Bridge, Beacon, or 51st State?

Britain's Troubled American Dream

Banksy in Boston
Bridge, Beacon, or 51st State? : Britain's Troubled American Dream - David Ellwood


Ever since the end of the Cold War the British people and their leaders have been involved in a lengthy debate on national identity, a discussion now likely to come to a head with the referendum on the proposed EU constitution. In this context the alliance with America functions not only as a guiding principle in foreign policy, but has provided the governments of the last twenty years with a constant source of models for modernization of the State, the political culture and national economic performance. But 'top-down' Americanization is a contradiction in terms and is failing.

The Meaning of a Choice

As a result of Prime Minister Tony Blair's unexpected decision in April 2004 to hold a referendum on the proposed European constitution, the people of the United Kingdom will finally be obliged to decide on their long-term attitude to the European Union. Like all the nations of Europe, Britain faces this moment of decision in a prolonged spasm of national self-interrogation, triggered by the end of the Cold War but intensified by the choice over participation in the Iraq war. Germany discovers pacifism to be the principal national sentiment its foreign policy must take into account after the double trauma of the end of the East-West confrontation and re-unification. France tries to re­define its position in the Atlantic community and the European commu­nity. Italy disputes whether Fascism, Communism or Catholicism should take most blame for its unsatisfactory sense of nationhood. The British worry most about 'Europe': specifically the past, present and future, the costs and the benefits of their membership of the institutions of the European Union.

All these national debates share a tendency to condense a great many issues, some old, some new, some borrowed, some imposed, into one over-riding, never-ending argument about the contours of national identity in the new era. This central dispute reflects a wide range of concerns about sovereignty and modernity in today's globalized world. As in previous eras of rapid change, the search is on to build and defend a distinctively Italian or French or German path to the future, one a people can recognize as its own, balancing the most attractive of the new and the best of the old. What distinguishes the French, the German and the British varieties of this debate, and differentiates them from many others, is the importance of the role of America in their discussions; not United States policy or personalities of course, but a version which includes all the forms American power has taken on in these national scenes over the years.

The pages that follow focus on how the American inspiration func­tions in Britain's key identity debates today. The central question con­cerns the role of the American myth and model in the United Kingdom's search for a satisfactory, stable modernity of its own: one which at home and abroad enjoys consensus, legitimacy and - above all - success.

A Bridge Too Near

A palpable sense of unease has spread in British opinion in the wake of Tony Blair's effort of stretching Anglo-American relations to cover the most ambiguous of US foreign policy operations since the end of the Cold War, the campaign against Saddam Hussein. The Prime Minister's self­ appointed role as chief front-man for US policy in Britain and Europe has disorientated those who believed in his earlier insistence that Britain should be a 'bridge' between the two sides of the Atlantic. ' There is widespread concern that the bounds of the old Anglo-American 'Special Relationship' as laid down by Churchill in 1946 and relaunched by Mar­garet Thatcher in the 1980's have been breached. In strict diplomatic and military terms, the British government has probably been consistent with the practice of the Special Relationship as carried on since the Suez misadventure of 1956. Yet participation in the Iraq War has provoked all sorts of accusations based on the metaphor which the former Tory Foreign Minister Douglas Hurd scornfully applied: Britain as 'the farthing wheel in the penny-farthing Anglo-American bicycle'.2

Both of Blair's Foreign Secretaries, first Robin Cook, then Jack Straw, have confirmed their faith in his 'bridge' conception of Britain's place in the Atlantic world. They have insisted that - as the first of them said in a speech entitled 'Celebrating Britishness' - 'our value as an ally to our friends in Washington is in direct proportion to our influence over our partners in Europe.' And vice-versa, added his successor. 3 But a full understanding of these foreign policy statements is only possible if we consider them in the context of Britain's version of those post Cold War debates on identity, modernity and sovereignty which have taken place in every European nation, large and small. In the words of the historian Richard Weight, the 199o's witnessed 'the most sustained critical inquiry into the nature of Britishness since the aftermath of the Suez crisis.'4 What role then has the American connection played in this protracted effort of self-examination?

A visionary image of the United States was central to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's political revolution of the 1980s. As Mrs Thatcher told a Joint Session of Congress on one of her most triumphal visits to Washington: 'We are having to recover the spirit of enterprise which you never lost. Many of the policies you are following are the ones we are following.' Citing the monetarist approach to inflation control, the elimination of bureaucracy and regulation, liberalization, privatization and popular capitalism, the 'Iron Lady' extolled the success of her new post-industrial version of the British economy. It was confirmed by the embrace of entrepreneurs and financiers across the Atlantic Ocean: 'America is by far the largest direct investor in Britain and I am delighted to say that Britain is the largest direct investor in the United States.'5

From the beginning of the Thatcher era political styles were a thoroughly americanized as the Conservative Party embraced without reserve all the latest techniques of political marketing in its election campaigns and party conferences. 6 As for the substance of policy, certain public sectors, in particular the school and university systems, were reformed again and again in the hope of hooking them up to the motor of economic growth in the way their equivalents were supposed to function in the United States.7 Employment policy was explicitly modelled on Reaganite ideology and experience, as David Dolowitz has shown in a detailed, operational study of the transfer process. As well as specific policy structures, even the wording of legislation was directly copied.8 The highly regulated broadcasting duopoly of the BBC and the Independent Television network was attacked frontally with the aim of produc­ing a market-driven commercial system, and the 'enterprise culture' was imposed throughout the institutional world of the arts. Even inner-city renewal was promoted using United States models and connections.9

But the enduring legacy of all this was much more mixed than these images would suggest. At the end of the 198o's Arthur Marwick, a leading social historian, noted that social attitude surveys conformed the persis­tence of 'uniquely British characteristics, few of them conforming to Thatcherite ideas'. In particular attitudes toward wealth creation, job security and social services, all continued with little change from previ­ous eras. Marwick concluded that 'despite a Government openly admir­ing of American ways of doing things, and the spread in Britain, as never before, of a universalized American style and gimmickry, the Britishness of British life was still abundantly in evidence.'10 In the intense debate which followed upon her fall in 1990 on the meaning of the Thatcher years, America and Americanization were barely mentioned. Nor have they been in the succeeding years of reflection on that experience.11

Yet Margaret Thatcher's drive to renew British life by means of a form of top-down Americanization has continued unceasingly under Tony Blair. The "Third Way'', it turns out, goes one way. In spring of 2002 Tessa Jowell, the Minister for Culture, announced measures to liberalize gaming laws and 'encourage the spread of Las-Vegas style casino resorts.' By September 2003 large-scale projects were being formalized for the construction of such resorts, and United States com­panies were making specific plans to link them to Premier league soccer clubs.12 Laws against racial discrimination copied from the United States came into force in May 2002. In the early summer of 2003 ministers unveiled a new scheme to protect the pensions of bankrupt companies, based directly on the example of the American Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation. The Sunday Times reported in April 2003: 'Ministers are backing plans to bring the so-called Chicago policing model to Britain', and most recently the new Department of Constitu­tional Afafirs (DCA) announced the creation of the first Community Justice Centre, based explicitly on United States practice. The Lord Chancellor, Charles Falconer, (head of the DCA) told New Yorkers that he was 'utterly delighted' to import their community tribunal system in England and Wales. In this he was simply taking up the running from the Home Office, which since the 1980's, has been the most zealous of departments in importing American methods and innovations.13

The proposal of extra, differential, university fees of course signals the further development of market forces in the supply of higher educa­tion. In 1992 The Economist anticipated this trend and enthused over 'the rapid Americanization of British higher education' it would bring. In 2004 a Financial Times commentator called it an inevitable 'lesson in the American way.' The government's new university admissions control office will, according to its head Steven Schwartz, borrow examples from Texas and California (as well as elsewhere) to engineer a form of affirma­tive action.14

In his spring 2003 Budget statement, the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, pointed out that Britain and Europe still suffered from a 20-30% productivity gap with the United States and so promised reforms which would 'learn from American innovation, competition and enterprise'. 1s At the same time the Trade and Industry Ministry is proposing a further deregulation of the markets for television and radio along lines which, say powerful critics, will promote the further 'Americanization' of pro­gramming in these media. In an average week - in July 2002 - the pro­portion of American programmes on major UK networks varied from less than 15% on BBC 1,2 and I1V, to 35% on Channel 4, 73% on Channel 5, and 33.9% on Rupert Murdoch's multi-choice Sky One, the force most professionals are referring to when they mention the 'threat' of Ameri­canization.16

Meanwhile as the arguments over immigration and national unity continue, the government has instructed schools to begin compulsory classes in citizenship and Britishness. The Home Office has excelled itself. The Nationality Act of 2002 arranges for a formal naturalization ceremony for new immigrants, which includes a traditional oath of Allegiance to the Crown, plus a new pledge on rights and duties in a constitutional democracy. The entire process has been designed on the basis of precedents adapted from the United States.17 At the Labour Party conference in autumn 2003, Gordon Brown celebrated the creation of 500 Sure Start centres for healthcare and early education support of children in deprived areas. The programme, launched in 1998, is based on the long-running American Head Start organization. At the same conference Tony Blair extolled the success of his effort to eliminate long­term youth unemployment in a program entitled the 'New Deal'.18 Since then the Health Secretary, John Reid, has been investigating how private United States health organizations might help manage parts of the National Health Service, Police chiefs have been discussing whether or not to set up a British FBI, and the judiciary is debating the government's proposal for the introduction of a Supreme Court.19

While one might assume that the Conservative opposition would be of a different mind, it is even more enthralled by the American example and by President George W.Bush in particular. 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. 'I met President Bush when I visited America last December, and we can learn a great deal from him', said Duncan Smith, who on his return from VIP treatment in the United States wrote an article entitled' My Manhattan project for a transatlantic conservative revival.' The new 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. He has switched from criticising Blair for insufficient zeal in following America's lead, to insisting that Britain must not be subservient to the United States.20

With the collapse of voter turn-out in the 2001 election, many observers see a replication of American electoral patterns and similar causes: an inability to distinguish between the policies and practices of the two major parties. 21 Was this the predictable result of Mrs Thatcher's famous vow to abolish socialism in Britain and her explicit desire to see parliamentary politics revolve round a choice between two centrist parties? Surely it was predictable only to the extent that New Labour offered no significant alternative to the Thatcherite legacy. The Oxford political commentator Timothy Garton Ash has spoken of: '...something that both the Thatcher and Blair governments have had in common: a fascination with United States policy and United States solutions.' The political scientist David Marquand has written that the nation's leaders are 'fixated on the American social model.'22

The Dog That Doesn't Bark

And yet one will look in vain for any significant discussion in Britain of these fixations and fascinations. Occasionally journalistic critics will raise a mild complaint such as the ones penned by the commentator Michael Prowse in the Financial Times. He has argued repeatedly that British governments are in danger of becoming' obsessed' with a cure-all they believe they have found for all the country's ills: turning everything they can touch, even education, into a 'business' experience that would bring the magic of private enterprise to the rescue of all things public. Citizens would be turned into consumers and the disciplines of the market place applied to the supply of schools and prisons, hospitals, roads and all the rest. What was the origin of this conviction?

There can be no clearer symbolic illustration of the source of Labour's business model for education than the surreal news that the government intends to import school buses from the United States (you know, the yellow ones with flashing lights)...I'm all for safe transport, but that doesn't mean British children must have the very same buses as their American counterparts. This compulsion to emulate the United States is nothing short of pathological...In the case of education it is also irrational.23

Other examples of skepticism can be found on occasion in the press. The former editor of the centre-left daily The Guardian, Peter Preston, described the then leader of the Conservative Party William Hague, as 'pathetically desperate to worship at the Washington court', and de­nounced the unquestioning reverence of British politicians for the Ameri­can way. (In 1998 Preston wrote a fantasy novel in which Britain became the 51st State). While one Guardian writer urged his fellow-citizens to copy the United States constitutional model, another blasted 'the mixture of desperate fawning and haughty resentment that (we) offer up to the United States--we sneer as we stoop.’24

The forceful ex-editor of The Observer, Will Hutton, an economic journalist and political commentator, has offered the most powerful denunciation by any contemporary observer of the dependence of the nation's governments and business leadership on the specific myth of the American 'enterprise culture'. In great detail he documents the baleful effects this tendency has had on the functioning of the Britain's welfare state and its economic development. 2s But the narrow focus of his argu­ment and a tendency to dramatize the contrast between the malevolent American hegemon and the benign inheritance of 'European' experience, have limited the impact of Hutton's ambitious study. Above all Hutton fails to explain why the British ruling classes - heirs to one of the proud­est and most distinctive traditions of government in the West - should have become so single-mindedly fixated on the project of constructing their own American dream.

Criticisms of US foreign policy in Britain have of course been vi­brant recently, even virulent, recalling the era of Vietnam and expanding that inheritance of 'classical' anti-Americanism -I use the phrase with care - which was long the privilege of the traditional upper classes.26 But that is not the same as reflecting on the sustained importation of Ameri­can notions and practices by the State in order to fulfill its vision of a British modernity. The Queen told the House of Lords on the official opening of Parliament in September 1998: 'My government's second legislative programme, like the first, will focus upon the modernization of the country'.27 So how does the use of so many American precedents in this effort relate to the nation's status as the number one destination in Europe for United States foreign investment, the land that provides more tourists to the United States than Germany, France, and Holland combined, the place where, says novelist Amanda Craig, children live in their own '51st state', such is the force of soft American cultural power in their lives?28

It might be thought that the great English/British identity debate of the last 10-12 years would provide clues to the America question but, although often mentioned, a sustained reflection on it is not on offer. Take the voice of young, multi-cultural Britain, the novelist Ms Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, heard in her outspoken tract, Who Do We Think We Are ? After the Cold War, writes Ms Brown, 'a new cultural hubris fed by economic might begins to prevail. The end of history has been an­nounced by the US, which has become the great cultural aggressor, and Britain hangs on to the tail of this great power in spite of fear of being demolished by it.' A quick reference to the world of theatre, another denunciation of America's conception of might and right, then the argu­ment moves on.29 The year before Britain's best known television an­chor, Jeremy Paxman, produced a brilliant written portrait of the En­glish people, reckoned by all to be at the heart of the general identity crisis. Here too we find complaints about the 'over-dependence' of the governing classes on the Special Relationship, about cultural subservi­ence, and about forms of Americanization such as jeans and T-shirts, whose impact on the world is juxtaposed with the general indifference towards equally great British achievements such as the tailored man's suit. The discussion stops there.30

David Powell's book Nationhood and Identity notes that the coun­try is being 'shaped more by outside forces than at any other time in its history', particularly by globalization - yet devotes only one chapter to these pressures. Here we read that American influence is stronger than ever, not only because of the strategic connections, but because 'of the almost hegemonic influence of American popular culture, through film, television and the cultural imperialism of the Coca Cola society'. There is an allusion to the strong influence of American intellectuals and politi­cians on recent governments and an assertion that ' in this American­ European competition for cultural influence the American elements appeared to be those which were more widespread in their effect.' Again, a reality is acknowledged, but it's not an issue.31

Two big books by historians confirm this tendency. Robert Coll's impressive Identity of England, Richard Weight's Patriots, and National Identity in Britain 1940-2000, refer briefly to older patterns of cultural protectionism, and in particular to battles over film, television, and working class leisure. Weight in particular brings out how important was the stand taken on television, when BBC television and then the commer­cial sector were being developed - under strict political control- as it had become clear by the mid-1950's that the long battle over cinema had been definitively lost. This is a story which would bear more development, given the overwhelming centrality of television in any serious consider­ation of the history of contemporary British identity.32

Especially because the controversies over television and national identity continue today. One hears echoes of them in the militant criti­cism offered by the then director general of the BBC, Greg Dyke, of the coverage of the war in Iraq offered by the United States TV networks. If Iraq proved anything, said Dyke in a London University seminar soon after the war, 'it was that the BBC cannot afford to mix patriotism and journalism. This is happening in the United States and if it continues it will undermine the credibility of the United States electronic news media...In the area of impartiality as in many other areas we must ensure that we don't become Americanized.'33

Both Dyke and his predecessor, John Birt, were widely criticized in the country for commercializing the BBC, pandering to the lowest forms of popular taste, and in general dumbing down the output of the nation's greatest cultural institution. Yet they both insisted on the BBC's role in defending the most distinguished strands in the traditional view of national identity, and throughout the BBC there is clearly a conviction that, as the new Director of Television said on returning from three years running a US network: 'American television is often rightly described as a jungle -but it can also be a desert. British broadcasting is a much more cultivated landscape.'34

It is probably true, as David Powell concludes, that to describe the situation of planet Britain, it 'may be more appropriate to think in terms of a variety of global influences rather than of a single pull being exerted from any one particular direction.' 35 And as Garton Ash points out, it is European Union Europe which has provided the most significant innova­tions in law and governance. There is also a great deal of evidence, as everywhere else, to confirm Stanley Hoffman's 1964 perception that '(t)he more European societies become alike in their social structures and economic makeup, the more each national society seems to heighten its idiosyncrasies'.36 But all this still leaves open the question of just how much like the United States the British want their society to be, just how much they want to depend on the American inspiration for their ideas of a successful response to the contemporary conundrums of modernity, identity and sovereignty. Surely the possibilities of Anglo-American relations as represented by, Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant in the allegori­cal Notting Hill (Roger Michell,1999) can't represent the greatest aspira­tion of the classes in charge of Britain today?37

Between Mars and Venus

Shrewd observers on both sides of the Atlantic have pointed out that the British risk being caught undecided between the two strong models they are engaged with. The Wall Street Journal concluded in a large­scale survey of March 2001 that:

Britain hasn't decided whether it wants to be a Continental European-style welfare state, with the government ensuring high-quality social services for all, or a U.S.-style bastion of capitalism, with lower taxes and services left largely to local authorities or private enterprise.38

Leading British commentators have made similar points, with John Stevens, the leader of a pro-Euro element in the Tory Party, declaring that the inability to decide between the United States and Europe 'un­derpins most of the contradictions in our politics…we are getting the worst of both worlds...The battle between(...) American and European models will be fought out in Britain.'39

In response the government has offered two positions. To tradi­tional supporters at the 2003 Labour conference Tony Blair's likely successor, Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, pointed to America's social inequalities, as well as its merits. Brown declared that a Labour Britain would indeed synthesize the best of both worlds, and become 'more than a bridge, a beacon for all.' To readers of the Daily Telegraph, on the day before his autumn 2003 Budget statement, Brown promised that Britain, 'mirroring America' would become a land where a new 'consensus for enterprise' would penetrate every corner of the land, and a 'deeper, wider British entrepreneurial culture (would)…once again rival America.'40 In 1999 Brown created a large fund connecting up the University of Cambridge and MIT so that British academics could learn to monetize their research in a way similar to that of Americans, and at his January 2004 'Advancing Enterprise' conference, with prominent British and American treasury ministers, central bankers and business leaders present (including Bill Gates), Brown announced further mea­sures in the same direction.41

But few American observers are convinced by this spectacle. The Sunday Times's resident American economic commentator praised the Chancellor after his 2003 Budget for being such a close student of United States economic achievement, but attacked him for not showing an understanding of what 'American-style entrepreneurship is all about', and insisting on perpetuating the welfare state. The American manage­ment specialist Candace Hetzner has drawn up a long list of reforms that must be undertaken before Britain even begins to resemble America, starting and ending with attitudes toward business. 42 Whether the Chancellor seriously believes that Britain's business is 'to rival America's entrepreneurial dash', as he told his Daily Telegraph readers in Decem­ber 2003, it is perhaps significant that of all the comments on his Budget statement the following day, not one dwelt on this challenge, not even The Economist, which for many decades now has been the great cham­pion of the path chosen by recent British governments. Meanwhile in Brown's native Scotland, long a slowcoach in business formation, psycho­logical profilers hired for the purpose were able to discover traces of the true entrepreneur's animal spirits in only 10% of today's Scottish school­children, and the 'Minister for Enterprise', another exalter of the Ameri­can way, was being written off as a failure.43

Tony Blair has chosen his own way to fill the democratic deficit between the United States and its allies. On one level Blair's posture is in line with a long tradition of British elite attitudes toward America, an outlook dating back to Gladstone and imperial politics at the end of the 19th century, when it was decided that the British Empire's day was bound to end and that to give way gracefully to the United States was the most intelligent of all possible positions. As Alastair Burnet, the official historian of The Economist, wrote some years ago, from this time on: 'Britain was determined to appease the United States, and did so repeat­edly, to the paper's satisfaction.'44

But the presumed exigencies of the Special Relationship don't explain the current state of dependency of the British governing class on America's inspiration. In Mrs. Thatcher's era a new kind of ideological affinity was invented, celebrated and placed at the heart of the Iron Lady's reforming crusades. What moves the Blair governments instead appears to be a kind of dogmatic pragmatism, an unthinking impulse that sees in America a land where the mechanics of wealth and job creation function. It's a posture reminiscent of another Stanley Hoffmann aperçu of some years ago: 'What works in America works because Americans believe in it; what Europeans believe in today is what works'.45 But will the top-down Americanization of the last twenty years ever produce results in the manner imagined by the Chancellor and his followers? How can a powerful, highly-centralized State such as the British example pretend to generate by exhortation and sermonising the rugged individualism that the true enterprise spirit requires? This conundrum is not just an economic one.

The contemporary era in British politics begins with Mrs Thatcher, and what Hutton describes as her '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.'46 By combining this effort with an ever-more devout interpretation of the 'Special Rela­tionship', Thatcher and her successors evolved their own interpretation of the meanings of sovereignty and modernity in the post-Cold War era of re-adjustment. But whether the voluntary choice of a kind of Com­monwealth Dominion status vis-a-vis the United States corresponds to the best interests or the settled will of the British people is anything but clear. In de Tocqueville's section on external affairs in the new American democracy, the great French traveller quotes with approval not only Washington's Farewell Address, but also a previous remark by the first President:

“The nation that delivers itself to habitual sentiments of love or hatred toward another becomes a sort of slave to them. It is a slave to its hatred or to its love.”47


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Weight, Richard, Patriots.National Identity in Britain 1940-2000, London, Macmillan, 2002