American politics and the quiet deference

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I’ve just come home from work. I’ve rolled into bed, laptop at my side and banged on The West Wing.

When I was 12 I remember visiting family who were working in Georgia, Atlanta in the United States. As we watched the TV one night, I distinctly recall my Scots-born relatives describing a certain TV show that was taking the country by storm.

I also happen to remember the cast in black tie before Josh Lyman’s now glorious line: ‘Tell the Senator he can take his legislative agenda and shove it up his ass.’

At all of the age of 12 I had zero idea what was going on but it was a good omen for the decade hence.

What now? Not only do I understand it professionally but appreciate the rhythmic back and forth that is so layered, so eloquently convoluted, that every trip round a season offers a new insight.

What of the real thing? Truth be told, I find the UK obsession with American politics to be frustrating. There’s an innate, perennial bias toward the country that irks me to no-end for most of it has nothing to do with the UK.

British news outlets and social media on the day of President Obama’s penultimate State of the Union are flooded with analysis about what it might contain.

As a declaration, I live in Spain. I see now in dual vision what is important for two countries a mere thousand miles apart and who are neighbours in the EU. In the Spanish press, there is nothing but a passing report, an acknowledgement that this is important to the US and might contain an announcement of economic or trade implication to EU interests.

The UK, on the other hand, treats US politics with an imperial deference. It is at once all-encompassing but goes into nowhere near as much detail as you might expect from a country as fixated as us on the romance of Washington. If you are to commit to hypocrisy at least do it well; saturate the British press and social media with every minutia of congressional humdrum and follow through.

Yet no. Instead, we are left with an obsessive focus on what American historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. called the imperial presidency. Obama’s activities. Obama’s movements. Obama’s vision are treated as a balletic execution of some messianic manifest destiny to do good.

In the information age, it is quite proper to focus on the face of a country which is more often than not its leader. Ambassadors and spokespersons are redundancies and bywords for the leader being unavailable rather than inaccessible. Telephones and Wifi and international news have made sure a leader is always nearby for a comment.

In the British press, they go one further. There is an obsessive deference to the US despite most of its politics having little to do with the UK except in broad economic terms or military cooperation. Domestic priorities are treated on a par with tax or economic policies when it is only the latter that should have any interest. The US is the de facto leader of the free world because of its size and ability to influence. There is no de jure that mandates our attention on issues that are of no consequence or relevance to the UK national interest.

I recall in the run-up to both the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections that every left-inclined person with whom I debated and discussed Barrack Obama and his opponents would jump into a proselytising, near teary-eyed delight, at the prospect of a black president and how he would do wonders for the US.

That may have been so. But unless one has family there, unless one is a dual citizen or an ex-pat living abroad, we must question why we hold such a faux connection to a country that many of us have never lived in. What is it about US politics that make us at once so close, so curious, so connected?

The truth is unpleasant. We defer to the symbols, the imagery and the most convoluted of historical romantic notions. The aesthetic scale, the grandiose buildings of representation like the White House or the Congress, dominate our minds and are perpetuated by a media that misunderstands it as the epicentre of freedom when freedom is devolved across the world, in our constituencies and in ourselves.

There is no leader of the free world. There is a country that can influence and a country to which we must measure our national interest. Sentimentality clouds our senses, and can fatality lead to a Blair-esque infatuation that conflates national loyalty with the personal rapport between leaders.

The Special-Relationship is a biting exercise of deference that even the most devoted British lover of Pax Americana flinches at. Strategic meetings are dubbed special and when they are only the former, and when we forget our interests and instead desperately cling to the coattails of someone else’s power, we diminish ourselves and the US becomes the throne to which a humble satellite state visits. We hope the king grants his approval to his humble servant, which he did only last week to the celebration of Tory acolytes and the high condemnation of opposition parties.

The exercise is an imperial renaissance for the United States, and we would do well to remember that European politics, the poisoned chalice of British politics is seldom understood. Its daily absence in the news has left a behemoth shaped hole that has been filled with the worst kind of generalisations that have allowed for the rise of UKIP and the sidelining of the best intentioned, most eloquent of Europhiles across UK politics.

Obama is first and foremost an American politician. He does not make speeches to a UK audience and we should stop treating them as if he does.

I will check in with the 2015 State of the Union to see if there’s anything that affects the UK. I will acknowledge it as a US domestic process and put it in a mental drawer as a curious theatrical spectacle from a foreign land, but with little tangible relevance to my country.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to watch The West Wing. It’s the one with Lord John Marbury.

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About Alastair Stewart 256 Articles
Alastair Stewart is a freelance writer and journalist. He was previously a press officer in the Scottish Parliament and worked in public affairs. He graduated from Edinburgh University with an MA in International Relations and writes regularly on politics and the arts in the Spanish and British press.

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