The Americanisation of British politics

In my previous post, I talked about how British culture is becoming more American, and how this is largely to the country’s detriment. Unfortunately British politics is also being Americanised, and the effects are similarly harmful. Here are a few examples:

The first is an increasing political polarisation, and as a consequence, an increasingly adversarial political culture. Throughout much of the 20th century, it was difficult to tell the difference between a Democrat and a Republican. America’s parties were less about ideology and more about representing  demographic groups and regions. Democrats represented socially conservative poor white farmers living in the South, and then increasingly black people who wanted civil rights. Republicans represented businesses and middle class people living in the North East and the Midwest. But now, everything has changed. Republicans have adopted a doctrine of nationalism, while still being dependent on fiscally conservative donors. Democrats have also become more ideological- they are a far more socially liberal party than even just ten years ago. This has helped them appeal to young people, college graduates and pro-immigration ethnic minorities. Today, America is a very polarised country, with Democrats and Republicans seeing each other as complete enemies.

Traditionally, Britain’s parties were more ideological than America’s. The Labour Party has always been socialist, though its socialism was moderated by Christianity and applied practically through trade unionism. Meanwhile, it has always had an intellectual wing, first started by the Fabian Society. Labour’s intellectuals largely reside in North London, where the party still enjoys considerable support. The Conservative Party was less ideological- its opposition to radical change and support for traditional institutions won it support in market towns and villages across the country, as well as the wealthier parts of the inner city. With the exception of the 80s, Labour and Conservatives were able to work together on issues like housing, rebuilding the country after WW2, the NHS, schools and policing.

However, Britain’s parties are now just as polarised as America’s. On the one hand, Labour is led by an unreconstructed socialist. Jeremy Corbyn proposes a radical expansion of the state. Partly in the form of renationalising various industries. But mostly by spending vastly increased sums of money on virtually every aspect of government. Schools, hospitals, infrastructure and the police would all receive far more money than today. To pay for it, Labour proposes increasing taxes on the top 5% and borrowing more. On the other hand, the Conservative Party has become increasingly nationalistic, especially since Britain’s decision to leave the EU last year. Despite having played an instrumental part in creating the European Single Market, the party now views it as a mortal threat to the country. The common sense harmonisation of regulations the Single Market provides is consistent with the Thatcherite desire to reduce barriers to companies doing business around the world. But Conservatives now want to make it harder for British businesses to operate in Europe, and don’t seem to care that our influence on European politics is waning- this is all worth it to restore Britain to greatness. The Conservatives’ perception as an anti-EU, anti-immigration party is hurting its standing amongst young people, a record proportion of whom voted against them earlier this year.

It isn’t just political polarisation that is making British politics more American. There is an increasing dependence on strong leadership for electoral gain. In the 2017 election, Theresa May played down the fact she is a Conservative, and instead focused on herself as a strong leader. She asked people to vote for ‘me and my team’ to make a success of Brexit. Similarly, Jeremy Corbyn has become a cult figure for many people, who see him as a socialist messiah. Chants of ‘oooaah Jeremy Corbyn!’ could frequently be heard at Labour rallies. In the age of mass media, personality seems to matter more than ever.

One of the most worrying aspect of political Americanisation is the tide of anti-intellectualism sweeping through popular discourse. Expert opinion is often dismissed out of hand, even when there is a consensus. While there isn’t as much explicit climate change denial as there is in the US, environmental issues were barely discussed in the 2017 election despite 2016 being the hottest year on record. When it was, it was assumed that new technologies and increasing fuel efficiency will save the day. Scarcely did anyone talk about the need for swift and decisive government action necessary to rid our cities of killer diesel. Air pollution- which frequently violates EU limits and results in premature deaths for thousands- wasn’t mentioned. Anti-intellectualism was also evident in economic debates. The Conservatives were guilty of gross and misleading optimism as to what would happen if we left the EU without a deal. Labour were naive in the extreme as to how much debt would be accumulated as a result of their planned spending increases, and they vastly overestimated the amount of revenue gained by their proposed tax rises.

As I said in my previous post, there are many wonderful things about America, at least culturally speaking. But politics is one area that the country definitely doesn’t excel at. Instead, I believe Britain and America could learn from Europe, and in particular, Germany, Austria, the Low Countries and the Nordic Countries. There, policy is a far greater factor than personality in determining election outcomes, even if some personalities have come to be attributed with positive traits; Germans largely see Merkel as a safe pair of hands. Parties have a less adversarial relationship with each other, and instead work together in the national interest. People do not dismiss their opponents with vulgar or nasty insults. And while there is a great diversity of opinions (more so than the US due to a greater choice of parties), there is also a general respect for the facts, experts and the findings of academic studies. Of course, Europe is far from perfect: Poland and Hungary show worrying signs of becoming increasingly authoritarian. But the nations of Europe are capable of reforming, as seen by Italy’s recent adoption of a new electoral system. In contrast, Britain doesn’t look to be making urgently-needed reforms anytime soon, and America is as entrenched as ever.

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