Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 7 December 2019

Two nations separated by a common language: there are some things Britain just doesn't get about America

US President Donald Trump's visit to the UK is a reminder of the two nations' complex historical ties

US President Donald Trump and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the UN headquarters in New York, September 24, 2019. Saul Loeb / AFP 
US President Donald Trump and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the UN headquarters in New York, September 24, 2019. Saul Loeb / AFP 

The playwright George Bernard Shaw once noted that Britain and the US are “two nations separated by a common language”. It is certainly true that despite the affection most Britons feel for the US – an affection that, after nearly a decade living in Washington, I certainly shared – there are some things about America we just do not understand. Take US President Donald Trump, for example. Mr Trump provides Britain with something our citizens do enjoy – a bit of entertainment, plus the pleasure of feeling superior to our American cousins. This patronising tendency has long roots. In the 1950s, then British prime minister Harold MacMillan, a man with an American mother, repeatedly suggested that “these Americans represent the new Roman empire and we Britons, like the Greeks of old, must teach them how to make it go”. The idea that British brains guide American decisions might be comforting to sections of the British public but it is largely nonsense.

During the presidency of Ronald Reagan, Britain's then prime minister Margaret Thatcher did become a trusted friend and adviser. But British newspapers, including those considered pro-American, bought into another patronising idea that Reagan was “just an actor”, a “cowboy”, playing out the role of president of the US. The truth was much more complicated.

No one much cares if foreign owners buy British supermarkets or football clubs but any British politician advocating American- style health care is committing political suicide

When I prepared Reagan’s obituary for the BBC and reported on his funeral, I was astonished at how far – even among bitter opponents – he was seen as essentially a decent man whose words touched the hearts of the American people. For Mrs Thatcher, he was a kindred spirit offering a clear, if simple, political vision. Big government was bad. Communism was wicked. And that led to clear but simple policies. Taxes should be low, government spending limited and defence spending high.

It is worth recalling this complex historical background as Britain welcomes – if that is the correct word – Reagan’s successor to the White House, Mr Trump. He is in London for the Nato summit and a state banquet with Queen Elizabeth II. But in Britain, Mr Trump appears to be the most unpopular US president ever.

Facing impeachment at home, he arrives in Britain in the middle of an extremely bitter general election campaign, having already controversially interfered in domestic British politics. He called the Conservative prime minister Boris Johnson a good man and Britain's Trump, as if he sees Mr Johnson as a kind of mini-me. He also urged Mr Johnson to work with the Brexit party of Nigel Farage to ensure Britain leaves the European Union. Mr Johnson’s party has been ahead in the opinion polls for weeks, suggesting he could win a comfortable parliamentary majority. So what could go wrong? Advisers fear their American guest enthusiastically endorsing Mr Johnson and suggesting a future US-UK trade deal could involve Britain opening up its National Health Service to US companies, or holding its supermarkets to American food standards.

The US trade representative body that will negotiate any future US-UK trade deal has held open hearings, in which US lobby groups, including pharmaceuticals, meat production, health care and others, have stated how they would like to claim a big slice of the British market. The opposition Labour party claims secret discussions show the health service is “up for sale” while Mr Johnson responds it is not. But the prime minister’s record of telling the truth is very patchy.

Moreover, in the past, Mr Trump and his supporters have been scathing about what they see as Britain’s “socialist” health care. It is impossible to overstate how sensitive this is. Few British people would care if American or other foreign owners bought British football clubs. Nor would many care if foreign owners bought British supermarkets or manufacturers or even chocolate makers such as Cadburys. But any British politician advocating American-style health care is committing political suicide. Healthcare costs are the biggest cause of personal bankruptcy in the US and despite the underfunding of the National Health Service, it retains the affection, respect and trust of British people like no other major British institution. Any blundering intervention by Mr Trump could cause a massive political backlash.

And so it looks as though Mr Johnson will endure various formalities with Mr Trump and avoid anything too friendly. They will agree that other European nations should spend more money on defence and Mr Trump will be briefed by his staff not to run off script and say what he really thinks about Britain and Brexit. But if Mr Johnson finds sticking to the truth sometimes tricky, Mr Trump finds sticking to the script almost impossible. When Macmillan talked of Britain playing Greece to America’s Rome, he meant the great Rome of Augustus Caesar. If British people see Mr Trump in Roman terms, it is more like the Rome of Caligula, the eccentric who once promoted his horse to the post of consul. It will be an interesting few days.

Gavin Esler is a journalist, author and presenter

Updated: December 2, 2019 03:27 PM

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