American politics has an outsize presence in this country. As Ralph Leonard writes in UnHerd, the British Left has a habit of eliding the differences between the two countries in discussions of police brutality, which is why this week we have seen protestors in London chanting the American slogan “hands up, don’t shoot” at police officers who are (famously) unarmed. Moreover, Britain is one of only a handful of countries worldwide in which police do not routinely carry guns. These same activists speak confidently of “Miranda rights” (the caution), “police badges” (warrant cards), and “pressing charges” (supporting a prosecution), not realising that these are terms learned from American fiction and media.
The British imitation of American political discourse goes well beyond race. The trans movement as a political entity is also a product of America, with sex reassignment medical technologies and the academic theory that props up the movement all imported to this country. But the movement does not translate well to the British context for several reasons, one of which is the fact that, while American trans people still face discrimination in areas such as housing and employment, these civil rights battles have already been fought and won for LGBT people in Britain, with various pieces of legislation passed almost a generation ago, in the late 1990s and early 2000s. British trans activists have embraced wholesale a political movement designed for an entirely different political landscape.
But Britons raised on a diet of American TV and now immersed in social media dominated by American voices have a bad habit of assuming that they “know” America, forgetting the important distinctions between our two countries. For instance the American feminist and LGBT movements can only be properly understood as part of a reaction against an opponent that simply does not meaningfully exist in mainland Britain: the Christian Right.
When American feminists dismiss any criticisms of porn and prostitution as “prudish”, or figures like Lena Dunham make deliberately provocative comments such as “I still haven’t had an abortion, but I wish I had”, it is in the presence of this spectre. But here, where abortion rights are well established, and the key critics of the sex trade are Left-wing feminists, such rhetoric is nonsensical. Still, it continues to be imitated by British feminists and LGBT activists who, desperately looking to America for guidance, find themselves sparring against an imaginary enemy.
There is something rather embarrassing about watching Britons jogging along in the wake of Big Sister America, gripped by their news cycle while they pay us very little notice. Online discourse has a tendency to bleed together and, as the most populous Anglophone country, we should expect American political vocabulary, priorities, and assumptions to dominate. But there is no need for us to further entrench that dominance. This is a country that most Britons have never been to, and that the vast majority of us do not really understand; America being a far stranger and more foreign place than casual consumption of their TV and social media would suggest.