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Westminster on the Potomac: The Americani(z)ation of British Politics

Families eagerly ate hot dogs, and red, white and blue banners were festooned all around as giddy fans tossed American footballs between them. When the spectators had finally taken their seats, they were greeted with two national anthems: “The Star-Spangled Banner”, followed by “God Save the King”. Such were the scenes at Wembley Stadium on 30th October as the NFL concluded the latest instalment of its 15-year-running foray into the British market before a record crowd. 

The growing interest in the US’s idiosyncratic take on football is not the only way in which the world’s largest economy has come to influence British culture. Increasingly, Britain’s political elite, as well as broader society, have looked west to determine both the policy and battlegrounds of British politics. 

America’s behemoth status forces other nations to pay it some regard, but Britain goes above this basic requirement. The intricacies of American party conventions, legislative developments and public opinion are all given much more national coverage (and indeed sustain more national interest) than the affairs of other nations. The results of the US’s midterm elections are set to dominate the week’s headlines. Interest alone is not a problem, but often fascination results in emulation and that is how Westminster has come to adopt Washington chic.

The obsession with the US brings real impacts. In the 2016 Brexit Referendum, a key plank of the Leave camp’s economic pitch was a putative trade deal with the US. During the campaign and the following years every concern over the UK’s severing from its largest trading partner was shooed away with assurances that a sweeping deal with the US would allow Britain to move away from the stagnant growth of the continent towards the dynamism, opportunity and lax food-safety standards of its former colony. 

No sweeping deal has been arranged and the benefits thus far remain minimal. In 2020 the UK signed a bilateral agreement with Indiana, a US state, and in October, British lamb was exported to the US for the first time in twenty years. In real terms, US-UK trade has fallen since Brexit, and the prospect of a deal remains dim. Unfortunately for the UK’s economy, the political obsession with America is decidedly unrequited. 

Americanisation also pervades the political discourse across society. Social media—especially Twitter, with which the political elite are so deeply enamoured—provides a direct Atlantic connection that inevitably displays an Americentric viewpoint. Transatlantic trade of goods might remain low, but trade of buzzwords and ideas has flourished. Following the right-wing in America, the Conservatives have made the fight against ‘wokeness’, especially on university campuses, a major concern, despite the relative dearth of militant social campaigners in Britain. Oliver Dowden, former chairman of the Conservative party and now Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, told an American crowd in February that “painful woke psychodrama” was now “ in our universities…in social science faculties, but also in the hard sciences”. His remarks drew praise from the Washington DC crowd but seem incongruent with the state of British campuses. 

Britain’s discourse around social issues is where America’s cultural grip has been the tightest. The US’s culture wars around abortion, race and religion make for compelling viewing, and in situations like this summer’s overturning of Roe v Wade elicit worthy solidarity. But the obsession with cultural issues in America sucks oxygen away from more pressing issues at home. It is important to note the horrors of police brutality in the US, and to castigate the American government as a catalyst for change. But it is just as important to understand the differences between the two countries’ policing systems so that we do not end up trying to fix American problems in Britain, while leaving the actual issues with UK policing unaddressed. 

America is an important ally for Britain in many respects, and it is helpful to take interest in relevant political developments. Issues arise when the interest becomes uncritical, and an assumption emerges that whatever is in vogue in America, ought to come to Britain too. Britons may watch American football, but they should not let it replace the real thing.

Image: Tvabutzku1234/CC0 1.0 via Wikipedia Commons

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