Monday, 16 July 2012

Two nations divided by a common language and...

Someone (the most popular candidate is George Bernard Shaw - or, as he's known in the States, "George Bernard? Sure!" - is supposed to have said that Britain and America were two nations divided by a common language. Despite the odd argument over faucet/tap, john/toilet, humor/humour and tenderize/tenderise, we do have a common language, which enables us to misunderstand one another better because we assume that someone speaking our language is similar to us and better communication means more differences are identified. In Douglas Adams' "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy", the Babel Fish, which enables instant translations from any language to any other in the galaxy, has been the cause of countless wars because suddenly people understood what that lot were saying.

Nonetheless, Britain and America (meaning the USA) do have a lot in common, so it's significant that they seem to be growing further apart despite globalisation. The divergence can be seen most in and around religion and politics - much less, say, in literature and business - and it's on politics that I want to concentrate.

The early American colonists came mostly from England and Scotland, and most of the rest from Ireland, which for good and ill had experienced much English and Scottish influence. They imported not only a language but a legal system and both political ideas and experience of representative politics. When the break came, leading British and Irish opponents of the British government such as the elder William Pitt and Edmund Burke saw the American rebels as Englishmen fighting for English rights. After independence, British people continued to emigrate to America and trade across the Atlantic preserved a close relationship. After one short and slightly half-hearted war in 1812-15, the two countries never again went to war despite a massively long frontier between the USA and Canada and all the uncertainties caused by Westward expansion north and south of that border. Major artistic figures like Whistler, Henry James and Charles Dickens were famous in both countries and moved quite freely from one to the other despite the length of the sea crossing. In the twentieth century the countries were allies - eventually - in two world wars and have been formal allies ever since.

When I was growing up a politically-aware kid, the main oddities about American politics (in the eyes of Britons) seemed to be:

*The very different system, with primary elections, a federal system, an elected President and so on, with the American President a hugely powerful figure compared to a British Prime Minister;
*Racial oppression in the South; and
*Two parties which didn't seem to differ much, in contrast to British and West European political systems dominated in most countries by some sort of centre-right conservative party and some sort of democratic socialist party.

The difference in the systems still exists, though the American President, so often blocked in Congress, now seems a much less towering figure. The American South has changed astonishingly and with Britain now having a much larger Black population than it had in 1945, the differences between the two countries in this area are now much smaller.

But important trends in politics have gone in opposite directions. While the U.S. is still governed by Democrats and Republicans, the political divide there has widened to a chasm. In Britain and nearly all Europe, on the other hand, the big right and left parties dominate less than they used to and are harder to tell apart than they were in the 1940s and 50s. While the influence of organised religion on British (and most European) politics has waned, in the U.S. it has increased, and it's fundamentalist strands of religion that call many of the shots.

The economic and geographical divides that underlay the Conservative/Labour divide in Britain (bosses and bosses' assistants against the industrial masses; countryside and suburbs against towns and inner cities) have almost vanished, but when we listen to American politics, it seems that remark about two countries divided by a single language could be applied within America. Liberals and Conservatives seem to draw on different cultures with little in common and the level of hatred and vituperation in American political debate startles us.

I understand one reason for this is an unspoken pact between the two parties to draw the boundaries of congressional districts in ways which minimised the number of marginal seats, thus creating a situation in which the great majority of representatives did not have to appeal to the middle ground. Low turnouts also helped the more zealous zealots, whose supporters could be counted on to turn out, to dominate - but higher recent turnouts in Presidential elections haven't reversed the trend. The shift has largely helped the right (conservative) side, so that whereas when Kennedy was battling Nixon, American politics was not obviously to the right of British politics except in the Deep South, now an American moderate liberal can sound like a European conservative and the Tea Party sounds to a European like something on the wilder fringes of the outside right. There is also what seems to a European Christian like an odd alliance between unrestricted capitalism of the devil-take-the-hindermost-and-the-hindermost-is-actually-morally-inferior type and fundamentalist Christianity. If anything the religious types in Britain tend to be on the left and the Catholic right of continental Europe, while conservative on social issues, is not particularly conservative on economic issues.

In Europe, including Britain, economic issues dominate alongside immigration and the environment. These issues matter in the U.S. too, but abortion is a massively bigger issue than anywhere in Europe (even the Irelands, Spains and Polands)and it's practical politics to attack the theory of evolution - a debate most Europeans view dumbfounded. Now I'm not suggesting the European version is better in all respects - I wish abortion was debated more in Britain - but the American system, with weak political party organisation and discipline, is ill-prepared to deal with deep and bitter divides and as someone who has greatly admired the American genius for politics, I wonder where America - that is the USA - is going.

1 comment:

  1. this is a test. if it works I'll send a real message!