Cleggmania? You gotta be kidding

Sorry, Nick: America just isn't ready for Cleggmania.

Well, I can't say that the US is exactly awash with Cleggmania. If you listen to BBC Radio 4 via the internet, as I do practically every day, you know that Britain is rife with election fever; but I doubt whether one in a hundred Americans knows that British voters go to the polls on 6 May, probably to elect a new prime minister and government. If one in a thousand has even heard of Nick Clegg, I would be very surprised.

Why? First, I'm afraid that Britons still have a sense of grandiosity about their place in the world: they assume that Americans are nearly as fascinated by the British general election as they themselves were about the 2008 US presidential election.

I conducted a straw poll among some bright high-school kids in Washington, and none of them knew about the epic struggle for power across the Atlantic. I did the same among a group of Yale undergraduates, five or so years older and much better educated - with exactly the same dismal outcome.

It is a long time ago now, but I once spent eight hours in a television studio as an "expert" talking to different Public Broadcasting Service stations across the US ("Andrew, tell us - exactly who is Screaming Lord Sutch?"). Back then, John Major snatched a surprise victory in the 1992 general election from the presumed prime minister designate, Neil Kinnock. This year, I have yet to see a single piece of US television news coverage of the British election, even when the three party leaders adopted yet another piece of Americana by staging the first US-style televised debate on 15 April.

Dumb and dumber

That, indeed, is the conundrum. A result of the rapid political and cultural Americanisation of Britain in the past decade or so is that the UK, more than ever, is vaguely perceived here as a 51st state, rather than the redoubtable colonial power it once was. Tony Blair imported US electoral strategists such as Mark Penn and Stanley Greenberg; and now Gordon Brown, David Ca­meron and Nick Clegg have to worry about their television make-up and the colour of their ties every bit as much as US politicians have to here.

The second reason so few Americans know or care about the British general election? Although TV remains an important information source, ­more and more people now go online for their news - 61 per cent, according to a Pew Research Centre study issued last month - with newspapers and radio falling back. The New York Times recently published a guide sending up the British election ("the period between dissolution and Election Day is known as PURDAH - a term derived from the Urdu word for curtain or veil, 'parda'"), but such coverage is increasingly irrelevant. Facebook rules as an online mechanism for exchanging news these days, and the biggest ­national source for news among 18- to 25-year-olds is Jon Stewart's The Daily Show.

This country is thus rapidly becoming less well-informed, particularly about the 96 per cent of the world that is not America. What passes for international news now largely consists of what the political satirist Bill Maher aptly labels "disaster porn" - the coverage of the Haiti earthquake, for example - or the impact of world events on Americans. So, last week, US citizens stranded in Europe because of volcanic ash was seen as vastly more important than a major European election.

This dumbing down of news on both sides of the Atlantic has also led to a dramatic decline in the audience's willingness to concentrate. Brown, Cameron and Clegg were limited to answers of just one minute in Britain's first prime ministerial debate, whereas Richard Nixon and JFK were each allowed eight-minute opening statements alone in the first televised US presidential debates in 1960.

Dumped by Barack

Lastly, Britain has to accept once and for all - notwithstanding its galloping Americanisation - that there is no longer any such thing as a "special relationship" between the two countries. The phrase is an outdated, "post-World War Two coinage", the House of Commons foreign affairs committee reported last month, and one that could as easily apply nowadays to US relations with Israel, Canada, Mexico, China or Japan.

Poor Gordon Brown is sent packing back to London with a set of DVDs featuring The Wizard of Oz and Star Wars, but the likes of Binyamin Netanyahu, Nicolas Sarkozy or Hu Jintao are treated with much more reverence by the White House.

President Obama is no admirer of Britain. He not only snubbed Brown, but ostentatiously returned the bust of Winston Churchill that the British government had donated to the White House after the 11 September atrocities. Visiting Europe for the first time as US president, Obama chose Berlin rather than London as his most dramatic venue. He is "an American who grew up in Hawaii, whose foreign ­experience was of Indonesia, and who had a Kenyan father", says Sir David Manning, Britain's previous ambassador here. "The sentimental reflexes, if you like, are not there."

So PBS stations across the country will be deprived of my expertise next month, alas, simply because the interest isn't there. With any luck, C-Span, the US equivalent of the BBC parliamentary channel, will screen the BBC's election-night coverage. I will be watching it at the British embassy with Sir Nigel Sheinwald, the present UK ambassador - but I can't see President Obama and 300 million other Americans waiting up anxiously to see who will be the next occupant of 10 Downing Street.

Sorry, Nick: America just isn't ready for Cleggmania.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.