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9 May 2005

This time, please put Britain first

Election: the future - Andrew Stephen on Britain and America

By Andrew Stephen

I was puzzled by a strange sense of deja vu, watching the general election from across the Atlantic. Had I simply seen too many elections, I wondered? Then I realised that the campaign perfectly reflected Britain’s rapid surrender in the 21st century to Americanisation: we saw the same hand-picked audiences and media blackouts for political rallies; the same authoritarian party stewards; the relentless obsession with a superstar leader, in what I thought were meant to be parliamentary elections; and even the use of non-British vocabulary – “liberal” and “conservative” now meaning something different, for example.

Yet there were one or two signs that a distinctively British flavour remains. My friend Jeremy Paxman was a study of disrespect in his interviews. The last-gasp BBC – and, it seems to me, that great British institution is into the final phase of what in the 1980s I first called Murdochisation – still gave us the spectacle of rude people ganging up on Tony Blair et al in a way that would be unimaginable in the US.

I felt, therefore, some hope. So I suggest that the Prime Minister embark on a campaign to educate himself and his followers, to discover why Britain is now so keen to relinquish its Britishness. If he remains in office, Blair – “the Americans stood shoulder to shoulder with us in the Blitz” – should read some books, to discover precisely why America did not stand shoulder to shoulder with the UK during the Blitz. He should read history to understand how and why Winston Churchill begged, cajoled and bribed the US to go into the Second World War, and why the “special relationship” was thus born in British eyes.

This is just an example of what Blair could usefully learn. History teaches lessons. The second task is for him to talk to Germans, the French and Spaniards, for example, to discover why they are so keen to maintain their nationalist identities. This should not be done in a patronising way, but in a genuine spirit of self-discovery. Nor should he convince himself that the Bush administration needs the British to interpret the ways of France and Germany: Bush and his chums watch Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News to tell them all they want to know about how awful the French and Germans are.

The British PM must also arrest the increasing British assumption that American ideas and policies are automatically superior. He must not apologise to the Americans, to give just one example, that the government is subsidising the Airbus: that may be un-American (though the US hugely subsidises Airbus’s rival, Boeing, with defence contracts), but it is the European way. Indeed, could it even be a better way? For his own self-respect and that of the country, the Prime Minister must develop the courage to proclaim that Europe does some things far better: healthcare, for example.

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The move will require thinking that will be difficult; perhaps even a dark night of the soul. But the British PM must understand that the US is governed by self-interest, and that it could not care less about the British view – unless it is firmly in keeping with the collective zeitgeist in Washington, in which case the British judgement will be admired (if it attracts any attention at all, that is). But seeking personal adulation in America, in the way that Margaret Thatcher and Blair have continued to do, should stop. Like a Murdoch editor, neither ever needed direct orders: they knew what to do, while always claiming they were motivated by something else.

This should change. The Bush administration, it should be understood, is on the way out. Even hardline Republicans in Washington express contempt for George W Bush in private; the only dissenters are those whose legacy is intimately tied to his. Thoughts of 2008 are already upon us, and Hillary Clinton has as good a chance as anybody of becoming the next US president.

So, instead of rushing off to Washington as soon as the election is over, Mr Prime Minister, why not start putting your own country first?

Andrew Stephen is the New Statesman‘s US editor