Uncle Sam may be self-absorbed but Mr Blair is still his someone special

April 29, 2005

Is the US interested in the result of the UK general election? More than one might think, Huw Richards finds

America is self-absorbed. Don't take the word of a British journalist for it. The phrase was used by two distinguished US academics of opposing political persuasion but shared unimpeachable patriotism.

One was Gary McDowell, professor of leadership studies, political science and law at the University of Richmond, Virginia, and former director of the University of London's Institute of United States Studies. He is also a Republican who worked in the Reagan White House. The other was Joe Nye, professor of international relations at Harvard University. He is a Democrat who held posts under presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.

Even the self-absorbed periodically take a look at what is going on elsewhere. There has certainly been plenty of international political action in the past few months for those who wish to take notice. Elections in Iraq, Palestine and Ukraine commanded worldwide attention. There was the first papal conclave in 26 years. France is preparing for a referendum with implications for the whole of the European Union. One might think that a British general election, particularly when the main uncertainty is assumed to be the size of the Labour victory, would attract little attention abroad. How much does this particular European state really matter?

Quite a lot, according to US political experts - though Sam Popkin, professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego, admits that this is no check on self-absorption. He says: "Here, it will be cast solely in terms of Iraq - do the British people like what has happened there or feel that we got them into trouble?"

There will be limits on interest and coverage. We are unlikely to see any US newspaper encouraging readers to email voters in marginal constituencies in emulation of The Guardian's ill-judged intervention in Ohio last autumn.

The rationale was that the US presidency affects everybody in the world, so they should have a say. The same cannot be said of the occupant of 10 Downing Street.

Overseas elections come in different categories, says Byron Shafer, professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin, who was previously at Oxford University. "There are those that may have a serious effect on one's life - Iraq and Palestine come into that category, and Ukraine was certainly important. Beyond that we should perhaps be taking Japan and Germany most seriously, but it does not work like that. There are countries that for reasons of history and kinship are taken very seriously, and Britain certainly heads that list."

A distinction should also be drawn between Americans. While professors and political junkies will take an interest in the British poll, the broader public is likely to be less enthused. Nevertheless, as Shafer has discovered, this does not mean that every aspect of UK life is blanked out.

He says that there was huge interest in the royal wedding between the Prince of Wales and Camilla Parker-Bowles, with "people debating Camilla's history and the constitutional issues. People will ask how it can be possible that Charles will be king, but the woman who marries him will not be queen. It may be that people are paying more attention to these things here than in Britain."

The monarchy may not be the only feature of British life playing better in the US than at home. Polls, and the excision of any cult of personality from Labour's campaign literature, suggest that the Government expects to be returned in spite of, rather than because of, Tony Blair.

No such problems apply across the Atlantic. "A popular joke at our last election was, 'Between Bush and Kerry, I'll take Blair'," says Shafer, who doubts that British disillusionment with the choice on offer will extend to a wistful hankering for President George W. Bush.

In the US, Blair appears to have triangulated the Conservatives out of contention, or even consciousness. Shafer says: "He has grabbed the centre ground among the American elite so completely that there is no space for anybody else."

The alliance of the like-minded formed with Democrat President Clinton in the 1990s has been succeeded by partnership with Republican Bush. "There are doubtless Republicans who might like to see a Conservative victory, but that is outweighed by a feeling of obligation to Blair for his support over Iraq," Nye says.

Popkin points out that while anti-war Democrats have been irked by Blair's stance, they are the last people in the US mainstream likely to switch allegiance to Michael Howard. The Conservative leader may take Americophilia to the lengths of being a dedicated fan of the New York Mets baseball team, but that affection shows little sign of being returned. One reason is that you have to be Prime Minister to get noticed in the US.

Another, McDowell points out, is that the White House was unamused by Howard's criticism of Blair's Iraq policy.

Even so, does anyone really think that a Conservative victory would make much, if any, difference to British relations with the US and the wider world? McDowell points out: "We know that whoever is in government will be firmly pro-American." This, though, is not the same as it not mattering.

McDowell also notes: "Allies are precious and few in number. Were Blair to lose, there would be a fear of a cascade effect in other countries."

Memories of last year's Spanish election and concern for Silvio Berlusconi's precarious coalition in Italy would be kindled. Also, Blair's personal relationship with Bush matters. Popkin says: "Bush listens to him and he has been very important in getting Bush back into Israel and Palestine."

Nye too argues that the Bush-Blair relationship is more two-way than a simple emphasis on the war might suggest. Admitting to personal admiration for Blair and Gordon Brown, the chancellor, he notes that the Third World and the environment furnish examples of the UK pursuing agendas that are not automatically appealing to Republican Washington: "The initiative on African debt is proving very important, and both that and the emphasis on global warming would go down better with Democrats than Republicans."

Blair also has broad appeal across the US spectrum in other policy areas.

British Eurosceptics who see our relations with Europe and the US as an either/or proposition ignore the reality that the US has historically favoured British engagement. Nye says: "There has been a long-term strategy of the 'Atlantic Bridge', with Britain forming the link that ties America into Europe. Whatever they feel about the EU, there are very few Republicans who would want to see it collapse. Many would fear the consequences of a Conservative drawing-back from Europe."

European policy has wider implications. Popkin argues: "The greatest crime committed against Third World nations is barriers to trade, in particular agricultural subsidies in rich countries. It is a big issue for both the US and the EU. Blair is more likely to try to do something about them than Howard, who needs votes in rural constituencies."

Despite the significant differences between the main UK parties, surprise rather than alarm would characterise Washington's reaction should our May 5 poll produce something unexpected. What seems clear is that the "special relationship" that bulks so large in British eyes still looks in better shape than might be expected when viewed from the other end of the telescope.

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