23 February 2024

Britain needs to decolonise itself from America


‘I’m afraid of Americans/I’m afraid of the world’. So sang David Bowie. Having seen a McDonald’s spring up whilst travelling in Java, the great ‘Starman’ felt a profound sense of revulsion at our neighbours across the pond. This is not, alas, a sentiment shared by our politicians, who can’t seem to get enough of Old Glory. 

At the same time as Boris Johnson has squabbled with Tucker Carlson over the fallout of his interview with prominent amateur historian Vladimir Putin, Liz Truss has graced Washington’s annual Conservative Political Action Conference. The 49-Day Queen has been working hard at inveigling herself with American conservatives. Armed with a book to sell and a reputation to defend, she preached to the converted on the wisdom of tax cuts and the horrors of woke, globalism, and ‘the Deep State’. 

On the same day that Johnson told The Sun the world ‘felt safer and calmer and more stable’ with Trump at the helm, she backed the Donald and claimed that Joe Biden is ‘asleep at the wheel’. They are amongst a growing coterie of Tory Trump enthusiasts. Where Nigel Farage leads, today’s Conservatives usually follow. 

Even if Labour are unlikely to take up Farage’s offer of switching the GB News studio for the American Embassy, Keir Starmer can’t claim his party are any less Yankee-brained than the Tories. He might now find his enthusiasm for taking the knee a little embarrassing. But his Shadow Chancellor has lifted her ‘Securonomics’ directly from Biden. He also takes inspiration from Ronald Reagan’s campaigns while his MPs attempt to encode a fundamental abortion right in the UK based on a US Supreme Court decision. 

Everywhere you look, British politics is hooked on American thinking. We talk of by- and local elections as being ‘mid-terms’. Constitutional illiterates babble about a ‘separation of powers’ rather than the King-in-Parliament. Complaints about Bishops interfering in politics arise from commentators failing to realise our relationship between church and state is closer to Iran’s than that of the United States. 

Despite us being far more European in the shape of our political system, economy, and social outlook, America plays a bigger role in British political discourse. As Dominic Sandbrook pointed out, pro-Europeans will be more likely to tell you about the evils of Roe vs Wade’s repeal than name Belgium’s current Prime Minister. The right is no better. Truss mistook Reaganomics for its Thatcherite equivalent. She suffered for embarking on a borrowing spree without the world’s reserve currency or attendant spending cuts. 

The roots of our political Americanisation are in our shared tongue. We can never compete with the capacity of our linguistic brethren to pump out popular culture. Bingeing on The West Wing is so much easier than having to put up with Borgen’s subtitles. British filmgoers have been hooked on Hollywood since cinema began. Despite the Beatles’ best efforts to beat the Yanks at their own game, our popular culture is downstream of America’s. Simpsons-brain is hard to turn off when switching to politics. 

This can be quite funny. It was difficult not to enjoy the surrealism of protestors chanting ‘hands up, don’t shoot’ at Community Support officers armed only with their pronouns. But one can’t but fear that our American addiction is eating away at our national sense of self. Schoolchildren flagellating about Rosa Parks will have little investment in embracing our island story. We meekly nod along as Americans cancel the Anglo-Saxons or blame Britain for slavery. 

Decolonising ourselves from our American overlords will be difficult. Banning Of Mice and Men from schools or editing Steve McQueen out of The Great Escape will change little. But we cannot just hunker down and hope the kids pronounce tomato correctly until demographics create an Atlantic linguistic barrier. Throwing off our Yankee chains means reckoning with decades of self-imposed timidity. 

On this point, Enoch Powell was right. Buddying up with his mother’s country may have been Winston Churchill’s best option, but since the Second World War, Britain has subordinated itself to American interests, at the expense of our economic and cultural independence. Keeping out of Vietnam meant little after we allowed ourselves to be lured into the quagmires of Afghanistan and Iraq. The starry-eyed Atlanticism of Tories hooked on Maggie and Ron’s memory threatens to repeat the mistake in Taiwan. 

Deluding ourselves into thinking our relationship special has allowed us to ignore our growing humiliation. Even Reagan tried to hobble Thatcher over the Falklands and betrayed her trust over Grenada. Today’s Tories need the same political and cultural confidence of a Charles De Gaulle (or Hugh Grant). 

However, the potential return of Trump to the White House provides Britain with a perfect opportunity to regain some cultural independence. As snooty as the Foreign Office may be about him, the 45th President was a genuine friend to Britain, supportive of Brexit, fawning to the Queen, and positive about a trade deal. In their campaign to reinstall him, his acolytes have provided helpful pointers for any future Tory leader aiming to seize back our sclerotic institutions in a fashion less calamitous than CPAC’s latest star. 

The right will never succeed in truly reforming Britain until voters understand alternative methods of providing healthcare exist than either the NHS or the model they’ve seen on E.R. This will not be achieved by mimicking our American counterparts, we are a fundamentally different country with a different set of problems. The Tories should learn from David Bowie. A declaration of independence is required. 

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William Atkinson is Assistant Editor of ConservativeHome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.