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Andrew Marr
Andrew Marr, the BBC's political editor, presented a unique BBC-led global television debate about the US's place in the world. Here he explores the links, and divisions, between the UK and America.


Once upon a time the Americans were the British lost on the narrow lip of a distant continent, clutching their faith, songs, customs and memories.

They were 17th Century space travellers, cut off from Planet Europe with its corruptions and tyrannies.

Today, the British sometimes seem more like strayed Americans, islanders who speak American, watch American, eat American, and increasingly think American too.

Looking at us, a visiting anthropologist from Mars might conclude that we must be a tribe of migrants from Pennsylvania who ended up, for obscure reasons, squatting off France.

Almost all countries in the world are touched, in some way, by American power Hollywood reaches deep into Asia and Russians eat Big Macs but the British are more intensely soaked in US culture than anyone else, except the Canadians.

This is about language, first and foremost; though France, for instance, is heavily Americanised, the French language acts as a formidable buffer, as does German.

Multi-ethnicity

The second reason for the similarity is that Britain, like the US, is a fully multi-ethnic country.

British multi-ethnicity is different in history and tempo. It is not about a fresh slate but an old empire. As British Asians sometimes put it: "We're only over here because you were over there."

But the effect is to make the UK as open to cultural mingling and change as coastal America. London has more language communities and international business headquarters than New York. Manchester has even more Sikh taxi-drivers than Boston.

Third, of course, there is history. The US constitution is an idealised and codified reworking of British constitutional thinking.

American business practice grew from the commercial laws, property rights and trading customs of 18th Century London and Bristol.

For all these reasons, and lesser ones, modern Britain has been more open, more porous, to contemporary American power than rivals.

Class divide

Modern Britain is the Simpsons, 24, Friends, Starbucks, Amazon, Gap, the White Stripes and Michael Moore, along with the Commons, the Queen and Martin Amis.

There are class elements to this, since the posher British are likelier to feel themselves European, with their Italian holiday homes and raggedly idiomatic French, while the poorer, because they watch more telly, absorb more American programming and American food.

Where are the evangelical churches gaining ground in Britain? Among the poorer blacks and whites of the inner cities. But British-Americanism transcends class too.

The high-income political obsessives of Westminster hoover up the latest books on Clinton and Bush, watch "The West Wing" and speculate about Ari Fleischer's future.

Writers I know who cross the Atlantic like frantic petrels wryly describe themselves as "Nylons" (New Yorker-Londoners) or, more poetically, Atlanticans.

Dig below the surface similarities, and you find deeper ones the shared interest in global policing, the more-similar-than-not business cultures, the high level of internet usage, the populations that will continue to grow as those of France, Germany and Italy fall.

Vive la difference?

But if British-Americanism is intense, it also offers an interesting lesson for the rest of the world: for the corollary seems to be an equally intense desire to assert a different identity too.

You find it in humour; in sport; in the monarchy (far stronger than most people would have predicted a decade ago).

You will see it in Britain's newspaper culture; in soap operas and the tone of British television news; in the mere existence of Radio 4, which is perhaps the most un-American act carried out daily in English; and in the generally far less religious atmosphere of modern Britain, a secular, indeed Godless place by American standards.

When British culture stands up to, or against, American culture, it is persistent and dogged.

Baseball has made no inroads. President Bush's born-again Methodism is met with blank disbelief, or amazed distaste.

In Britain, there is no issue deader than the death penalty. And what patriotism is to middle America, knowing self-deprecation is to middle Britain.

It is as if there is a complex, winding internal border in the mind of every British adult.

On the one side there is a shared American culture which enriches our lives. When, after September 11, the "Star-Spangled Banner" was played outside Buckingham Palace, or at the last night of the Proms, it was a family tribute.

But on the other side of that mental border is an untouched other, a way of feeling that is beyond the reach of Drs Kissinger or Seuss.

For the British it is impossible not to be American and intolerable to be only American.

It is a condition of self-division that may become universal.

This double-ness can be held in any head without pain, and indeed with great pleasure. The trick is understanding that, in a world which has America, any form of local purity is an impossible mirage.


What The World Thinks of America was broadcast in the UK on BBC Two on Tuesday, 17 June, 2003 at 2100 BST.

You can watch the programme by clicking the link on the What the World Thinks of America home page.



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