The British have a talent for self-deprecation. For someone with American origins this is nothing but refreshing: indeed, when I visit my family in the States, I am constantly reminded how patriotism can be elevated from a mere sentiment to a religion. The Stars and Stripes is everywhere: it appears as a gigantic banner fluttering above car dealerships, it’s emblazoned on the front of baseball caps and pinned to the lapels of every national politician. Indeed, the flag is almost a required accessory for every American. It is also conversationally dangerous to suggest in the presence of some Americans that their country may be anything less than extraordinary. At best, one will be reminded in the strongest possible terms that is the “best country”, “land of the free”, “last best hope of mankind”, and so on.
There is nothing wrong with self-confidence, but there is a point when it tips over into vanity, and a further milestone when it implies paranoia. It is upon arrival at this juncture that one is reminded that a national psyche can be as fragile as that of an individual, subject to the pitfalls of pride and avarice. Perhaps one of the more disturbing aspects of the present “Tea Party” movement is a neurotic compulsion at its heart: a fear that America is not what it once was, and that the promises which underpin its self-image, i.e., that of unlimited plenty and prosperity, are no longer achievable. It is perhaps not surprising that the Tea Partiers wrap themselves in the flag rather like a small child clinging to a safety blanket and that they call upon the imagery of the American War of Independence to buttress their perceived authenticity.
The British approach is quite different: someone who wraps themselves in the Union Flag is generally either on their way to the Last Night of the Proms or a member of the British National Party. Fortunately, there are more of the former than the latter. Scepticism is more the national creed than unquestioning patriotism; true, love of country does emerge at moments, such as during the last segment of the Last Night of the Proms when the massed voices sing “Land of Hope and Glory” or “Jerusalem”. However this is a much quieter aspect than the rhetorical fireworks provided by America’s jingoists; it is also difficult to imagine an American anthem referring to “dark Satanic mills” as “Jerusalem” does. I suggest the British way is much healthier. If one is sceptical, then it becomes easier to look problems squarely in the eye as difficulties are expected rather than seen as a intolerable violation of a nation’s self-image.
It is easy to deride the behaviour of British MPs and Peers at the present time, and it’s true, the conduct of their financial affairs was entirely unacceptable. However, while there remains a palpable sense of outrage, in-built suspicion means there was an expectation of their malfeasance and a willingness to face up to the task ahead: for example, it was announced this week that 3 MPs and 1 peer face criminal charges although they have laughably tried to claim immunity from prosecution. At the same time, America’s political process has been purchased by lobbyist cash. While the linkages between politicians and corporations are an open secret, it may very well be the narcotic of patriotism which is squelching sustained efforts to deal with the problem. Some, such as those who voted for Scott Brown in Massachusetts, apparently believe it is sufficient to merely vote in a different set of politicians, instead of engaging in wholesale reform. After all, genuine change may disturb the supposedly sacred designs which are part of the national delusion. Britain, in contrast, is surprisingly flexible: over the past ten years, the constitutional arrangements have been found to be imperfect, particularly in serving the needs of the various nations that make up the United Kingdom. Therefore, powers have been devolved to assemblies in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. No one got dressed up in suits of armour and suggested returning to the Magna Carta; scepticism prevents too much idealisation of the past. It is also insurance against simplistic answers: this character trait may be what made Britain impervious to the ideological lunacies of the Thirties, both Stalinist and Fascist, and should keep the nation safe in the future.
I am not sure that America is so well insulated. During Stephen Fry’s recent tour of America, he took tea with Peter Gomes, a Professor of Divinity at Harvard. Professor Gomes said bluntly that Americans dislike complexity, even when the more intricate explanation was the more interesting and correct one. President Obama’s present troubles in the polls are symptomatic of this tendency: he was voted in because he was seen as an agent of change. Yet merely voting for him did not make the land burst forth with plenty: governance is a difficult and painful business and legislation is often sausage making at its worst. Despite the President’s attempts to communicate with the public, the instinct for simplicity, fed by the insistent itch of patriotism, demands much more instantaneous results despite whatever reality may dictate.
Meanwhile, Britain is preparing for its next general election; this will occur by June at the latest. While the campaign poster for the Conservatives has rightly been much derided for its airbrushed portrait of David Cameron, its statement that “Things can’t go on like this” is quite correct and taps into the nation’s mood. It is difficult to see how such a negative message would fit into an American Presidential campaign: ever since the 1980 contest which contrasted Reagan’s “Morning in America” with Carter’s more bleak message, only positive, sunny, and above all patriotic messages are permitted by the coterie of spin doctors and media advisors which flank every American politician of note. Attempts to force feed this culture to the British public has made the appearance of “spin” positively dangerous to any political party; New Labour’s demise is almost guaranteed by its failure to realise this.
It is a matter of personal choice, but I prefer a nation that has a more nuanced and realistic view of itself. I don’t expect the sun to shine all the time; I would be worried if it did. It’s sufficient to have enough sun that breaks through the clouds to illuminate the landscape on occasion. I would be concerned if everyone wanted things to be perfect, because they’re bound to be disappointed; a psyche that is satisfied with quiet and comfort is much more appealing. It may be this characteristic, more than any other, that means when I arrive back in Britain after any trip abroad, my first thought is, “Home Sweet Home”. I use the word “home” advisedly: a home is, by definition, an imperfect place. There is always a door with a squeaky hinge or a pipe that drips, but it is loved with full knowledge of its faults. The strongest and most enduring affections are those which have this acceptance at their heart; the most fleeting and dangerous are those which contain a demand for purity. So when I say, I love it here, I do not expect it to be what it is not. I question what the ideologues in America love, how they love, and if they genuinely love at all; if the nation is to progress, perhaps the question should be more aggressively asked.