It’s Not Just the Beer

©2003 Christopher Suits

As Yogi Berra might have said, I never thought I’d hear myself write this, but the Brits wipe the floor with America in a lot of ways. The US has a lot to learn from Britain, not only in brewing and distilling, in preserving traditional cultural life, in tolerating difference; but also in the positive application of ‘reasonableness’ in domestic and foreign affairs.

I never thought I’d say this because, as recently as three years ago, America was ‘untouchable’ -- a shining City on the Hill exemplifying all that was good over a wide range of economic and political issues. Its economic entrepreneurialism, the dynamism of its financial markets, its surprisingly effective laissez-faire attitude in politics and public policy, all apparently sustained by good governance broadly understood, seemed not only irreproachable but the essence of ‘global best practice’, that watchword of the 1990s.

Now the story is rather different. Greed, stupidity and incompetence pervade public and private life in America today in ways which have only recently become apparent. Governance has failed across the board. Corporate leadership, in its wild excess, has forfeited the public trust. The US electorate seems horribly polarized and this is reflected in their political representatives’ increasingly vicious partisan gamesmanship, to the detriment of sensible policy formulation and well-crafted legislation. The most obvious of many examples of poor governance is granular California, with its childishly bungled electricity deregulation; fiduciarily unconscionable expansion of state spending during an obviously unsustainable economic boom; and most recently its ludicrous electoral charade. Corresponding examples at the national level are inept financial market regulation, the pathetic Sarbanes-Oxley act, and perhaps most dispiriting of all, the rapid leeching of civil liberties championed by the Justice Department and its cabal of law enforcement and intelligence agencies seemly bent on permanently curtailing the Bill of Rights. Of ‘arms and the man’ -- foreign policy -- it is best, perhaps, to remain silent, as its inadequacies are only too well known. Clearly, the US is not only losing the global battle for hearts and minds; its actions also threaten the stability of international political and economic relations, the consequences of a serious breakdown of which hardly bear contemplation.

Now cast an eye on Britain. Despite deteriorating public services – healthcare, education, policing, infrastructure; an economically unwise rising tax burden; vestigial class resentment; and the ongoing 'yobb-isation' of its culture, Britain continues to be guided by a core value that seems to elude America. As John le Carré’s voluminous and bibulous Connie Sachs once had occasion to muse, à propos of the Cold War,

‘Who was it who used to say "We’re fighting for the survival of Reasonable Man"?…I loved that. It covered it all. Hitler. The new thing. That’s who we are: reasonable….We’re not just English. We’re reasonable’.

In today’s world, she might have added militant Islamic terror to the threat board, and le Carré might have been able to describe a reasonable man’s course to counter what must be at least as big a source of destructive unreason as Soviet Communism ever was. As George Smiley, le Carré's quintessentially reasonable man forced to act immorally in the national interest, put it using a figure perhaps not entirely inappropriate to the US President,

‘…if a rogue elephant…charges at me out of the thickets of my past and gives me a second shot at it, I intend to shoot it dead, but with the minimum of force’.

Unfortunately, one cannot say that hegemon-America’s response to recent threats is ‘reasonable’ in the sense of being measured and constrained by an ideal of domestic and international civility. No doubt US policy panjandra would argue that, because US interests face a danger which is not only clear and present, but also unprecedented in nature and scope, and borne uniquely by the US, the President’s unilateral actions are legitimate and indeed mandatory in order to fulfill his Constitutional duty to ‘secure the national defense’. However, the fact that America’s turn towards fascism in the face of militant Islam is hardly unprecedented suggests that this mode of behaviour is a sign of structural and moral weakness rather than of steely-eyed realism. Indeed, this is how the US always acts when faced with major threats to national security. Interception of private communications, illegal detention of US nationals, debasing air travelers’ lives through obnoxiously incompetent security procedures, are sadly nothing new. When the threat was the Hitler-Hirohito Axis, the response was the grossly unconstitutional internment of US citizens who happened to be of Japanese origin. When the threat was Soviet Communism, the response was the McCarthy witch-hunts, which ruined the lives of scores of Americans without recourse to Constitutionally-mandated due process. More extreme Libertarians (and these are not in short supply in the US) would even claim that the imposition of a national income tax, temporarily during the Civil War, and permanently (as it turned out) during the 1914-18 war, was an analogously un-civil response to external threats.

Given the propinquity of American and British cultures, it is curious that, though it now as in the past broadly supports US policy, Britain has generally not matched American extremism. How has it resisted the excesses of its trans-Atlantic cousin? What is it about British culture that dampens the amplitude of these great anti-libertarian swings?

Britain seems to regard the life of the nation as a potter his pot: something to be molded, coaxed gently from natural earths combined in proper proportion, then slowly fixed in the kiln of experience. America, by contrast, seems to view the national life as a sculptor his work: something to be blasted and chiseled unmercifully from an unyielding substrate to stand as a monument for all time: Ozymandias, king of kings.

Socially and morally too, America is a mess. Even putting aside intractable problems like endemically poor race relations, the country is hamstrung by a lack of spirituality cloaked in materialism and manifesting itself as intolerance – on the left, as secular bigotry (political correctness), on the right, as religious totalitarianism. Talk about a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma!

Again, given the extremely close cultural and historical ties which bind Britain and America, what is it that enables Britain to avoid American excess in domestic and international affairs? For a satisfactory explanation, I think we must look to British common law, with its sense of moderation and its respect for tradition -- for reasonableness in private life, in public life, and in the intersection of the two.

In British private life, the American visitor is struck by respect for individuality, privacy; by Britain’s tolerance of eccentricity; its civility; its respect for fair play and tradition. Indigenous Anglo-Saxon tradition is preserved in the (to the outsider) quaint forms of country life, be they Morris dancing or the social dynamics of the village. Classical tradition, whose nurture in the ‘British’ Isles goes back to the Irish monks in the 7th century, is seen to emerge as British expertise in urban planning (if not always in architecture) and respect for language. Other notable aspects of British national life – flair for ceremony and pageant, theatre and music, which are certainly (among) the best in the world – have roots in both indigenous and Classical traditions.

In public life, the objectivity and world-class command of subject matter found in the institutions of the British civil service; the checks and balances on the executive going back to the Magna Carta and embodied in a bicameral Parliament, contribute to a sort of collective forbearance which is demonstrated in, for example, the light touch of regulation in Britain and in the relative success of various privatizations here. At its best, too, public debate in Britain is characterized by a level of informed civility unmatched elsewhere, certainly not by the United States on current form.

In the intersection of public and private life – relations between the individual and the state – Britain’s respect for tradition, suspicion of radical or precipitate action, and above all quest for social fairness which has transcended the inequities of the feudal system, religious wars, and the technological and ideological challenges of the industrial revolution and 75 years’ war of the 20th century – has moderated extreme behaviour on the part of either the state or the individual. Despite the dysfunctional way in which it’s sometimes pursued, social fairness as a value cannot be wrong-headed, nor its achievement socially or economically deleterious. This too is ‘reasonable’.

In short, Britain has every reason to be proud of the robustness and resilience of its core cultural values, and should and could do more to inculcate them in her former colony. For its part, America would do well to regard British ‘reasonableness’ as an antidote to the self-defeating rigidities of its national life, in both domestic and foreign affairs. As I said at the outset, Britain has something to teach America, not just about brewing beer, but also about getting along with the ‘French’, whoever they may be.