Home politics Britain must end its infatuation with America – this election shows why | Polly Toynbee

Britain must end its infatuation with America – this election shows why | Polly Toynbee


Forget the “special relationship”. Pull down the “Atlantic bridge” that never was. The US is a far away country about which we have just learned a salutary lesson: even if Joe Biden squeaks a win, the nation in which half the people voted for Donald Trump is utterly alien. (Yes, even to most of our Brexiters.)

The president’s supporters love this racist, misogynist, pussy-grabbing, tax-dodging crook; this macho, QAnon-backing, Covid super-spreader.

This dictator-loving, white supremacist, Bible-hijacking psychopath is their man, their national identity.

Seeing the US at its ugliest, it is time for Britain to step back and distance itself from a shameful society; time to end the long love affair and the bedazzled infatuation. Watch China smirk at the humiliating indignity America inflicts on the ideal of democracy. Even if Trump hasn’t quite won, the US has shamed itself all the same.

The deformities and corruptions of this obscenely unjust society keep getting worse. A kleptocratic plutocracy refuses to pay fair tax, cheating a bulk of citizens out of a decent education.

Even as working-class Americans feel their injuries, they cleave to a dream of American opportunity. Yet their social immobility far outstrips that of other western nations, with Americans most firmly frozen into the class of their birth. Still, though, they boast that their land of opportunity is the best place to rise from log cabin to White House, as that myth of rugged individualism abandons their welfare to developing-world neglect.

Of course, the other US has been the wellspring of invention, an intellectual powerhouse, a cultural dynamo, a world beacon for rights and democracy, magnet to the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free”. Oddly, the message Hollywood beams to the world remains liberal, where the little guy beats the corporate bullies, as when James Stewart rescues the town from its Potterville plutocratic fate in It’s a Wonderful Life. In every Disney, as in every folk tale, Americans relish stories of social justice, yet they vote for the opposite. And bad American political ideas often drag the rest of the world in their wake.

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Britain needs to make an emotional break. These are not people like us. George Bernard Shaw’s old maxim that we are “two nations separated by a common language” has rarely been truer. Why do we obsess over the psephology of every county in Wisconsin, yet pay perfunctory attention to the close-to-home politics of Germany, France, Italy or Spain? Britain’s failure to learn other languages is more important than it should be. Like it or not, we have to pivot back towards our neighbours, because America is of limited use as ally, role model or imaginary friend.

Boris Johnson, born in the US, will feel the Atlantic chill if Biden wins.

As Brexit negotiations falter, walking away with no EU deal will guarantee no US trade deal either. No-deal jeopardises the Irish border, and a President Biden would shun Britain in support of Ireland. Nor would a Trump win necessarily deliver a trade deal: last night in the Commons the government conceded stronger protections for our food and animal welfare standards.

If left all alone, no amount of Johnson’s “world-beating” boosterism could disguise Britain’s alarming isolation. Biden would reach out to Europe again, while our Brexit government would be on the sidelines, despite Nato.

Yet there was no great blue wave to give Biden an easy mandate to bleach out the Trump years. He will sit perilously on that Trumpist volcano, in what is a very un-European country.

There’s no way back from Brexit, but the US election should remind us that the only way forward is to turn towards Europe and rebuild that alliance. It’s time we learned to talk European again; time to make languages compulsory in school again.

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Our fellow Europeans, like us, look on aghast at Trumpism. The small wave of nativist demagoguery that recently threatened parts of the EU has largely subsided, except in Hungary and Poland. Of course, Britain has not been immune from some of that American mania: we voted for Brexit and elected our own mini-Trump. But today, when asked if, “In hindsight, do you think Britain was right or wrong to vote to leave the EU?” British people consistently say “Wrong” by 57% to 43%.

History shows countries can go mad: it’s not “elitist” to say so and to fight back hard against it. You can sympathise given the socioeconomic reasons, those decades of stagnated incomes, the lost status of well-paid men’s industrial jobs, but have no truck with raw nationalism. Be shamed by those with skyrocketing top wealth abandoning under-unionised, under-educated electorates vulnerable to blatant lies.

But the madness of unreason still needs confronting fearlessly everywhere – and Europe is the world’s best bulwark against it.

Polly Toynbee is a Guardian columnist



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