Britain and America
Mar 27th 2008
A poll that we commissioned suggests that Britain and America may have less in common than is widely assumed
TO TURN over the supposed Anglo-American common ground carefully, The Economist commissioned pollsters at YouGov in Britain and Polimetrix in America—supported by additional funds from the Hoover Institution, a California think-tank—to find out what people in both places thought about a number of social, political and economic matters. A thousand people in each country were consulted between March 7th and 11th. Broadly, the differences between the two countries look more striking than the similarities.
Like most west Europeans, Britons tend to have more left-wing views than Americans, but the first chart shows that this is often by a surprising margin. (“Left” and “right” are harder to locate than they were: here “left” implies a big-state, secular, socially liberal, internationalist and green outlook; right, the reverse.) The data are derived by subtracting left-wing answers from right-wing ones, for each country and for each main political grouping within each country. A net minus rating suggests predominantly left-wing views and a positive rating suggests a preponderance of right-wing views.
The gap between Britain and America is widest on religion: even British Conservatives are a great deal more secular than American Democrats are. The two are a bit closer on social values (abortion, homosexuality and so forth), and they overlap on ideology (mainly, how active the state should be), with Britain’s Tories to the right of America’s Democrats.
They overlap again on how free their countries should be to intervene militarily (both the Tories and Labour are more hawkish than the Democrats). Britons are more international than the Americans, keener on free trade and globalisation. Views coincide most nearly on climate change—ironically, the area where the two governments have been least in step.
On five of the six groups of issues selected, American opinion is far more polarised than British (only nationalism seems to unite America’s left and right). Gone are the days when it was British politics that embraced political extremes and Americans looked on bemused. The gap between Republicans and Democrats is almost always far greater than that between Tories and (usually) Liberal Democrats. Lib Dem supporters are to the left of Labour on every broad category except the role of the state.
Such nuggets abound. Americans have a wider anti-big-business streak. Britons are cooler on multiculturalism. Britons are more willing than Americans to curb civil liberties in pursuit of security. Americans are less keen not only on the United Nations but also on NATO—and more enthusiastic about the “special relationship” with Britain. If the British could choose their leader from a host of recent Anglo-American greats, they would pick Bill Clinton before Tony Blair. So would Americans, even if they may turn down his wife. Of the current presidential candidates, British Tories would vote for Barack Obama; Labour supporters prefer Hillary Clinton by a narrow margin.
People in both places are worried about the economic future but still bullish on chances for bright kids from poor families. They feel much the same about the death penalty: they are broadly against it. Neither group is conspicuously thrilled by the idea of a Muslim president or prime minister.
Do the differences we found matter? They might, for the world order is changing and its components are up for review. Few agree on the nature, let alone the future, of the special relationship between Britain and America. For much of the past half-century Britain and America have mostly presented a common front on security and foreign affairs and more besides.
No British premier bet more heavily on the special relationship than Mr Blair. He paid a heavy price for committing British troops to Iraq alongside Mr Bush’s, losing popularity at home and influence in Europe.
Walter Russell Mead, an American observer of foreign affairs, maintains that America and Britain act together so often not because they set out deliberately to do so but because they frequently reach similar conclusions on their own. “The family resemblance is so strong that even our most casual acquaintances can see that we are related,” he writes in “God and Gold”, a good recent book.
Some sort of Anglo-Saxon particularity appears to exist; and complacent, even triumphant, America and Britain have urged on the rest of the world their own prescriptions: lightly-regulated capitalism red in tooth and claw at home, and military intervention where needed to promote democracy around the world. Both seem rather less than winning strategies these days.
What next for the Anglo-Saxon alliance? In their fundamental attitudes—regarding religion, society, the role of the state—Britons are more similar to their western European neighbours (and Canadians) than they are to the United States. In foreign affairs and security matters, however, they usually stand somewhere between the two. Even though use of the term is said to be discouraged at the British Embassy in Washington, it is certainly too soon to write off the special relationship.
Two research outfits in Washington, DC, the Pew Research Centre and the German Marshall Fund, conduct regular surveys on global attitudes. Andrew Kohut, the president of the Pew Research Centre, points out that, although enthusiasm for America has slipped since 2000, a majority of people in Britain, unlike those in the rest of the big countries in his survey, still give America a favourable rating overall: 51%, compared with 39% of French people and 30% of Germans. Americans are far warmer towards Britons (and Canadians) than towards their other allies.
In polling for its 2007 Transatlantic Trends report, the German Marshall Fund found that whereas 74% of Americans believed that war is sometimes necessary to obtain justice, around 66% of Europeans thought the opposite. Britain echoed America: 59% agreed that military action may be justified in such circumstances.
But John K. Glenn, who heads the project, believes that America and Europe are nonetheless converging on some issues, principally on the threats that face them. Europeans are more alarmed than they were about Islamist fundamentalism, for example, and America is waking up to global warming.