by Jonathan Todd
“I know America to be a forward thinking country because otherwise why would you have let that retard and cowboy fella be president for eight years? We were very impressed. We thought it was nice of you to let him have a go, because, in England, he wouldn’t be trusted with a pair of scissors”.
With such jokes, Russell Brand, as host of the MTV awards, initiated what is becoming an Anglo-American tradition: the cheeky Brit at a major American award ceremony. Ricky Gervais followed up at the Golden Globes this year. These comedians aren’t short of lines ripping George W Bush, but what assurance can we have that the British head of state can be trusted with a pair of scissors? Or even know what scissors are?
We can, of course, have no such guarantee. Birth right determines our head of state, irrespective of their abilities with scissors or other qualities. In contrast, the commander-in-chief is subject to the most gruelling of recruitment procedures. This fundamental difference between our monarchy and their republic convinces me that no matter what wise cracks Brand may make and how many William and Kate themed souvenirs American tourists may buy, ultimately, Americans are laughing at us. The idea of Donald Trump being president is preposterous, but selecting our head of state by birth is infinitely more so.
The royal couple competes with Lady Gaga for coverage in American tabloids. Cat Deeley vomits at the prospect of fronting the US TV coverage of the big event. Such is the nerve inducing size of the audience. Every major US TV and news network had teams in London well in advance. “It’s all so royally romantic”, a CNN anchor cooed.
All of which means they are interested, right? Well, certainly. But largely in the way that museum artefacts fascinate without tremendous contemporary relevance.
Americans are fiercely proud of their constitution. Their forefathers crossed the Atlantic to enact and enjoy its rights. The royal wedding is a throwback to the world they left behind. Not a world they want to return to. They are peering through their TV screens and digital cameras at the crazy Brits. But that doesn’t mean they want to be us or see us as being especially important. Some of them are enticed. All of them are, at core, pitying. We are crazy, after all.
We’re crazier than Arabs who recently seemed so separate and peculiar. Where once the terrain was deemed too arid for freedom and democracy, now Egyptians proclaim the same rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as have always defined Americans. We, on the other hand, remain subjects, not citizens.
The Arab spring is as inspiring as the Gettysburg address, but its outcome remains uncertain and, as with an increasing amount of things, beyond America’s control. America still wants to be the shining house on the hill. But it knows the world is changing. And it is worried.
Whatever else is achieved by William and Kate, they will not encourage the US to see the new allies that they need in the UK. The wedding reinforces the perception that the key global axis no longer exists in the Atlantic but in the Pacific. Europe is ageing, uncompetitive and stuck in a past exemplified by the royal wedding. Asia is rising, assertive and in command of events. Millions of Europeans flocked to Barack Obama even before he was president, but he is deeply pragmatic. He has limited emotional attachment to Europe and wouldn’t allow himself to be distracted by one even if he did.
He might think more of Europe if we were able to punch our weight in military and economic affairs. While the euro threatens to collapse amid its contradictions, European states struggle to muster a credible military response to a crisis happening on the other side of the Mediterranean. Just because the UK isn’t in the euro-zone and is one of the more militarily capable European states (though, one whose military ambitions threaten to outstrip our capacities) doesn’t mean we should congratulate ourselves. Instead of leaving an empty chair at the negotiating table – David Cameron’s style – the UK should be leading in Europe. On Friday, rather than taking such steps as will be necessary to create a Europe fit for the twenty-first century, the prime minister will be eulogising the hereditary principle.
The continued application of this principle distorts what we think of ourselves and what others think of us. So long as it is applied it won’t be possible to bring up children in the UK and truly tell them that they can ascend to any station, nor will others see us as fully engaged in modernity. The Arab word has boldly embraced the future (in spite of our endorsement of the past by having the crown prince of Bahrain attend the Royal wedding). So should we.
Jonathan Todd is Labour Uncut’s economic columnist.