US DEFENCE Secretary Condoleezza Rice’s rough reception in Britain drew attention to a yawning transatlantic divide.
Rice’s trip followed British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw’s visit to Rice’s hometown in Alabama last year. In America, Straw had received an enthusiastic welcome – perhaps based more on an appreciation of his Britishness than any knowledge of him as a person. By contrast, noisy protestors barracked Rice when she visited Straw’s constituency of Blackburn in Northern England. What was meant to be a show of unity, instead revealed an uncomfortable truth – British leaders may be popular in America but this is far from reciprocated.
What accounts for this difference? Most Americans have a warm and rose-tinted view of Britain. They like to think that the Brits feel the same way about them and that Anglo-American interests invariably converge. Most Americans are well aware of French and German scepticism about their foreign policy, but they expect a different welcome in Britain. Many ordinary Americans, as well as lawmakers on Capitol Hill, would, therefore, be surprised at Condy’s unpopularity in Britain, particularly as she bore no direct responsibility for the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and she is, by all accounts, a strikingly capable politician.
Dislike of Bush is not the reason
Let us not delude ourselves that this hostility is confined to a dislike of the Bush Administration. Significantly, one of the demonstrators in Blackburn carried a placard bearing the message “Condoleezza Rice is an American Idiot”. No, what we witnessed in Blackburn, and elsewhere, was not simply anti-Bush feeling – although, admittedly, this permeates Britain’s Muslim community as well as student campuses and academic institutions. This was anti-Americanism pure and simple, an evolving virus that runs much deeper than disdain for a particular President and his foreign policy. Nevertheless, our view of American leaders, past and present, reveals a lot about our deep-seated prejudices. No President, since Kennedy, has enjoyed popularity in Britain – each and every successor has been derided. Here’s a brief roll call: the British respected Clinton’s intelligence but viewed him as mendacious and immoral. Bush Senior and Reagan were seen as warmongers, Carter an incompetent, Ford a bumbling clown, Nixon the apotheosis of evil, Johnson the architect of the Vietnam War. Their respective achievements – and there were many – were largely ignored.
Both parties contain
Anti-Americanism is fanned on both sides of Britain’s political divide. When Michael Foot became leader of the Labour Party in 1981, he had never visited America. He had simply seen no reason to do so. His successor, Neil Kinnock, always looked uncomfortable on his rare trips to Washington, as though the experience was distasteful to him. Perhaps the left’s dislike of America is unsurprising.
But the contempt of British Conservative opinion is almost inexplicable, given that America is such a supposedly successful example of dynamic capitalism. Yet, examples abound of America-hating Tories. Enoch Powell simply said: “I do not like America or Americans.”
Former Defence Minister Alan Clark was also known for his anti-Americanism. Then, there is the Europhile wing of the Tory Party, which is traditionally suspicious of America as a matter of course. Former Prime Minister, Sir Edward Health, disavowed the so-called special relationship between an American President and the British Prime Minister. In 1980, commenting on the election race between Reagan and Carter, Heath described the contest as a choice between “an incompetent and a cowboy actor”.
Various reasons are given to explain the general phenomenon of anti-Americanism. Out of control capitalism – with its connotations of exploitation, inequality and social decay – is one of the most prominent reasons. Others cite America’s imperialism, its close ties to Israel and its insularity.
In Britain, anti-Americanism is attributed to the fact that America is seen more as a bullying partner than a true friend. The demise of the Soviet Union seems to have exacerbated these feelings now that America is the world’s only superpower.
But we have to ask ourselves whether the same demonstrators, who opposed Condoleezza Rice, would protest against the likes of Putin, Mugabe and Chavez if they visited Britain. If the answer is no – and I suspect it is – then they are simply dangerous bigots. America is Britain’s closest friend in the world – the very least we can do is extend basic courtesies to her representatives.
By Gabriel Hershman