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Across the Pond: Young Britain's Opinions of the U.S.

Posted by Will Rice (will) on Nov 07 2011 at 12:43 PM
FALL 2011 >>

By Andrew Terrell

The “special relationship” between Britain and the U.S. first declared by the half-American British statesman Winston Churchill has never been trouble-free.  While Americans over the years have generally maintained a kindly opinion of the British, the British public has cast a more critical eye on the nation that after World War II supplanted their own as the world’s great power.  Disapproval of United States policies is most pronounced among young Britons, who are often disappointed that America fails to live up to its own ideals.

Those disapproving opinions matter, voiced as they are by the future leaders of what is still one of America’s closest allies; its partner in the now-fraying Anglo-American global economic consensus; and its best friend in Europe, an increasingly troubled part of the world. As an American graduate student living in the United Kingdom, I confront the views of young Britain on the U.S. every day.  I recently conducted a series of informal focus groups to gather, organize and analyze this important body of opinion.

Among young Britons, as in most of the world, Barack Obama’s election was the biggest boon to America’s image in years, startling them into a restored admiration for American pluralism and even causing them to disparage by contrast their own country’s progress towards multiculturalism.   But also like many hopeful supporters of the Obama candidacy worldwide—including many Americans—Britain’s young are frustrated three years on by the realities of the Obama Administration: limited reform, slow in coming, with some pressing issues unaddressed altogether.

Guantanamo Bay remains a lightning rod for criticism. President Obama’s failure to close the prison facility there and end indefinite detention of international terror suspects, after signing an executive order to do just that, serves as a symbol of American hypocrisy.  “How can America expect others to obey the spirit and letter of international law, when it does not?” one young Briton asked. 

There is admiration that President was able to reform the American health care system, even if only in a modest way; but continued that disbelief that the world’s wealthiest country can’t guarantee to all such a basic human service, and shock at the uninformed criticism leveled at their own cherished National Health Service during the American health care struggle.

The American domestic issue that came up most often—and one of the most alienating aspects of U.S. political debate—was the battle for LGBT rights.  Unlike in the United States, gay rights is not a partisan issue in the U.K, with all three major political parties supporting marriage equality.  Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron attended the partnership ceremony of one of his own openly gay Members of Parliament.

Perhaps surprising coming from the third generation raised in social democracy, there is widespread admiration of the American work ethic and a desire to see more of that type of individualistic drive in the U.K.   But young Britons’ concept of the American Dream is not limited to personal acquisition, encompassing instead a larger effort to improve society and everyone’s quality of life.

As evidenced by the demonstrated trans-Atlantic support for the Occupy movement, young Britons share a disgust with the corruption of American politics. “Money rules common sense in your country and that is why your having problems,” summarized one.

Andrew Terrell is a former Aide at Americans for Democratic Action and current M.A. candidate in International Political Economy at Warwick University.