Back in Washington after a few days in the UK, I've been reflecting on just how much Britain has changed during my longest absence ever (a year). I often think that you have to be away from your own country to see its centre of gravity shifting: I found a Britain changing more rapidly than ever, in appearance if nothing else. Vast numbers of men are shaven-headed and young women obese, especially in the Midlands. Money is sloshing around, but I had a sense that there is more than a whiff of decadence about it all, like Berlin between the wars.
What struck me most profoundly, though, is the degree to which Britain is in effect being absorbed, both culturally and linguistically, into the American orbit. There have always been jokes about Britain becoming the 51st US state, but it is now happening - and the sad thing is that the British are so unaware of the process.
There is an assumption in the media that all things American are de facto British: this is happening in both little and major ways. A television presenter will casually refer to "post-9/11 Britain", as though Britain was attacked that terrible day. US congressmen are introduced as though they are British politicians, with no hint that they are representatives of a foreign country. Ads for Al Franken's book Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, rebutting the Fox News Channel, are plastered all over the London Underground. Michael Moore is treated as though he were a mainstream British figure, when in his native America he is merely a fringe figure.
Terminology, too, has been Americanised. Thus, on television news, flags are flown at half-staff. There is breaking news at the top of the hour. Things go down to the wire.
Thus there is a now rapidly advancing obeisance to the US, as if it were an altogether superior culture. Even in everyday life, I found the English of my country to be fast disappearing. People are now a pain in the butt rather than the bum. Teenagers say they have had straight As in their A-levels. The government now directs people to fill out forms. In everyday behaviour, too, the British are fast becoming American: why else would other drivers give me "the finger" rather than the V-sign?
Then there is Tony Blair. He seems to me to be behaving just like the worst of American politicians, seeking an absurd Blair Force One to fly him around and revelling in what he apparently believes is a jet-setting celebrityhood. Staying with his family (or, rather, "Britain's First Family") at Cliff Richard's home in the Caribbean is very revealing, I think: I can dimly remember Harold Wilson catching the train at Paddington and travelling to his humble bungalow in the Scilly Isles.
Yet it is the image, I suspect, with which Blair is so taken. A "villa", whether it belongs to Cliff Richard or Silvio Berlusconi, conjures up an image of glamorous, comfortable and, above all, secluded wealth.
In Britain, likewise, the "Caribbean" is redolent of exclusivity: exclusivity of a kind to which the rich and jaded showbiz figures - and now, apparently, prime ministers - will flock.
I wonder if Blair realises that the British summer is very much the off-season in the Caribbean, when the heat is stifling and the air is full of biting sand midges? That, presumably, is why Sir Cliff's villa was available in the first place.
Enough on the fall of my country. I flew back to the US to find that the presidential election is now positively surreal, with Bush-Cheney surrogates attacking John Kerry's Vietnam service record and saying outright that he is a liar. I should say that I have always thought John Kerry's continual boastfulness about his heroism in Vietnam to be highly suspect, and so I think he is reaping what he sowed. Kerry is cynically using his time in Vietnam for propaganda purposes. But it is irrefutable that he went to Vietnam, that he wore a US uniform there, and that he was given the almost suicidal task of captaining a small US vessel heading down the Mekong Delta. It is reasonable to assume that US naval records are at least somewhat accurate - that, for example, Kerry turned back his boat to rescue one of his crew who had fallen overboard during a Vietcong ambush and that he did so under deadly fire.
But the Bush-Cheney supporters are quite shameless in their duplicity. It is now well established that George Bush avoided his national service in Vietnam by wangling a place in the Texas Air National Guard (and then not turning up much of the time), and that Dick Cheney managed to get five deferments to avoid military service (he had "other priorities", he now says). John Ashcroft, the attorney general, is the champion of the Bush administration when it comes to avoiding national service, with no fewer than seven deferments.
With political leaders such as these, who needs pale British imitations?