America is the great bogeyman of British culture. We are constantly afraid that we are too much like America, and thus are losing something fundamentally British. We eat their fast food, watch their movies, and, most importantly, we copy their politics. Britain is a different beast to America, beyond their two-party systems. But Americanisation is an issue of aesthetics, rather than one of structure. Britain has a massive inferiority complex about the appearance of our politics, terrified that our insistence on tradition makes us look smaller in a world without an empire to lend us gravitas. Our politicians all want to be more like America. Not just out of admiration of their style, but a desire for salvation. That’s what Thatcher wanted when she hired Saatchi & Saatchi, that’s what Blair aimed for with Mandelson, that’s what Cameron wanted when he hired Anita Dunn’s firm. Whenever they fail, British parties turn to their American counterparts for a way out of the wilderness.
And that does make sense. America, which is in some ways the bolder nation, offers a glimpse at the paths taken and less taken. British politicians would be fools not to learn from them. Blair’s reinvention of the Labour Party was just Clinton’s revamp of the Democrats with the serial numbers filed off, and Cameron just stole the phrase “compassionate conservativism” from Bush and hoped no-one would notice. It’s not always successful: Miliband hired David Axelrod, Obama’s campaign tsar, to try and win 2015, and all he got was an advisor that couldn’t spell his name. This is more than ideologies across the world learning from each other: Britain rarely borrows from European politics in the same way; David Cameron wasn’t leaping to copy Angela Merkel’s successful electoral strategies. No, the UK walks in the US’ footsteps just like Buzz Aldrin trailing after Neil Armstrong.
The clearest explanation for Americanisation is the conversion of the political party to the cult of the leader. Gone are the days when an Atlee or Douglas Home could rise, people not particularly zealous or inspiring, but simply capable administrators, incapable of offense. The switch from a parliamentary party-controlled process for choosing the leadership to a membership dominated one, one closer to the American primary system for choosing their representatives, has changed the nature of our leaders. They gained a new sheen to them, a belief in their own hype, regardless of how legitimate that hype was. The Prime Minister is not a President, but by god they would love to be.
But Parliament is not built for that. British politics used to be dominated by the big beasts, members of Parliament who provided alternatives to the leadership: Once, that meant Tony Benn, Ken Clarke, or Rab Butler. Now, it means Mark Francois and Richard Burgon. A leadership focused system can’t survive if there are alternatives to the central power. In America, this is avoided because of the natural hierarchy the three-branch system provides. But in parliament, where the party leader is supposed to be the first among equals, the only way to ensure success is to only elevate people too weak to ever overthrow you: that’s how people like Liam Fox, a now twice disgraced minister, or Priti Patel, who lost her last job in government for conducting secret diplomacy without the Prime Minister’s knowledge, thrive in frontline politics.
The great secret of Americanisation is that, for all they decry it, the media is the one pushing it. British elections are miserable affairs. For the media, which needs to maintain an audience, the flashier America style is an endless source of content. Consider the debates. Debates are a recent plague in British life – they were first held in 2010, but in America, the debates are central to the whole affair. In elections that might otherwise grow stale, debates are a jolt of adrenaline; with them fuelling the news cycle for days after. Just look at the man who claimed £80,000 wasn’t one of the top incomes in the country; that Question Time clip lasted for days.
The real reason Britain has aped America is because it’s easier. The US model of putting the whole campaign on the back of one person, allowing you to understand the entire election through the prism of one person’s successes or failures means less work for the media, and frankly less work for political parties. If everything is the fault of the leader, then all it takes to do better is to simply replace them. The pain is, it works; swapping in Johnson for May took the Tories from a death spiral to a staggering majority. We have given in. Our culture has accepted the transplant. Americanisation is here to stay. May God help us.
Image - Flickr (U.S Secretary of Defense)