Time to decolonise British political discourse
Our Island Story has been replaced by someone else's continental morality tale
Back in the glory days of Viz there was a character called Yankee Dougal, an ordinary boy who was under the misapprehension that he was American. He says ass instead of arse, prefers American football to the real kind and, in the only strip I remember, ends up achieving his dream by being shipped off to Vietnam. Back in the 80s and 90s, if you obsessed over America, you were perhaps more likely to idolise the tough-guy, cowboy-or-Rambo image of the country. America meant being powerful and beating commies: big hair, bazookas and shoulder pads.
Then The West Wing came along, and ruined a generation of British minds forever.
I have to admit that I’ve never actually seen a whole episode of Aaron Sorkin’s creation, even though I bought the entire box set when my local video shop closed. I felt like I should watch it but it ended up sitting there on the shelves, taunting me; I just couldn’t bring myself to put it in the DVD player because too many people British political types kept on referencing it, in a way that made me wince.
And the show has obviously done a huge amount of harm, as Duncan Robinson writes in a characteristically sharp piece for the latest Economist. The problem, Robinson argues, is a deep and obsessive interest in American politics found among Britain’s political nerds.
‘When in the home of a Westminster politico, why not play a game of Bookshelf Bingo? Head to their study and tick off what you see. Robert Caro’s “The Power Broker”, an account of Robert Moses’s post-war reshaping of New York, earns a point, as does any volume of Mr Caro’s weighty biography of Lyndon Johnson, the former president. Any of “The Big Sort”, “Bowling Alone” and “The Coddling of the American Mind” also count. “Team of Rivals”, an account of Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet, is a must, as are all of Barack Obama’s memoirs. A dusty DVD box-set of “The West Wing” completes the set and you win. House!’
He points to the use of ‘flyover country’, a bizarre term when ‘90% of the population lives within a four-hour drive of Northampton’. How long would it actually take to fly from the east to the west coast of England? About 15 minutes? It’s less than 100 miles at its narrowest, in American terms about a third of the length of Pennsylvania. Besides which, the most depressed towns here tend to be on the coast, the richest and most comfortable deep inland within the Thames Valley; we live in a maritime climate so there is no huge advantage in being near the sea. (Indeed in its politics, France is a much better match for the United States, two relatively rural countries with huge discontent in the hinterlands.)