Our British friends are fond of analyzing us. The latest analysis, rampant
in their media, seeks to know whether Bush foreign policy is a temporary aberration
or something more durable that springs from a repressed American subconscience
George W. Bush has tapped into.
Whatever the analysts decide about that, Bush's
visit to Britain this week is not likely to be your typical grand celebration
of Anglo-American fraternity. Tony Blair's hitching up to Bush's bandwagon is
The fall this month of Iain Duncan Smith, the Conservative Party
leader, is a consequence of Blair's pro-Bush policy. Blair has plummeted in public
support, and Duncan Smith was blamed for the Conservatives' failure to take advantage
One October poll showed 64 percent of the public no longer trusted Blair.
Another showed Labor Party support had fallen to 30 percent. The Brits, a pragmatic
people, are troubled with events, and new Tory leader Michael Howard hopes to
take advantage of the troubled state of mind.
It's time we Americans turned
the analysis around. If Brits are full of theories about how Bush tapped into
America's patriotic, religious and unilateralist instincts to win support for
his war, what can we say about British motivations for being there?
has got back its old fiefdom around Basra. Blair, who like Gladstone before him
is a super-sanctimonious prime minister, insists he is in Iraq for moral reasons,
but the public knows Basra is where the oil is. Britain wanted to annex Basra
after World War I, and only American opposition and an Iraqi revolt prevented
Why are the British unhappy with Blair and the Iraq occupation? If Bush
has tapped into the American sub-conscience to gain support, why has Blair stumbled
badly in gaining British support? If the Brits have a psychological explanation
for Bush's war, what is our explanation for Blair's war?
The literature on
American attitudes toward Britain is vast, and it is no surprise that opinions
have evolved. Abigail Adams wrote in 1788 that the "studied civility and disguised
coldness of the English cover malignant hearts." By 1948, however, Henry Steele
Commager would write, "nothing will make the Englishman false to his word or discourteous
to his guest."
Ralph Waldo Emerson's view in 1848 was somewhere in between:
"Every one of these islanders is an island himself, safe, tranquil, incommunicable.
In a company of strangers you would think him deaf."
Views on manners differ,
but there is also a constant to the British character in American eyes, a certain
"Englishness" or "Britishness" that remains immutable even as habits and conventions
And conventions do change. In 1877, Henry James described England's
"universal church-going, the sight of all England getting up from its tea and
toast of a Sunday morning and brushing its hat and drawing on its gloves and taking
its wife on its arm and making its offspring march before, making its way to a
place of worship appointed by the State."
Today, a British historian such as
Niall Ferguson laments the decline of religion in Britain and across Europe, attributing
America's greater economic performance to its greater church-going (more on that
fallacious theory in a later column).
The constant in these and other American
views is a certain pragmatic British staunchness, a distrust of emotion, ideology
or idealism as a basis for action. It is this pragmatic constant, the islander's
need to know what works, that Blair defied by aligning Britain with Bush in a
John Burroughs, the American naturalist, described the British
this way in 1881: "The Englishman will be nothing if not an Englishman, and is
out of place – an anomaly – in any country but his own. To understand him, you
must see him at home in the British island, where he grew, where he belongs. There
he is quite a different creature from what he is abroad. At home, he is 'sweet,'
but he sours the moment he steps off the island."
Commager summed up the British
this way: "A peaceful people, tender and kind, they are, when aroused, the most
belligerent of men, good friends and bad enemies, with the indomitable qualities
of the bulldog."
How could this "peaceful people, tender and kind," be dragged
into an unprovoked and unpopular war by an American administration promising to
remake the Middle East in the American image, promising something any pragmatic
Brit knows is total rot?
If America's problem in British eyes is that Bush
has perverted our natural and historic instincts toward collective action, justice
requires that Americans pronounce on why the British have allowed Blair to bring
them along on such a misbegotten enterprise.
Gladstone, wrote Harold Wilson,
"came to believe in a doctrine of Divine Right of Prime Ministers."
the moralistic, Gladstone redux, believes in no less, but lacking the power to
threaten the Ottomans and invade Egypt as Gladstone did in the glory days, Blair
needs America to fulfill his divine right.
He signed up with Bush against the
instincts of his people, who have a different view of divine right.
Copyright 2003 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.