Jonathan Freedland laments his failure to shift an old left prejudice
They're at it again. The anti-Americans of the left, briefly quietened by the Blair-Clinton love-in of the late 1990s, are returning to the barricades. They've dusted down the old placards and rehearsed the old slogans. Who knows, Tariq Ali and the gang may even be planning a return trip to Grosvenor Square - American flag and lighter fuel ready in their pockets.
The grievance now is Kosovo. For the veteran leftist, the war against the Serbs is the latest demonstration of, at best, America's clumsiness, at worst, its chronic aggression. It may be a Nato operation but, as any self-respecting anti-American knows, that's all a sham. Operation Allied Force is a US mission, with Britain and the other 17 Nato nations mere obedient poodles. Harold Pinter caught the mood perfectly. "US foreign policy can be defined as follows," he wrote in a letter to the Guardian last week. " 'Kiss my arse or I'll kick your head in.' " By the letter's end - after three references to arse-kissing - Pinter had located the real threat to life in Kosovo. "The US is now a highly dangerous force, totally out of control."
Thus the Balkan war has provided the latest opportunity for the left to vent an anti-Americanism ingrained for at least three decades. Last year it was Zippergate that supplied the ammunition: what a sick, twisted society it was that could torment its leader over a trifling sexual affair. This year it's the air assault on Belgrade, reviving the old cold war maxim that "if Washington is for it, I must be against it". Next year it will be something else. But it will be something.
The old left has anti-Americanism in its guts, a distaste for all things American which is not simply a matter of cultural prejudice. On the contrary, it represents a great and costly error of ideas, one that has crippled the British left for more than a century and a half. Its roots are in a snobbish elitism, which has quietly put the left at odds with the bulk of its fellow citizens. More gravely, it ignores the British left's own history - and denies us a crucial chance to remake our own future.
For nearly a year I have encountered the sentiment at first hand. In the summer of 1998 - on 4 July, as it happens - I published my first book, Bring Home the Revolution. After four years as the Guardian's Washington correspondent, I wanted to ask Britain to look again at a side of the United States we too often ignore. The book asks Britons to rediscover America's founding ideals - the core beliefs I had witnessed in action, starting with a democracy that sends power flowing from the bottom up, not the top down. This is no alien creed, the book argues: it is our own, dreamed up by a host of British radicals exiled two centuries ago. Britain did, after all, have a revolution. The trouble is, we had it in America. Now, I argued, it's time to bring it back home.
I took that message out on the road, to public meetings and to phone-in shows, to student societies and pensioners' clubs. I found most audiences inspiringly receptive - especially those formed by what the media would call "ordinary people". But among the traditional left: resistance. It was as if they didn't want to hear it, didn't want to imagine that the old capitalist superpower could have anything to teach us.
I would rattle through the wish-list favoured by so many British progressives. A written constitution? America's got one. Devolution? America allocates most powers to the 50 states, and only the leftovers to the central government in Washington. An elected head of state? Look no further. Guaranteed freedom of speech? Check out the First Amendment. Freedom of information? America invented it. Directly elected mayors? Visit New York. A second chamber chosen by votes, not genes? Look at the US Senate, then remember the House of Lords. But the old left had their hands clamped over their ears and their eyes shut. "Say it ain't so," they seemed to cry. They couldn't bear to imagine the old bogeyman had somehow won, long ago, all the democratic spoils they said they wanted for Britain.
A couple of critics were honest. One, writing in the Observer, admitted: "I agree with every directive on Freedland's 'road map to the future'." But he went on to "wish" I hadn't predicated my argument on the lessons from America. Couldn't I have made the same points taking Europe as my inspiration? The same plea appeared in other reviews - all of them in liberal or centre-left papers.
I tried to explain that, no, I could not have premised my case on Europe because the same battery of democratic protections simply does not exist there. I tried to point out that these rights do not exist in America by accident; they flow directly from America's fundamental attitude to power and sovereignty - one that is a radical advance on Europe's.
But the prejudice on the left has deep roots. Why else did Charter 88 - whose central demands are all met by the US Constitution - take its inspiration (and name) not from that document, one of the most famous political texts in human history, but from a Czech pressure group most Brits had never heard of ? Why do British republicans perform all manner of intellectual contortions - citing the Swedish Example or the Norwegian Precedent - rather than simply point to the most successful country in the world to have thrown off the British crown? British leftists are happy to draw lessons from anywhere but across the Atlantic.
The reasons are not that mysterious. The cold war, and particularly the slaughter in Vietnam, turned a whole generation off Uncle Sam. America was the self-appointed GloboCop, destroying villages to save them.
In case that message had faded by the 1980s, Ronald Reagan taught it anew - spreading mayhem throughout Central and South America. The left was on the side of Cuba, Allende and the Sandinistas. Washington backed Miami, Pinochet and the Contras. In short, America was the enemy.
And let's not forget capitalism. To the left, the US is the centre of the global, corporate web, a society that tolerates inequality on a Roman scale. It's a place where the sick and poor can lie in the middle of the road, denied medical treatment because they don't have a credit card. Throw in the American record on slavery, and it's not hard to see why British progressives have spent the past 30 years looking east, not west.
A small part of the left's distaste for America is cultural. I noticed in my travels last year that anti-Americanism is a curiously elite trait in Britain. It's the Chablis-and-Tuscany set who can't stand America and Americanisation. The vast majority of Britons, the McDonald's-and-Florida crowd, find the States' exuberance, energy and sense of possibility exhilarating. Polls show that, despite the liberal elite's passion for Provence and Umbria, the US is the country in the world most Britons feel closest to.
My own experience, from talking about the book, suggested that low- and middle-income Britons have an instinctive affinity for America and its can-do ethos: they guess that, if they lived there, they would prosper and succeed. It is Britain's snootier classes that dislike the social mobility and classlessness of the US, regarding it as uncouth and vulgar. The rest can't get enough of it.
But the larger part is about principle. Our American blind spot is preventing us from seeing vast political riches. Besides the specifics - mayors, written constitutions and the like - there is a profound ideal that the Americans have made real. From their earliest days, they declared that "We the People", not politicians or the crown, are sovereign. From that founding principle of popular sovereignty, everything else has flowed - making America the most prosperous country in human history, and Americans the most patriotic, optimistic and contented people on earth.
Best of all, these American riches are not out of reach. They are the buried treasure of our own past. The American revolution was the creation of a handful of British radicals and dreamers, drummed out of their own land.
Thomas Paine, William Penn and the rest were the British left of their day, working in the twilight of the 18th century. Now, at the dawn of the 21st, the British left should reclaim those dreams for our own time. All we have to do is banish our blind spot - and open our eyes.
Jonathan Freedland is the author of "Bring Home the Revolution: the case for a British republic", published in paperback this week by Fourth Estate, £6.99