The Passé Relationship?

Obama and CameronAfter living in Britain for over 18 years, my mother and father retired to New York. On occasion, they go to the theatre: over the weekend, they saw a performance of “Look Back in Anger”, John Osborne’s seminal work, in a Manhattan playhouse.

My initial thought was that this was unlikely to be a successful production: “Look Back in Anger” is a period piece and much of its relevance came from its context, namely the tensions that existed within post-war England. My mother said that the references to Roedean and “public schools” (which have an altogether different meaning in the States) didn’t resonate with the audience.

So, there they were, watching a play by an Englishman, the dialogue heard but not understood by most of the people around them. Apparently there was polite applause scattered in appropriate places and it looks as if the play will continue to be shown until the end of the season. I wondered if this was some sort of sophisticated New Yorker thing, whereby they want to appear to comprehend things which they don’t understand. Maybe, I mused, they’re just being polite. It seems unlikely that genuine interest in the nitty gritty of British society and its recent past would be sufficient to engender a complete run.

Meanwhile, I find it difficult to escape the United States while living in the UK. The television is full of American television programmes, ranging from CSI to “Suits”: we even have have the repugnant and nauseating “Man vs. Food”. Speaking of which, I don’t have to drive too far to find a KFC or a McDonalds; I can easily order Dominos online. Over here, we consume American films, we listen to American music, and our newspapers obsess about the state of the “Special Relationship”. If I were to break suddenly into American slang, no doubt I would be understood. My other half, who has experience of working in government, has told me that Britain’s Civil Service watches developments in America closely; they often model their policies on what Washington does. Furthermore, the governments co-operate as much as possible and have done for many years. Indeed, America’s influence has become so pervasive that it’s almost beyond conscious recognition. Despite everything that has happened from Dubya’s botched election to the Iraq War to economic collapse, Britain still soaks in the rays eminating from the farther shore.

David Cameron does his best to capture the luminescence. He and President Obama penned a panegyric recently to the “Special Relationship”. I don’t believe it is because they get on particularly well on a personal level: there appears to be none of the warmth that marked out Thatcher and Reagan’s relationship or indeed the friendship between Bush Junior and Tony Blair. Rather, I believe it eminates from an American belief that they only people they can trust are ones who speak English. The British feel the same way. The result is a happy consensus whereby Americans and Britons sit together, say they are the best of friends and pretend it’s still the era of “Look Back in Anger” when Britain was bigger than a mid sized power and America ruled the waves.

But is it relevant, is it appropriate? “Look Back in Anger” is now the subject of revivals; it has faded largely from view because much of its antagonism towards the class system sounds too strident in an era in which David Beckham is considered royalty. As for the Special Relationship itself: I was born in America but live in Britain, I ask the same question, is it relevant, is it appropriate, is it timely?

This is a difficult question to answer, particularly since I have a dual loyalty. It defies simple explanation: though I’ve lived in Britain for more than half of my life, there is something which touches my soul when the Stars and Stripes flutters in the breeze, or I land in New York after a long plane journey. The songs of home may grow softer over the years but they never fully turn to silence. Yet Britain is where I live: I prefer a hedgerow to a canyon, an English pub to a New York bar, the BBC to the vast amount of muck served up on American television. My soul is similarly stirred by the echoes of history that resound all around me here in Yorkshire.

From this vantage point, one reaches for similarities. Beyond the touch points of culture and language, there are things upon which we agree: an essential pragmatism, a bias towards liberty, a mistrust of the powerful. But it seems that while Britain retains these virtues, America is in the process of losing them.

A practical example: an American citizen arriving back in the United States will find that the queues at passport control are just as long for Americans as they are for foreigners. The man in the booth often asks probing questions as to why one was abroad; if one lives abroad, one can expect probing questions about that. The atmosphere is indicative of a government that is suspicious and despises its citizens. A British citizen arriving back in the United Kingdom has an altogether different experience: basically, only the passport is checked. If it’s valid, the citizen is waved on. Sometimes a friendly border control officer will say “Welcome home.”

Another example: it is highly unlikely that a politician like Rick Santorum would gain any traction in the United Kingdom. His views are to the right of Opus Dei; in contrast, in Britain, it is a Conservative-led government that is finally going to implement marriage equality for gay people, a development that American Republicans abhor. The closest that Britain has to a similarly obsessive “culture warrior” is Nadine Dorries, who is rightly disliked for being personally suspect and worse, self-righteous about it.

Additionally, America seems to be retreating from a global role: there are solid reasons for this. After all, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have been costly, and polls indicate Americans are tired of fighting. Thus when the Libyan Revolution came to the boil, it was Britain and France that led the international response. America’s distance and its reliance on someone else’s credit card to pay its way means that it is looking more like the nation it was in the 1920’s and 1930’s, obsessive about a “return to normalcy” (whatever that may turn out to be), casting a glance more inward, indulging an inclination against venturing abroad.

These facts lead one to suspect that what is happening is a amiable separation, the bonds slowly loosening and falling away. I got a sense of this last May when Cameron and Obama dished up hamburgers at a barbecue in London. While President Obama is in and of himself important, was this really the most earthshaking summit? Were the leaders of China, Russia and India watching for body language between these two and parsing every statement they made for clues to the future? It seems unlikely. China holds enough of America’s debt to be unconcerned with every nuance. Russia has enough natural resources in hand to plot its own destiny. India continues its brave rise out of abject poverty. The leaders wearing aprons and flipping burgers was a sideshow, not centre stage. A diminished America meets with a mid-sized European nation: what’s the big deal? To give it too much attention is overburdening the passé.

Nevertheless, the cultural touch points remain: while “Look Back in Anger” is not the best literary ambassador, the recent celebration of Dickens’ works is an altogether different matter. Films on British topics like “The Iron Lady” do surprisingly well in the States: apparently distance lends itself some detachment from the reality of living under Thatcher. British bands continue to rouse American audiences: the Rolling Stones are still going strong and anything Beatles-related still gets snatched up. Politically, co-operation between America and Britain may not be so relevant, indeed, stressing this relationship may be out of date: but as someone who lives with two cultures, absorbs two cultures, and metaphorically stands on the bridge between these two nations and sees where the streams meet and turn into a flood, I hope that this special relationship continues and deepens.

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