-uppance for what they all unhesitatingly called ‘Anglo-Saxon’ or ‘Anglo-American’ capitalism. But the British kept quiet. Their local bankers took all the heat, briefly.

This is not the 1970s. Then, the first great postwar settlement – the one that had built the welfare state – had come to grief in stagnation, inflation and a panic-stricken crisis of basic governability. Today, there is nothing like the desperation that gripped the governing class as they arm-wrestled with the National Union of Mineworkers over ‘who governs Britain’, and put the entire national economy on a three-day work week.[41] It was from the misery of this disintegration that the Thatcherite project arose and affirmed its hegemony over the succeeding thirty years. The leading economic commentator Will Hutton called it Mrs Thatcher’s “two-fold mission: to pull down the social democratic settlement [of the post-1945 welfare state] and to construct in its place a simulacrum of the United States.” [42] But that was an exceptional comment. Thatcherism was not described as such at the time, and never has been in all the succeeding years.[43] Nor did Thatcher’s many opponents of that era bring up her dependence on her trans-Atlantic sources of inspiration. If anything it was American commentators who looked on and wondered.[44]

The dust-cloud left by the latest collapse has yet to settle, but one or two voices are beginning to notice that there might be risks in such dependence of Britain’s rulers on their American inspiration. Linda Colley, author of a highly influential book on the origins of the Great British nation-state, has denounced the ‘Britishness’ debate for having too exclusive a focus on domestic identities and values, and has repeatedly raised the question of why the British defend so aggressively in Europe those very ideas of national sovereignty that they instantly abandon when confronted with the influence of Washington.[45] Here the influence Colley is referring to largely concerns foreign and security policy, but her message is amplified in a new report by American and British experts working for the European Council on Foreign Relations. This damning indictment lumps Britain in with all the other EU Europeans and denounces them all for a quite excessive political and mental dependence on the US, coupled with a general reluctance to contemplate any other option, least of all, any that might involve increased involvement with each other.[46]

But these questions about why the British political class is at once so enamoured of America, yet so nervous of Brussels, go much further than the defence and security realm. After all even the Royal Shakespeare Company itself was once described as “bemused by America, terrified of Europe.” A glimpse of a larger perspective comes in a collection of policy-oriented essays provided by The Political Quarterly and Nuffield College, Oxford. In a fine analysis of British Euroskepticism, Patrick Diamond and Roger Liddle write:

The media and the political class share in common a passionate belief in the virtues of the British polity. Among politicians there is a deep attachment to sovereignty in Westminster politics on both right and left. There is also the strength of Anglo-American ideology in Britain’s political class, which manifests itself as a military and strategic alliance, a capitalist model, a model of governance, a set of doctrines and ideas, as well as a popular culture. These convictions run deep.[47]

Comments of this sort are still very rare and there is no trace of them in debates such as those found in Being Britishor their ilk.[48] Instead the talk is of the search for new narratives of inclusion, fresh sources of hope and progress, rebuilding a dominant theme. “Defining and promoting ‘British identity’,” says the Archbishop of Canterbury, “is a serious enterprise only if it is about finding sources of general moral energy that make for a just and truthful society.”[49] Some dream of promoting the ‘Anglosphere’, an organised unity of the English-speaking peoples dedicated to the heritage which has allegedly produced the freest, most successful economies and polities in the world. This notion, another spin-off of the Thatcher era, was already looking frayed when the Iraq war came along.[50] Led by the US, Britain and Australia, this was a crusade which, one would have thought, laid the Anglosphere fantasy low for good. Yet not even the financial crisis has finished it off. In Being British it re-appears, from the pen of a young conservative in rebellion against the cultural nihilism, as he sees it, of the baby-boomers, his parents’ generation.[51]

The evidence of these pages, and all that lies behind it, suggests that in their failure to invent a generally agreed moral theme or narrative of renewal for their nation, and in the evaporation of the Christian Socialist and communitarian values which inspired the birth of the New Labour project,[52] the British governing class clings to the America of their imaginations to fill the void, to give direction to the problem of where to look for answers to all the challenges of globalisation. Not because the creed of Americanism as such can provide the cohesiveness required, but simply because it shows how such a powerful machine of consensus and aspiration, embodied in institutions, law, documents, rituals, stories, and proclaimed values, can keep an immigrant nation glued together in the face of so many pressures pulling it apart.

The refrain that America and France have always been two artificial nations constructed from foundingdocuments always came over in previous eras as a proud boast: pragmatic folk like the Brits, said this line of snobbery, didn’t need such ploys. Now it sounds more like a lament tinged with envy.[53] In these times all the talk of pacts, covenants and written constitutions points in the same direction: the British will sooner or later have to come up with a comparable document of their own. In that moment, with or without the help of America’s legions of constitutional experts, we shall finally have one formal, partial answer – provided from above – to the question we started out with, namely: just how like the United States do the British wish their nation-state to become in the course of the this new century?

Notes & References

  1. Systematic use of the ‘bridge’ metaphor reported in David Ellwood, “American Myth, American Model and the Quest for a British Modernity,” in R. Laurence Moore and Mauruizio Vaudagna eds., The American Century in Europe (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003), pp. 142-43; the phrase was launched by Tony Blair in a wide- ranging foreign policy speech of 13 Nov. 2000; cf., http://; a headline in the Financial Times of 16 March 2002 announced: “Blair bid to bridge gulf between allies over Iraq action.”
  2. Richard Weight, Patriots. National Identity in Britain 1940-2000 (London: Macmillan, 2002), p. 665; Joel Krieger, British Politics in the Global Age (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 137.
  3. In 2004, for instance, the Royal Society of Arts carried out a world-wide survey on Britishness, and matched the results with a similar a survey in an English town. The results were summed up by the former US Ambassador Raymond Seitz: the British “seem to know mainly what they used to be”; Daily Telegraph, 15 Nov. 2004. On Seitz, see below n. 48.
  4. President Sarkozy’s formal effort in the same direction appears to have back-fired, cf. Le nuovel observateur, Dec. 2009, and comments after the March 2010 regional elections, which saw a resurgence of the nationalistic far right
  5. Cf. Manuel Castells, The Information Age. Economy, Society and Culture, Vol. II, ‘The Power of Identity’
    (Oxford: Blackwells, 2nd ed., 2004), pp. 30-5. 
  6. Financial Times, 9 Dec. 2009.
  7. Since this article was written the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee has published a detailed report on the US-UK Relationship, calling for the use of the phrase ‘Special Relationship,’ and all it implies, to be generally abandoned. 11402.htm.
  8. “The American Challenge Renewed,” The Brown Journal of World Affairs(Winter/Spring 1997); “American Myth, American Model, and the Quest for a British Modernity,” in R. Laurence Moore and Maurizio Vaudagna eds., The American Century in Europe (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003); “Bridge, Beacon, or 51st State?” in The Bologna Center Journal of International Affairs (Spring 2004).
  9. In the run up to the general election of 2010, the political satirist Armando Iannucci prepared a YouTube video showing the identical language used by Blair and Cameron in ceaselessly urging change on the nation’s citizens,
  10. Philip Augar, “The Big Bang model that blew up in our faces,” Financial Times, Sept. 28 2008.
  11. Financial Times, 7 April 2010.
  12. The Times 11 Feb. 2010
  13. The Guardian, 9 Oct. 2009
  14. Paul Kennedy, “A history lesson,” in The Economist (November 12, 2009), p. 43,…/David_Cameron_Britains_Economic_Future.aspx.
  15. Le Monde. Bilan Economie 2010, p. 57; Matthias Matthijs, Ideas and Economic Crises in Britain from Attlee to Blair, 1945-2005, (forthcoming), Postscript, manuscript version, p. 7.
  16. Cit. in Peter Hennessy, “The Blair Government in Historical Perspective,” in History Today (January 2002): p. 22.
  17. John Gray, “A Mini Version of the Hapsburg Empire,” in Matthew D’Ancona, ed., Being British. The Search for the Values that Bind the Nation (Edinburgh: Mainstream, 2009) p.120; Matthijs, op. cit., p. 10.
  18. G.Brown, Introduction, in D’Ancona ed., op.cit., p. 26.
  19. Ibid., pp. 33-4.
  20. J. Sacks, in D’Ancona ed., op.cit., pp. 172-3.
  21. In a key speech of March 2008 on “the Politics of Identity,” Wills launched the latest official round of debate in this area. See sp260308b.htm.
  22. T. Philips in D’Ancona ed., op.cit., p. 253.
  23. ‘Muddle’ phrase in Robert Jackson, ‘The Cameron Temptation’ in Prospect (August 2006): p.43; cf. Andrew Gamble, Between Europe and America. The Future of British Politics (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003).
  24.; full background and context of Labour’s constitutional reform push in Gamble, op. cit., pp. 22-5, 146-54.
  25. < >; no mention then of such old-fashioned notions as work, the family, community, equality, solidarity, respect for nature et al which might be associated with previous phases of British moral evolution.
  26. Financial Times, on House of Lords abolition, Sunday Telegraph, 14 March 2010. The Ministry of Justice’s web-site made no mention of this proposition.
  27. “Do We Need Them to Define Our Identity? Europe’s American Challenge Today,” in Thomas Row ed.,Reflections on the Identity of Europe (Bologna: The Johns Hopkins University, Bologna Center, 1996).
  28. Matthew Flinders, “The Future of the State,” in Varun Uberoi et al. eds., Options for Britain II. Cross-Cutting Policy Issues – Changes and Challenges (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), p. 21; on US origins of this model,
    ibid., p. 37. 
  29. Financial Times, 20 April 2006.
  30. The Independent, 14 Jan. 2006; Brown speech of January 2007 reproduced at news/uknews/1539367/We-need-a-United-Kingdom.html.
  31. Cf. James Naughtie, The Accidental American. Tony Blair and the Presidency (London: Macmillan, 2004); David Owen, The Hubris Syndrome. Bush, Blair and the Intoxication of Power (London, 2007) pp. 30-2, 102 (Owen spoke also as a former hospital doctor with an interest in mind-body questions); for denunciation of former Cabinet Secretaries to House of Lords constitution committee, The Guardian, 24 Aug. 09.
  32. The Times, 25 May 2002, The Guardian Weekly, 14-20 Nov. 2002.
  33. Nile Gardiner, “A Conservative Vision for British Foreign Policy,” in Wall Street Journal, 5 Jan. 2010. The author is Director of the Margaret Thatcher Centre for Freedom at the Heritage Foundation; cf. speech by David Cameron at Chatham House in January 2010, http://…/David_Cameron_The_Conservative_approach_to_national_security.aspx. The Shadow Cabinet already contains a ‘National Security Adviser,’ in the shape of Pauline Neville-Jones, a former Political Director in the Foreign Office.
  34. Details in The Guardian Weekly, 1 Jan. 2010. The newspaper reported that Labour had already sent officials to the US to “talk to TV production teams.”
  35. Daily Telegraph, 10 Oct. 2007; ibid., 8 April 2010. The latter report details the people, methods and messages Cameron borrowed from the Obama campaign, while pointing out that all the parties looked to it for lessons in success.
  36. Fraser Nelson, “They wish we all could be Californian: the new Tory plan,” in The Spectator, 28 Feb. 2009. Bloggers who commented on this article, published in the leading conservative weekly, largely poured cold water on the idea of California as offering any sort of model, and the relevance of Google in particular to Britain’s problems; other references to Cameron’s American heroes – including John F. Kennedy and George W. Bush – in Christopher Caldwell, “Arriva Cameron,” in Internazionale, 23 Oct. 2009 (translated from The New York Times magazine, n.d.).
  37. C. Leadbetter, “Can National Identity Survive the Web?” op. cit., p. 265. In fairness, Labour governments first started to construct a British narrative of technological modernity in the 1960s, with Harold Wilson’s ‘white heat of technology’ discourse. The problem was that for reasons long discussed, no project public or private brought lasting success. The Anglo-French Concorde supersonic airliner was the most enduring monument to that era.
  38. Financial Times, Westminster Blog, 21 April 2008.
  39. M. Wills, “Belonging and Being British,” in Being British, op. cit., p. 190.
  40. On general pattern, Gamble, op. cit., p.145; on risks, Larry Elliott in The Guardian Weekly, Dec. 15-21, 2006, Sarah Lyall in International Herald Tribune, 21 Sept.2007; on disastrous consequences, Willem Buiter inFinancial Times, 27 Oct. 2008; cf. Matthijs, op. cit., p. 11.
  41. Graphic evocation of those years in Philip Whitehead, The Writing on the Wall. Britain in the Seventies(Michael Joseph: London, 1985); contemporary political analysis in Ken Coates ed., What Went Wrong. Explaining the Fall of the Labour Government (Nottingham: Spokesman, 1979).
  42. Will Hutton, The World We’re In (London: Abacus, 2002), p. 267.
  43. Cf. sources cited in Ellwood, ‘American Myth, American Model…,’ cit., p. 142.
  44. Cf. Raymond Seitz, Over Here (London: Phoenix, 1998) pp. 318-19. Seitz was the US Ambassador in London during the transition from Thatcher to Major.
  45. L. Colley, “The real threat to Britain’s autonomy,” The Guardian Weekly, 30 Nov. 2007; her interventions in the debate on identity organized by Prospect magazine in 2005 – present G. Brown – go in the same direction; edition of April 2005.
  46. Jeremy Shapiro and Nick Whitney, Towards a post-American Europe: A Power Audit of EU-US Relations(European Council on Foreign Relations, London 2009), p.39; the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee on Anglo-American relations (see above n.8), which interviewed Whitney, endorsed a milder version of this judgment as applied to Britain; op.cit., para. 225.
  47. P. Diamond and R. Liddle, “Options for Britain: Europe,” in Oberoi et al., op. cit., p. 173.
  48. Others include Prospect round table, cit., n. 45.
  49. Archbishop Rowan Williams, ‘The Scepter’d Isle: Culture and Power in an Offshore Setting’, in Being British, op.cit., p152.
  50. Cf. Ellwood, ‘American Myth, American Model,’ op. cit., p.135.
  51. Douglas Murray, “Rediscovering Our Core Culture,” in ibid., pp. 121-9; it also has backers in the Heritage Foundation; cf. James C. Bennett, The Anglosphere Challenge, why the English-speaking nations will lead the way in the twenty-first century (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2004); discussion inDaily Telegraph, 29 Dec. 2007; cf. ‘Britain’s ‘imagined community’ of ‘Anglo-America’, Ch. 5 of Gamble, op.cit.
  52. Cf. section on “New Labour’s Normative Community,” in Krieger, op. cit., pp. 143-5. Krieger wrote (in 1999): “…the normative appeal of New Labour’s narrative of community has enormous cultural and political force, and lies at the heart of its claim to a third way model of organizing politics.”; op. cit., p.145.
  53. Cf. Gray, op. cit., pp. 115-16.
David Ellwood is Associate Professor of International History at the University of Bologna, and Adjunct Professor at the Johns Hopkins University SAIS Bologna Center. His first major book was Italy 1943-1945 - The Politics of Liberation (1985), followed by Rebuilding Europe: Western Europe, America and Postwar Reconstruction (1992). Currently he is producing a large-scale work on America and the Politics of Modernization in Europe for Oxford University Press. He was President of the International Association of Media and History 1999-2004 and a Fellow of the Rothermere America Institute, Oxford in 2006.