By Bulmer-Thomas, Victor | The World Today, January 2004 | Go to article overview
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Bulmer-Thomas, Victor, The World Today

The recent state visit to Britain by President George Bush, the first by a United States leader since Woodrow Wilson in 1918, provided an excellent opportunity to gauge the strength of pro- and anti-American feeling in this country and to reflect on the implications. Although media coverage before the event, particularly on television and radio, gave the impression that the visit would be deeply unpopular with a majority of the population, the Guardian poll published the day before showed a nation split down the middle. Those in favour of Bush coming - 43 percent - slightly exceeded those against - 36 percent - while the remainder did not have an opinion.

ALL AMERICAN PRESIDENTS AROUSE STRONG FEELINGS, BUT THE emotions stirred by the current president are particularly powerful. There are several reasons for this. As the leader of the world's lone superpower - or megapower as we call it in Chatham House - Bush's views need to be taken seriously by everyone. He has presided over a change in US policy that some have termed a revolution. And the president has a way of expressing himself that encourages his audience to see things in black and white. Even in America, opinion is more deeply polarised around Bush's personality than with previous leaders.

The result is that public opinion needs to be seen through a dual lens: pro- and anti-American on the one hand and pro- and anti-Bush on the other. This 2x2 matrix gives us four options, although one - pro-Bush, anti-American - is likely to be of little practical relevance. The three remaining options are:

* Anti-Bush Anti-American (A-A)

* Anti-Bush Pro-American (A-P)

* Pro-Bush Pro-American (P-P)

The first A-A option is reflected in some sections of the media - among the broadsheets, the Guardian and the Independent come closest - and was much in evidence during the large demonstration against Bush on the last day of the London visit. It includes anti-globalisation protestors as well as some pro-Europeans. It is not the policy of any mainstream political party, although some Labour MPs are deeply sympathetic. It probably represents around fifteen to twenty percent of British people willing to voice an opinion - in the Guardian poll, fifteen percent described the United States as 'a force for evil'.

The second A-P option is more complex. Its media representatives are numerous and include the Financial Times and, surprisingly, the Daily Mail. It is a widely held view among pro-Europeans and, not surprisingly, is also shared by many Liberal Democrats even if it is not official policy. It is probably the dominant position in Britain with perhaps 45-50 percent support.

The final P-P option reflects the views of the Labour government and is widely supported by the Conservative party. It can be seen in publications as varied as the Economist, the Times and the Sun. It is, of course, strongly associated with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who used his foreign policy speech at the Guildhall in November to argue the case for supporting the US in general and Bush in particular. This option commands the support of perhaps 30-35 percent of the electorate.

Adding together the figures for those who criticise Bush and support America - even if not statistically reliable - produces a clear majority in both cases.


Despite the vehemence with which these views are held, none are very appealing. Anti-Bush Anti-American is defined by a double negative, which can easily give the impression of being backward-looking and out of touch. The double negative also provides no clue as to what policies are favoured, which is why this option brings together groups that in many respects disagree strongly with each other - in particular, regarding the benefits of deeper integration in Europe.

The A-P option is more intellectually appealing, but it suffers from two main defects. First, it gives too much emphasis to the impact of one man on US policy, ignoring the fact that the president has to reconcile many competing views.

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