Magazine article The Spectator

The Decline and Fall of Anti-Americanism in Britain

Magazine article The Spectator

The Decline and Fall of Anti-Americanism in Britain

Article excerpt

Is anti-Americanism in Britain dead? Not quite, but it is dying. In recent days I have been charging up and down Britain launching my new book A History of the American People, giving lectures in public places about writing it, signing copies in bookshops and debating with readers. Of hundreds of questions put to me, only two had the smallest anti-American slant. British people are evidently worried about the United States in relation to drugs, crime, the trash issuing from Hollywood and religious fundamentalism. But hostility is reserved for France, Germany and (at the moment) Italy. America is seen as an ally against the Continentals, and all are keen on the Special Relationship flourishing which, thank God, it does. The old antiYankee slogan that they are `overpaid, over-sexed and over here' is now a historical curiosity: people under 40 have to have it explained to them, and even then they find it rum.

One reason is that the young have been there, often for many weeks or months at a time, have no cultural hang-ups and see Americans as people very like ourselves. Anyone of Tony Blair's age or less has an American dimension to their lives. My son Luke thinks no more of going to the States than I did, at his age, of going to Brighton. Blair is actively pro-America: he finds it exciting, dynamic, wedded to benevolent change. That is characteristic of young Britons today. To the young, America is identified with the future and with radical, non-ideological solutions to the world's ills. American universities are enormously admired, and more and more of our young people attend them.

In some ways we are getting back to the progressive transatlantic axis which held good for most of the 19th century. In the generation after the American Revolution, young Englishmen who wanted to change society looked to America for inspiration and example. Byron said, 'I always shake the hand of an American.' The young Southey and Coleridge planned to set up a Utopian community there in the Susquehanna Valley. Shelley actually had American blood and fantasised about American ideals being transported here; it is no accident that modern Shelley scholarship began in the States. And Keats simply said, 'I love an American.' John Stuart Mill was so enamoured of American ideas, especially in relation to the emancipation of women, that he went so far as to defend the federal government's efforts to detribalise the Indians. Bertrand Russell told me that his parents, Lord and Lady Amberley, a highly progressive couple, chose to spend their honeymoon travelling around America in search of new ideas.

As it happened, Russell's own lifetime saw the emergence, especially among intellectuals, of systematic anti-Americanism, to which he himself made a waspish contribution. It reached its apogee between the Korean war and the end of American intervention in Vietnam. It was mainly, though not entirely, irrational, and has been brilliantly catalogued by that assiduous compiler of case histories, Paul Hollander, in his book Anti-Americanism: Critiques at Home and Abroad, 1965-90 (Oxford 1992). It is still strong in parts of the eastern United States, especially among the radical misfits and weirdies of New York, Boston and other towns where ultra-liberals congregate to swap horror stories. These people do their best to keep it alive in Britain, where in other respects it is in precipitous decline, except in a few intellectual circles which events have passed by. …

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