The year was 1927, and Lieutenant-Colonel Reginald Applin, DSO, OBE, was on the warpath. The Conservative MP for Enfield was a man of decidedly robust opinions. In his youth he had served in the North Borneo Armed Constabulary. In middle age he had fought in the Boer War and commanded an Anzac machine-gun detachment at Passchendaele. And now, as he rose to address the House of Commons, he could feel the old fighting spirit surging through his veins. The blood was up, the heart was strong, and Lieutenant-Colonel Applin was preparing to engage his deadliest foe yet — Americanisation.
Now, as the House fell silent, he reported that he had recently visited a “big theatre” in Regent Street, where he had seen a silent film called What Price Glory? It had been billed as a comedy, but Lieutenant-Colonel Applin was not laughing. Set in the trenches, the film had dared to joke about the lives of men at war. Worse, it had shown men flirting with French girls! Surely, he told his fellow MPs, his voice trembling with rage, this was “not the kind of thing we British people want to see”.
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But then he contradicted himself. Shockingly, such films were, it seemed, the kind of thing British people wanted to see. He reached into his pocket and produced — yes! — an editorial from the Daily Express. Grimly he began to read: “The plain truth about the film situation is that the bulk of our picture-goers are Americanised to an extent that makes them regard a British film as a foreign film… They go to see American stars; they have been brought up on American publicity. They talk America, think America, and dream America. We have several million people, mostly women, who, to all intent and purpose, are temporary American citizens…”
I’ve been thinking about Lieutenant-Colonel Applin ever since the US Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade, apparently filling millions of Britons with existential horror. I thought of him when I saw the former tax accountant turned Corbyn economic adviser Richard Murphy tweeting: “Where the Republicans go the Tories follow. We take the right to abortion, contraception, gay rights and same-sex marriage for granted now. We shouldn’t. Very soon Tory think tanks will have their sights on all of them. Fascism is on the march.”
“Mad,” I thought. I saw that more than 3,000 people had retweeted this ridiculous prophecy, while another 10,000 had “liked” it, and I shook my head in despair. And then I saw another effusion, this time from the Labour MP Stella Creasy: “To every one of our American sisters, we are with you. We will not rest until your rights are restored… You think what you see in America couldn’t happen here? Then you don’t understand who is organising in UK politics.”
Again I thought of poor old Lieutenant-Colonel Applin. And then, as if to complete the set, I saw that the Prime Minister had weighed in, too. “In a sense, it’s for the United States, it’s not for the UK,” Boris Johnson told CNN. Alas, he just couldn’t help himself: “But the Roe v. Wade judgement, when it came out, was important psychologically for people around the world…”
This isn’t another essay about Roe v. Wade. Like every single other British observer, I have nothing worthwhile to say about it. Why would I? I’m not American. And that’s what this column is about — not being American.
What is it, I wonder, that blinds so many ostensibly intelligent people to the fact that the United States and Great Britain are two different countries? “Where the Republicans go the Tories follow,” says Richard Murphy. But that just isn’t true. There are some similarities, of course; but if you’re hoping to win selection for a safe Tory seat by talking about ending abortion, outlawing socialised medicine and encouraging the high-street sales of automatic weapons, then I’ve got a nice padded cell for you. “We will not rest until your rights are restored,” Stella Creasy tells her American sisters. But what does that mean? How much influence does the Labour MP for Walthamstow have over the American judiciary? Can you truly measure something so small?
“You think what you see in America couldn’t happen here?” asks Ms Creasy. Well, I suppose it’s just possible that in the next few years we could completely change our political system, radically reshape the relationship between the executive, the legislature and the judiciary, adopt a version of the US Constitution, develop a deeply religious political culture and set up a fervent anti-abortion movement — all of which would be the cue for our own Supreme Court to hand down a judgement allowing individual counties (Dorset? Wiltshire?) to outlaw abortion. Yes, I suppose it’s possible. It’s certainly no more implausible than a major British political party campaigning to throw out the 1967 Abortion Act — another thing that is clearly never going to happen.
Britain is not America. According to the most recent YouGov survey, just two in a hundred people — two! — think abortion should be illegal. What’s more, only 6% of people think access to abortions is too easy, compared with 8% who think it’s too hard, 47% who think it’s about right, and 36% who don’t know or don’t care. To repeat, Britain is not America.
We’ve been here before, of course. When a Minneapolis policeman killed George Floyd in May 2020, thousands of people defied Covid regulations to demonstrate in British cities, while The Guardian’s Afua Hirsch insisted that “the racism that killed George Floyd was built in Britain”. But in their racial politics and attitudes, as Tomiwa Owolade wrote last month, the two countries are completely different. The plain fact is that if you’re black and you’re British, your chances of being shot by the police are vanishingly small.
To point this out in progressive circles, though, is to identify yourself as the enemy. America’s struggles are Britain’s struggles, and only a fascist would deny it. “The prejudice that black people in America face is the same prejudice we face here. When one is hurt, we’re all hurt, because it could have been us,” a demonstrator told the BBC in the summer of 2020. You’d never guess that the two countries’ histories have been utterly different — or that most of our police are unarmed, so that actually it probably couldn’t have been us. Nor would you guess that there are, in fact, more than two countries on earth.
Do you remember the story of Victoria Salazar, the Salvadorean woman who was killed when a Mexican policewoman pinned her to the ground and broke her neck in the resort of Tulum? No, you probably don’t, because people didn’t march about it in the centre of Oxford. What about the 28 people killed during a Rio police raid on the Jacarezinho favela in 2021, or the 21 killed in another raid on the Vila Cruzeiro favela a few weeks ago? I don’t expect you remember them either. Why would you? “When one is hurt, we’re all hurt.” Yes, but only if they’re American.
Is it pointless to stand against the tide of knee-jerk, unthinking, virtue-signalling Americanisation? If Lieutenant-Colonel Reginald Applin could join us now from beyond the grave, he might admit that it is. Even so, I think rolling news, the internet and social media have made things immeasurably worse, blurring the lines between America and the world, convincing millions of otherwise sane people that what happens in Tuscaloosa matters more than what happens in Towcester.
Here’s just one small example. When I heard Boris Johnson say that “the Roe v. Wade judgment, when it came out, was important psychologically for people around the world”, I decided to check. It’s hard to be sure, of course, but I’m pretty confident it wasn’t. Abortion had been legal in Britain since 1967, so why would anybody care about the US Supreme Court? The Times briefly reported the story on its front page, but that was it. The Guardian ran a slightly longer report, but there were no editorials, no exultant columns, no readers’ letters. Some other papers had a tiny news item, buried on an inside page. Most didn’t mention it at all. In Ted Heath’s Britain, it just wasn’t a story. Tell that to a BBC website editor in 2022, and they’d probably shake their heads in horror.
Does all this matter? I think it does. Obviously we can’t live in a national bubble: our public discourse has always been influenced by trends and events overseas, from Lutheranism in the early 16th century to Jacobinism in the 1790s. But the intense and growing obsession with America isn’t just a curious Anglophone quirk. It’s a poison infecting our public life.
Almost everything about political life in the US today strikes me as deeply unhealthy. The general tone, perfectly reflected in that Richard Murphy tweet after the Roe v. Wade judgement, is relentlessly hysterical. The stakes are always sky-high; every setback is a shattering defeat. Death and despair stalk the land; the very existence of the Republic hangs by a thread, and the world of The Handmaid’s Tale may be only a few years away. And your political opponents are not merely misguided, they are positively wicked. Evil conspirators — militiamen, abortionists, gunowners, critical race theorists — are plotting subversion and civil war. How can you compromise with such people? How can there be a common ground?
Perhaps, as the historian Richard Hofstadter famously argued, it was ever thus. The American colonies were born as a kind of apocalyptic fantasy: a shining city on a hill, safe from the corrupt crypto-Papists of 17th-century England. The Republic, too, began with a conspiracy theory, casting the kindly, avuncular, quietly anti-slavery George III as a monstrous tyrant. And violence — whether rhetorical or actual — has been part of American political life from the very beginning. The violence of the Puritan firebrand and the violence of the frontier; the violence of the wars against Indians and Mexicans, the violence of slavery and the violence of the Civil War. Violence was America’s past; perhaps violence is America’s future.
But Britain isn’t America. Why would we want to import their hysterical tone? We have plenty of issues of our own, of course; but they’re ours, not theirs. Our race relations aren’t perfect, but they’re among the very best in Europe, not that you’d know it from much of the media. Boris Johnson really, really isn’t a fascist, and the worst thing you can say about Keir Starmer is that he’s incredibly boring. And yes, we do take “the right to abortion, contraception, gay rights and same-sex marriage” for granted. But why wouldn’t we? Who’s threatening them? Does anybody seriously think Boris Johnson, of all people, is going to abolish contraception?
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I don’t think the Roe v. Wade judgement matters. It does, but it matters for Americans. Sometimes things just aren’t about us. “You think what you see in America couldn’t happen here?” Yes, I do, actually. Let’s see who’s right.