The Americanization of British Politics

A defense of television debates and celebrity endorsements

As a transmitter of a dangerous cultural virus, the American traveler in Britain is always prepared for that conversation; the one that blithely insists that it is his heritage, his vapid, corpulent, money-obsessed, politically immature society that is laying ruin to the world, especially the once great Britain. In fairness to our accusers, the accused rarely acquits himself well in such situations, preferring to grumble some Uncle Tomism about how he would sew a Canadian flag to his forehead if it wasn't physically impossible, or declaring, without solicitation, that I didn't vote for him

Just a few months ago, at a pub in a dismal London suburb, full of dismal and incoherent drunks, I was (yet again) harangued about America's poisonous influence on British politics. During his tenure as prime minister, it was considered a deep and very clever insult to accuse Tony Blair not just of being "Bush's poodle" but of acting presidential. It wasn't always clear that this accusation was backed by a working knowledge of how the American president governed, or a decent argument as to why this was so vastly inferior to the British model. The point was rather obvious: American politics were something to avoid, seeing as Americans all carry handguns and are denied hospital treatment when shot (which is inevitable, considering the number of armed lunatics stalking the streets). 

The chattering classes too quivered at the thought of politics over here extending its tentacles over there. A Labour MP of the old guard complained about New Labour's mucking with tradition in The Last Prime Minister—Being Honest About the UK Presidency. The cover of British journalist James Naughtie's book, The Accidental American: Tony Blair and the Presidency, featured Blair's head pasted over that of Ulysses S. Grant on the 50 dollar bill. When former Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam lashed out at her former employer, she seethed that Blair made decisions "just like the president of the United States." (It is probably worth pointing out that Mowlam made these comments long before the Iraq War.) 

And so this heavy-breathing about America's baleful influence on British politics came to mind when watching last night's "presidential debate," the first of its kind, that pitted Prime Minister Gordon Brown (Labour), David Cameron (Conservative), and Nick Clegg (Liberal Democrat) against each other and an audience of pre-selected questioners. 

Despite being an almost exact replica of a presidential debate, some American observers, with fond memories of Alistair Cooke and Brideshead Revisited fluttering in their heads, judged the British version more academic, more dignified. Like an American college girl blubbering about sexy accents, The Washington Post television columnist Tom Shales, a writer with a deep affection for the cliché, explained that, "They all had impressive command of the language, but then, they're British." He referenced all those (unnamed) "qualities that made the British debate seem more dignified and civilized." All those debating points about ASBOs and street crime doubtless confounded Shales, who would spot a Scouse youth in a shell suit and presume he was on his way to a fancy dress party.

But minor differences aside, Brown and Cameron battled in soundbites, with the occasional cogent, off-script point. Also borrowed from the American debate was the annoying habit of thanking everyone for their service to King and Country, for otherwise voters would presume that the candidates hated the military, the healthcare service, and immigrants. David Cameron began his response to a question from a NHS nurse with this: "Can I thank you for your incredible service to the NHS. What it did for my family and my son, I will never forget. The dedication, the love. Thank you for all that you have done." Cameron's son, who suffered from epilepsy and cerebral palsy, died last year.

In response to a question from an army veteran, Brown ducked and weaved with an opening statement about how he reveres the troops and thanks them for their service. These very well may be genuine feelings of respect, but for those, like the ignorantly Anglophilic Shales, who operate under the assumption that British politics avoids the platitudinous in favor of the academic, last night's debate (and the candidacy of David Cameron) should permanently disabuse them.

Nor do the Brits avoid exploiting the American-style celebrity endorsement, an odd strategy for a country so deeply serious about the business of politics. As I pointed out earlier in the weekHarry Potter bazillionare J.K. Rowling took to the pages of the London Times to celebrate the British welfare state which, she said, the Cameronistas were eager to dismantle. Comedian Eddie Izzard produced a profoundly stupid and unfunny Labour endorsement video, described by Spectator writer David Blackburn as "nothing beyond morbid fear of Tories, Thatcher and money." And if that wasn't convincing enough, Foreign Secretary David Milliband posted a video warning voters that "it's the policies of George W. Bush that he [David Cameron] is promising."

While Labour was slinging mud at the Conservatives, and the Conservatives were heaping opprobrium upon the Labour legacy, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg was doing his homework, preparing to mop the floor with his rivals in the Great Debate. According to a whole raft of polling data, Clegg was considered the debate winner by an impressive margin and his party saw a significant bump in the general polls after the debate, a result that, if it holds in the next few weeks, could lead Britain into a "hung parliament." Without the "Americanized" format of television debate, Clegg's position would be significantly weaker.

But while Clegg is a talented politician and an able debater, he is also one of those baffling "social liberals" indigenous to Western Europe. Upon taking leadership of the LibDems in 2007, Clegg declared that all the other parties offered was "environmentalism without substance, social justice without money, internationalism without Europe." And, in his very next sentence, declared, "The challenge for my party is clear and simple: to define a liberal alternative to the discredited politics of Big Government." Like much in the LibDem idea gallery, it strikes the American reader as confused, if not contradictory.

All three parties are also "going American" by calling for tax cuts—something very different from the elections in much of Western Europe and Scandinavia, where parties quibble about who will offer the smallest increases. Cameron has outlined a very clever plan for emulating Sweden's successful experiments with school choice (an idea attributable to the very smart Michael Gove). But those conservatives in the UK who are skeptical of the slippery Cameron, who once called himself the "heir to Blair" and seems desperate to dissociate the party from its free market past, are right to be so.

If I had my druthers and if it was possible to cast a vote May 6, I would still back the new, spineless Tories. And rather than attempt to narrow down just what is good about the rebranded Conservatives (answer: not much), I will crib from The Spectator's surprisingly full-throated endorsement of "the Tories’ liberty agenda":

To abolish the hunting ban—as Mr Cameron has said he will support parliament in doing—will send a message not just about the injustice of the initial legislation but the Conservative belief in freedom. The abolition of identity cards, an expensive and pointless scheme, shows that the Conservatives aim to dismantle our surveillance state.

So I've tempered my previous ethusiasm. The Republicans can and should borrow from the Tories, of course, but the direction of political plagiarism is west to east (and left to right, with the Tory campaign owing more to Barack Obama than any recent Republican, to which the hiring of Anita Dunn attests). Cameron and the Tories are demanding "change" (sound familiar?) and conceding to the left that the Thatcher years, which saved Britain from economic and social disaster, were terribly cruel and "nasty," a victory for the tops-and-tails toffs and a shattering defeat for the working class. And incidentally, while British cancer survival rates are lower than those in Bulgaria (as Cameron claimed during the debate, bravely risking the wrath of the Bulgarian lobby), the Tories have no intention of scrapping the NHS, as advocated by nasty people like MEP Daniel Hannan. Do you hear us, swing voters!

While I would certainly appreciate a conservative movement in the United States that was as socially tolerant as the one advocated by our British cousins, I would advocate, as Peter Hitchens has done, cribbing from William Hague (a failure as a leader, but a clever theoretician) and not a malleable Tory Party leader who appears largely devoid of principle.

Michael C. Moynihan (mmoynihan@reason.com) is a senior editor of Reason magazine.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • ||

    I don't really like hunting that much and I am kinda a wuss in many ways, so it is perfectly ok to not hunt...I'm really not judegmental on this... but do you hunt?

  • All Politics is Loco||

    I frequently go Gabe hunting. I find it mostly relaxing and often...oh look over there! BANG! BANG BANG!

  • Jersey Patriot||

    If I had my druthers and if it was possible to cast a vote May 6, I would still back the new, spineless Tories.

    Colo(u)r me unstunned.

  • Inkblots||

    How any liberty-minded voter could back BluLabour over UKIP mystifies me.

  • ManikMonkee||

    I would vote UKIP but essentially its a wasted vote.
    The shitty little Welsh town I'm registered to send my postal vote to is hard core Labour so I'll vote for the party that looks most like beating labour. Probably the Lib Dems

    I'm hoping for a hung parliament actually, getting proportional representation would be quality. plus both the Tories and Lib Dems have sizable ranks of Libertarians and classical liberals so it could be interesting

  • Jerry||

    It's a provincial election. Unless any of them is serious about taking powers back from the Brussels Eurocrats, there isn't a point in going to the voting booth.

  • lunchstealer||

    HA! Take that, suckers!

    SRSLY though, fuck the Tories. They may have a few decent tendencies, but they're still a bunch of statist, elitist, classist twits. This differentiates them from Labor in that they're called 'Tories'.

  • JMS||

    Cameron is an idiot - the whole base hates him, and if the Tories win, it will be in spite of him and his slimy lack of principle. That said, they're slightly better than the real Lefties, so I will be voting Tory.

    Romney, I would argue, is the closest US equivalent - an unprincipled opportunist who will do what it takes to get power.

  • ||

    How ironic that you can perceive Romney's true personality all the way across the pond, when most of my conservative friends cannot.

    Speaks well of the readers of "Reason" I suppose.

  • ||

    And I am truly sorry for you - it seems you all may be in the position we were in during the last election cycle - to choose from a hardcore statist - Obama, or a softcore one - Mccain.

    It's a bad deal. I hope you and the base can effectively try and move the tories toward being a party of freedom, which I and my friends are currently attempting to do with the Republicans.

  • Some Guy||

    it seems you all may be in the position we were in during the last election cycle - to choose from a hardcore statist - Obama, or a softcore one - Mccain.

    I'll give you "softcore statist who is incredibly willing to be a hardcore statist to be President" at best.

    I hope you and the base can effectively try and move the tories toward being a party of freedom, which I and my friends are currently attempting to do with the Republicans.

    That's like saying you're going to try to make Hugh Heffner celibate.

  • Mr Eugenides||

    Good article. However, I have to correct you on one thing; not all parties are "offering tax cuts" - if only!

    The Lib Dems are suggesting raising the tax threshold to take the low-paid out of income tax (a good idea) but counter-balancing this with higher taxes on the "rich" (a bad idea).

    Labour are in favour of raising taxes on everything in sight, having recently introduced a new 50% top tax band, and now proposing to increase National Insurance (the employer-employee co-paid tax on employment income).

    The Tories oppose most of Labour's tax rises when they are proposed, but are coy over what spending they would cut to cover our deficit. And certainly no party is honest about cutting the size of the state, let alone the public debt.

    Rest assured there are some of us in the UK who would welcome you for a beer without insulting your country, and for that matter would rather live in any number of US states than our own, currently rather dismal country!

  • ||

    Are you insulting Swindon?

  • Brett Knoss||

    I thought it was funny on the BBC Radio 4's "The Now Show" when they tried to make Gordon Brown sound more dignified by translating his evaluation of the ecconomy into "Obamanese."

  • qwerty||

    A Tory win will slow Britain's demise, but there is no stopping it now. They, and the rest of Europe, are screwed. It's hard to feel much pity. They did it to themselves.

  • Mad Max||

    The USA can admit refugees from Europe, as from other troubled continents.

  • Dave||

    From the first paragraph: "he would sow a Canadian flag to his forehead"

    Was this supposed to be "he would PLANT a Canadian flag ON his forehead", or "he would SEW a Canadian flag to his forehead"?

    Or was this supposed to be a clever play on words that brought up both associations at once, and here I am ruining it by making it explicit?

    Damn clumsy American!

  • ||

    Tidbit from the debate. There are clips here and there throughout the YouTubes.A maximum wait of 18 weeks for surgery in the UK NHS!!! Also, there are some 80,000 - 90,000 (Mr. Brown doesn't really seem to be sure)now employed by the NHS. Now, I suppose, this is what those progressive folk call "progress."

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v.....r_embedded

  • ||

    Sorry, 80,000-90,000 nurses. Really must ry to edit before posting, sorry.

  • ||

    Some of our British friends are hoping for a hung Parliament? That resonates with me. I wouldn't be averse to a hung Congress.

    String all the bastards up.

    Oops - you meant "hung", not "hanged". Oh well.

  • monolith||

    "Also borrowed from the American debate was the annoying habit of thanking everyone for their service to King and Country"

    Surely Queen and country?

  • monolith||

    Do these encounters in pubs throughout Europe where you seem to constantly encounter
    anti-american prejudice actually happen?
    if they do I would imagine it's your "somewhat abrasive" personality that is causing it.

  • Barry Stocker||

    The article partly recommends the Tories on the basis of opposing compulsory ID, this has always been Liberal Democrat policy
    The article also mentions Tory opposition to hunting bans. The ban simply means that foxes can be killed with a gun but not with dogs. It is a matter voted on in Parliament as an individual conscience issue and not on party lines.
    Liberal Democrats have the most open attitude to immigrants, including amnesty for illegals. The Tories are the most restrictive of the three main parties
    Liberal Democrats favour greater spending cuts than Labour, difficult to compare with the Tories since they are very ambiguous about it, let's call them equal
    Lib Dems opposed the Iraq war which the Tories supported
    Lib Dems support improved school choice though not on the same basis as the Tories.
    Tories support tax breaks to encourage marriage, Lib Dems do not
    I would say that the article does not give adequate consideration to the Liberal Democrats as an alternative for classical liberals/libertarians. Of course they are a very long way from ideal, but they compare well with the Tories.
    Yet again, US libertarians fall for the Tories in the UK, even if in a qualified way. Really annoying and frustrating to see consideration of the Lib Dems reduced to a few cliches about European social liberals.
    The article is correct to point out that British attitudes to the supposed advantages of state health care are lacking in touch with reality.

  • slet Quailty Replica Watches||

    The point was rather obvious: American politics were something to avoid, seeing as Americans all carry handguns and are denied hospital treatment when shot (which is inevitable, considering the number of armed lunatics stalking the streets).

  • ปลวก||

    I am truly sorry for you - it seems you all may be in the position we were in during the last election cycle - to choose from a hardcore statist - Obama.

  • Fire Sprinklers||

    Speaking as a Brit, i more or less agree with all you say here, however, now that the "spineless tories" did get in (with a little help) it has become apparent that Nick Clegg's presidential patter has left him with egg on his face and less support than ever before!

  • RAN||

    They do I would imagine it's your "somewhat abrasive" personality that is causing it. | ran แรน |

  • gps coordinates||

    well, in the end, we came from the same place as so does our politics.

  • winning||

    Good info sbo | sbo

  • winningft||

    Yes good ! Thanks Man !
    sbo | ibcbet

  • 3m||

    Thank you very much for your work.
    3mbet | mmmbet

  • شات سوريا||

    Thank you, my dear on this important topic You can also browse my site and I am honored to do this site for songs
    http://www.xn----ymcbk0bld8nta.com
    This website is for travel to Malaysia
    http://www.xn----ymcbk0bld8nta.com

  • شات سوريا||

    Thank you, my dear on this important topic You can also browse my site and I am honored to do this site for songs
    http://www.xn----ymcbk0bld8nta.com
    This website is for travel to Malaysia
    http://www.xn----ymcbk0bld8nta.com

  • หนังใหม่ dvd||

    Thank you for your comments and good information. Useful to me.

  • Scarpe Nike||

    is good

  • UGG Boots Cheap||

    great

  • sd||

    sd

  • sbobet||

    You comment?

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Video Game Nation: How gaming is making America freer – and more fun.
  • Matt Welch: How the left turned against free speech.
  • Nothing Left to Cut? Congress can’t live within their means.
  • And much more.

SUBSCRIBE

advertisement