A Letter From London -- Throw the Dog a Bone

November 3rd must have been a confusing day for Britain’s firewalls and spam filters.

If my morning inbox is anything to judge by, there was a national spike in the number of emails from hitherto reputable addresses, with just a single word in the subject heading: “Fuck”.

Later on, getting coffee I overheard what turned out to be the prototypical conversation opener of the day. A besuited, becaffeined young woman, eyes bulging though conservative, metal-rimmed spectacles said to her colleague: “I feel really depressed. I’d allowed myself to hope. I feel so let down.”

London  — or at least the liberal professional London that I occupy  — was playing out a scene from Sex and the City. John Kerry was the exciting new guy with whom we’d allowed ourselves to get involved despite all the signs that he couldn’t commit.

In the final days of the campaign, when the polls were looking really promising, after a couple of hot date debates, we finally climbed into bed with him. And then he didn’t perform. Typical.

Britain’s love for the US is a fickle thing. What is clear is that democracy has nothing to do with it. Since we are not enfranchised in America, being neither taxed nor represented, we should have been dispassionately impressed by the spectacle of millions of people turning out, many of them for the first time, to choose their head of state and commander-in-chief. Here both roles are held by the Queen.

But only the most wonkish of commentators was moved to acknowledge that, at the very least, the process was good.

More representative was the view splashed on the front page of the Daily Mirror, a mass-circulation, left-wing daily:

“How can 59,054,087 people be so dumb?”

Why the jilted feeling? Whence the bitterness?

It is to be expected that an electorate that has twice put in power a party of the progressive left should have desired a Democrat win.

The Labour party governs by an unassailable parliamentary majority, and yet the defining political choice made by its leader in his second term  — to go to war in Iraq alongside an American president of the right  — is not supported by a majority in the party or the country.

So it is also to be expected that British voters wanted their American counterparts to deliver a proxy kicking to Tony Blair.

It is not simply a question of having no ballot of our own to do the job. As official sidekick at the head of the coalition of the willing, Britain feels itself being sucked into Bush’s chain of command.

The perception among opponents of the war is that Bush hoodwinked Blair; that since the decision to invade had been made well before the moves to legitimise it in the UN, the British prime minister’s function was to deliver PR and cannon-fodder.

This view was given a fillip just ahead of the American poll by the decision to despatch a regiment of British soldiers from relatively secure Basra to the murderous heart of the Iraq war around Felluja.

This was widely reported as (singularly brave and noble) British soldiers being deployed at the behest of (doubtless incompetent) American generals, which compounds a sense of affronted sovereignty and resentment usually reserved for the economic intrusions of the European Union.

If anything, it would be better for Blair if he were viewed as a bloodthirsty hawk in league with Bush. That at least would carry macho kudos. But the favoured satirical representation is of a coiffeured poodle gambolling on the White House lawn.

It is a truism of Britain-watching that popular self-perception has struggled to catch up with the reality of diminished power that accompanied the end of Empire.

British national pride has not been lacerated by defeat or invasion, but gnawed by a sense of injustice at having won the War in 1945, and yet somehow, economically and culturally, lost the subsequent peace.

This makes British xenophobia a furtive entity that hides behind gentlemanly and magnanimous tolerance. (Tolerance, of course, in the sense that tacitly includes recognition of the unpleasantness of the thing to be tolerated.)

Thus, for four years a visceral anti-Americanism, born largely of envy, in Britain’s liberal middle classes has been submerged beneath anti-Bushism.

The process was abetted by the impression that what happened in 2000 was a coup; that the good people (read: the cast of Friends, Frasier and ER) had been saddled with a yoke of extremism.

The yoke, we thought, was then twisted into a strait-jacket of fear after the horror of 9/11. Come 2004, it was hoped, Joey, Chandler and co., with the help of Bruce Springsteen and Eminem would effect a ballot box liberation.

In other words, that part of British society that feels any connection with the US conducts its dialogue exclusively with the coasts. Depiction of the “heartland”, the Christian Evangelical right in particular, is the preserve of snide documentaries in a style of comedy-cum-anthropology.

On 3 November politically engaged Britain woke up to the fact that, actually, it just didn’t get America anymore.

This is not just true on the left. British conservatives, a natural constituency for Republican sympathy, cannot warm to Bush. This is partly because his closeness to Blair loses him points according to the ancient principle that our enemy’s friend is our enemy.

But Bush’s religious zeal also rouses suspicion, in even devout corners of the old British establishment. This is because weariness of enthusiasm of any sort is engrained in the culture, and faith in particular is a private business. To shout about it is deemed, frankly, a bit vulgar.

Tony Blair’s visit to Washington last week was seen in Britain as a test of the “special relationship” not on a strategic level, but on a deeper, emotional one. How reassured the British premier must have been of his standing when one reporter began a question to the president  with: “The prime minister is sometimes, perhaps unfairly, characterized in Britain as your poodle…”

Traditionally a sense of cultural affinity and residual D-day solidarity enabled alliance with the US to compete effectively with the economic and political imperatives of closer European integration.

Britain isn’t becoming any less Eurosceptic. But it just became a heap more Americasceptic.

Blair needs to show his electorate that his exclusive access to the White House translates into policy influence, on, for example, the Middle East and the environment.

Go on George, throw the poodle a bone.

Rafael Behr is online editor of The Observer

Hi there,

Great article. However, I didnt pay much attention to the election as I considered it to be a forgone conclusion. If the opinion polls were that close prior to the election, then Bush would win simply for the reasons that he won last time ... with the support of Florida and overwhelming middle America.
Maybe there should be an an international committee of Democratic refinement, not US-led and not based on US (or UK) democracy. The process of voting in America is over complicated and in Europe excessively complacent and nonchalant. It is no wonder that we feel like hypocrites invading the Middle East for reasons of installing democracies. How much power such a committee would yield in the good old US of A is debatable ... probably none at all. But I can dream. On the subject of dreaming, and returning to your article with respect to the coast vs. mid-America situation, why don't we simply press for the disunification of the United States ... I mean who knows if we talk about this kind of stuff now, the good folk of New York and New Mexico may concur in 50 years or so?

11.16.2004 | Daniel Benisty
Per Chirac's remarks today condemning the special relationship, and arguing for the virtues of a united Europe, my question is -- What are Blair's alternatives? To hide his hand in the sand, as per France (paid off of Hussein to say nothing of Chirac's 30 year friendship with the dictator), Germany, Russia & Co. The problem is, the lines have been so absurdly drawn that there's little space remaining at present for reasonable disagreements among allies, as if you say "the war is not going well" it translates to "the war was a bad idea." This conflation of ideology and policy has confused matters to no end. In the mean time, asking Bush to sell out Israel to pay back Blair seems like an absurd quid pro quo to me. This is a coalition of the willing in the truest sense -- those with eyes, have seen, and having done so, and having done so have no choice but to act. This is more than the pop cultural references and politics-as-usual that Behr presents.
11.16.2004 | Marco Manuel

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