Show Hide image

Notes on Them and US: from the Mayflower to Obama – the British, the Americans and the Special Relationship

Notes on Them and US: from the Mayflower to Obama - the British, the Americans and the Special Relationship
Justin Webb
Short Books, 232pp, £16.99

Indulging an American theme, I watched Alistair Cooke's 1972 television series America in the week that I read Justin Webb's Notes on Them and US. The parallels go beyond both men having reported on the United States for the BBC. Watching America again, I found that the most striking feature was the programme's huge confidence. To recount that great narrative, Cooke trusted himself to use anecdotes and personal stories rather than statistics and experts, and the producer trusted Cooke's dexterity and charis­ma to hold the attention of viewers. Their shared confidence was well justified.

This new book belongs to the same tradition of reportage. Unashamedly chatty and unscientific, Notes on Them and US is a mixture of anecdote, memoir and provocative assertion. Like a draughtsman who hopes that his sketch will catch a better likeness than a full oil painting, Webb tries to capture a deeper truth in a lightly drawn study.

The central theme is gloomy but convincing: America doesn't care much about the "special relationship". One of the first acts of Barack Obama's administration was to remove a Jacob Epstein bust of Winston Churchill from the Oval Office. As a White House official told Webb (only half-jokingly): "We didn't even know who it was . . . we thought it was Eisenhower: elderly white folks look alike to us." On a presidential trip to Britain, the official press briefing described Britain as being "slightly smaller than Oregon". No wonder Webb calls the special relationship "a ghost, an imaginary friend in the airing cupboard".

For all the heritage that Britain shares with America, the contrasts are more interesting. Webb argues that we have very different interpretations of democracy: Americans want their politicians to channel the views of the people; the British just want their government to do a decent job. Usually when the British talk about "process", they are indulging faddish management waffle, a convenient way of avoiding the more serious question of judgement. To Americans, process is the most important thing: it is the wellspring of legitimacy.

At times Webb takes Americans' view of themselves rather too much on trust. "They are, in other words, free of class," he writes. It is true that the word "class" is taboo in the US, but that doesn't mean class doesn't exist. America may not recognise titles, but its aristocracy probably exerts more power than its titled British equivalents. And Americans are not ashamed of dynastic longevity. Teddy Roose­velt's son, grandson, great-grandson and great-great-grandson were all christened Theodore, which is unlikely to be coincidence.

Even if we define class in terms of wealth strata rather than breeding, the US is not par­ticularly classless. Social mobility is lower in the US than in many European countries. The American dream - the conviction that America rewards merit where other nations are trapped by privilege - may be a useful device for protecting the United States from social unrest. But it is a dream that carefully ignores the empirical evidence.

A more pressing problem lies at the heart of Notes on Them and US: a three-pronged decline. First, Obama's presidency, inevitably, has failed to live up to wildly unrealistic expec­tations. Second, America is suffering from an economic downturn, and more seriously from a loss of collective self-confidence. Finally, western democracy in general faces stiff competition from the rise of China and India. It is a set of Russian dolls: Obama's struggles are encased by America's downturn, which is surrounded by the relative decline of the west.

Webb implies that the American mindset - hope, optimism and the promise of better days ahead - will find the management of decline especially difficult. Having evolved so swiftly and successfully, the American beast is not well adapted to scarcity and caution.

Ironically, in President Obama, the US accidentally elected a man with the intellectual and moral qualities to comprehend and articulate the vast challenges ahead. But it will require a huge and unpopular jump to transform the rallying cry "Yes, we can" into the sober injunction "Sorry, we must".

Ed Smith is a writer for the Times

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 31 October 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Young, angry...and right?