Britain and America
Mar 27th 2008
From The Economist print edition
Our polls show the two may have less in common than they think
WHEN the half-American Lieutenant Winston Churchill stood up in a ballroom at the Waldorf Astoria in 1900 to tell New York about the Boer war, Mark Twain was the man who introduced him. No fan of either Britain's imperial war in South Africa or America's against Spain at about the same time, the writer spoke of the links between their two countries. “We have always been kin: kin in blood, kin in religion, kin in representative government, kin in ideals, kin in just and lofty purposes; and now we are kin in sin, the harmony is complete, the blend is perfect, like Mr Churchill himself, whom I now have the honour to present to you.”
A century and an unpopular joint invasion of Iraq later, George Bush and Gordon Brown spoke in similar vein at a Camp David press conference in July 2007. The president said the ties between Britain and America represented his country's “most important bilateral relationship...primarily because we think the same, we believe in freedom and justice as fundamentals of life.” Not to be outdone in diplomatic boilerplate, Britain's new prime minister spoke of “shared values...the belief in the dignity of the individual, the freedom and liberty that we can bring to the world...”
But are these Anglo-American values really so different from those that Britain shares with other rich democracies? On a state visit to London this week, Nicolas Sarkozy, France's president, sought to rouse his hosts to a sense of their mission within Europe and to a “nouvelle fraternité franco-britannique”. He too spoke of common values, and, perhaps more tellingly, of shared tastes in books and music. His message was that of course both countries should work with America, but that theirs was a separate, and a shared, calling.
To turn over the supposed Anglo-American common ground more 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. The full results, published here, present a nuanced picture of attitudes on both sides of the Atlantic. Broadly, however, 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 specific questions underlying this summary are set out in charts on the next two pages.
The gap between Britain and America is widest on religion: no surprise there, as Britain is famously a post-Christian society and Americans are, if anything, rediscovering the faith of their fathers. But the difference in views is so wide that 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.
These are, of course, average figures: there are plenty of American atheists and Britons who hate the state. But the chart shows another thing too. 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. And that is another interesting discovery: 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 (perhaps because they see more of it at home). Britons are more willing than Americans to curb civil liberties in pursuit of security. Americans are less keen not only on the United Nations (no surprise) 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.
Other questions elicit the more similar views that one would expect. 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: between a quarter and a fifth are opposed, the same proportion are in favour, and around half would support it in some circumstances. Neither group is conspicuously thrilled by the idea of a Muslim president or prime minister.
Special, but not exclusive
This is all fascinating stuff for policy wonks, and readers are enthusiastically referred to our website for more of the same. But 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—a phrase coined by Churchill, sadder and wiser after the second world war had marked the end of one empire and the emergence of a mightier superpower. To some who expected Britain to be Greece to America's Rome, a counsellor in the weighty business of keeping order in the world, its former colony's best friend in Europe and brother in arms around the globe, reality has been a bit of a let-down. Things haven't happened quite like that, nor could they have done, given the great and growing disparity of military and economic power. But for much of the past half-century, and certainly for the past quarter, 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 Brown's predecessor. Mr Blair flogged doggedly around the world to advance America's aims in Afghanistan after terrorists pulled off the worst attack on mainland America since Mr Blair's political forebears lost the battle for New Orleans in 1815. He paid a heavy price for committing British troops to Iraq alongside Mr Bush's, losing popularity at home and influence in Europe.
But the notion of a distinct Anglo-American community of ideas and values goes beyond the whiff of now-defunct cordite. Free-market economics and globalisation itself are often seen by others as essentially Anglo-Saxon constructs. When the French voted against the proposed European Union constitution in 2005, it was because, some said, it risked enshrining elements of the cut-and-thrust capitalism that is rampant in both Britain and America. They preferred the continental model of social protection and cohesion, even at the cost of slower growth, to the precariousness and inequality of those countries' thriving economies.
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. Ronald Reagan confessed to a feeling of “homecoming” when he addressed Parliament in 1982. Many Britons travelling in America find it more familiar than one would expect just from speaking the same language and bathing from birth in Hollywood's offerings.
So 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. War in Iraq and Afghanistan has so far created more problems that it has solved. America's current economic woes look likely to find their worst reflection in Britain, thanks to the sophistication of global high finance in which British and American firms dominate. China and India are coming up fast as economic powers; resource-rich Russia is throwing its weight around again; and the EU, with a new operating treaty within its grasp, is emerging as a more coherent force.
Domestic political changes too are altering the old equation. Labour, in power for over a decade, is trailing the Conservative Party in the polls. Mr Bush is more likely than not to cede the Oval Office to a Democrat next year. And Mr Sarkozy is proposing a more active role for himself as partner to both Britain and America.
So 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 the deep divide over the use of military force that has marked America's relations with Europe since the start of the Iraq war, Britain, again, is western Europe's outlier. 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. And he notes that on some questions about the use of force France is as close to America as Britain is. Welcome to London, Mr Sarkozy.
Correction: We had stated wrongly that both populations are broadly against the death penalty. In fact, the wording of the most-chosen answer to the survey's relevant question indicates broad if qualified support for the death penalty, among both Americans and Britons. This article was corrected on March 28th 2008.