Sunday, 6 November 2011

Them and Us: A Special Relationship?

If there's one thing that politicians and journalists really don't agree on, it's the so-called Special Relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom. It deserves capitalisation not just because of the absurd way in which it is exploited, but arguably because it's often to the benefit of the Americans rather than the Brits. What makes it special is, as they might say, the Million Dollar Question. Like many long-standing marriages, it often appears somewhat dysfunctional and you're never sure whether the two sides really do love each other. American presidents come and go, while successive British Prime Ministers do all they can to rekindle the passion. Is it something that simply exists in the imagination of the British political establishment?

The Today programme anchor and long-standing BBC man Justin Webb is well placed to speak about the political and cultural differences between the United States and the UK. With his new book, Notes on Them and Us, he's taken the time to reflect on what stands us apart from our cousins across the Atlantic – as well as the bonds that tie us together. Webb returned to his alma mater, the London School of Economics, at the invitation of the Media Society and Polis to discuss his own reflections on the subject.

We didn't have an academic interest in the US – we moved for the sunshine” opens Webb, in conversation with the New York Times's London correspondent and author of The Anglofiles, Sarah Lyall. With a young, energetic family and a career-defining opportunity offered by the BBC, you can't blame him. In fact, he's done the return journey twice.

But the culture shock was soon apparent, recalls Webb, when the unthinkable happened. “We knew a guy who worked at CNN . And we went to his party at which there was no booze at all”. And, horror upon horror, “they were drinking cherryade”. This might have been fine for the school tuck shop, but for a party of east coast media types? To a Brit, this was unthinkable.

It was occasions like this, as Webb jokes that are “a misunderestimation [sic] of the cultural differences between you and us”. Indeed, it's clear that Webb's affection for the country is unmistakeable. Something about community ties and a can-do spirit seem to have sparked his enthusiasm for this country. It's because “Americans are generous, not just to strangers but to themselves”. The first thing that comes to mind is a calorie-laden hamburger with fries, but there's more to it than that. Webb talks about an “ideal of attachment”, with references to religion and of pride in geographical roots. Americans are proud to be from Wyoming, or Maryland or wherever, but there is no corresponding sense of belonging from the citizens of Somerset, for example.

What's more, Webb concedes that the influence of religion on American politics is somewhat overstated, referring to Karl Rove's dismissal of evangelical Christians as “not terribly reliable”. The British, after all, have an established church, arguably wedded to our political institutions far more than Fox News is in the US. Nontheless, Webb is critical of the standard of broadcast journalism there. “American broadcasters don't get real players. They get proxies who just lay into each other”. That leads him to comparison with the UK parliamentary system. “It may look messy but at least we can do things". Lyall retorted: “at least our constitution is written down!"

While organs such as Fox bleat about America's supposed terminal decline, Webb sees it as somewhat relative “compared to the rest of the world”. And maybe that's not such a bad thing. Yes, there's persistent unemployment, and the ever-present threat of terrorism. But Americans have always been exceptionalist in their outlook, and Webb puts it into historical context: Barack Obama is clearly not the first President to be blamed for economic woes that pre-dated his term of office.

There's plenty to learn about the ways in which the US can teach Brits a thing or two: questions about philanthropy for example are sparking “an interesting debate”. For example, the European way of increasing funds for the public good was through higher taxes, while Webb's observations in the US convinced him that it was not necessarily higher taxes that encouraged benefactors, but rather easy ways of giving large sums of money.

Webb's overall view is that there is a fundamental divide in the special relationship. But it is no more than a cultural split between the two nations, maybe in part due to a British uneasiness with American self-gratitude and an audacious, unapologetic embracing of religion. But with a more honest recognition of it – possibly even a celebration – a more mutually beneficial collaboration is possible.

Originally posted on the Media Society website.

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