Between the U.S. and Britain, an ideological parting

By Anne Applebaum
Tuesday, March 16, 2010


"Two nations, divided by a common language" is how somebody once described Britain and America. "Two nations, divided by a common politics" is another way to put it. Ever since the days of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, the political fortunes of the United States and Britain have tracked and reflected one another in odd ways. For many years they moved in tandem: The harmonious center-right union of Thatcher-Reagan was followed by the equally harmonious, if less affectionate, center-left union of Tony Blair and Bill Clinton.

But then came Blair-Bush, which worked out rather badly for Blair. Now we have Brown-Obama, who barely speak to each other. And even though in Gordon Brown and Barack Obama we once again have two "center-left" candidates in charge, a distinct lack of harmony characterizes transatlantic political debates. Our health-care conversations, for example, are totally different. This became apparent last year when Republicans held up the British health-care system as an example of the nightmare that might await America if Obama's health-care proposals were passed. British conservatives -- who had been bashing their centralized system for years -- immediately rallied to its defense. David Cameron, the Conservative Party leader who is angling to become prime minister in this spring's election, has even promised to "ring-fence" health care so that it is not affected by future budget cuts.

Further evidence that the days of ideological cross-pollination are over can be seen in discussions about education. Many of the troubles of the British state school system sound familiar to American ears: Falling standards, inner-city violence, private schools outperforming their state counterparts, uneven performance in different parts of the country. To combat these ills in the United States, 48 governors have started talking about the voluntary bipartisan creation of "national standards," an idea the Obama administration and its supporters have embraced with enthusiasm, as have many conservative education reformers. This is now the cutting edge of the U.S. education debate: A child's education must not depend "primarily on ZIP code," the low standards of many school districts must be raised, and only concerted action across the nation can fix the problem.

But the British already have not only national standards but also a national curriculum and national exams. And it is precisely those curriculums and exams that the British public want to escape. Hence the popular Conservative Party proposal: Liberate state schools from "stifling state control." Allow parents and teachers to start small charter schools from scratch. Let the child's Zip code determine not only the curriculum, in other words, but the nature and philosophy of the school, the size of the classes, the methods of education. Make schools not more alike but more different. Free pupils from pointless exams.

I don't want to make too much of these examples: More than anything else, the divergence of our transatlantic debates reflects cultural differences that have always been a lot deeper than they first seem. But they do reflect some transatlantic and even global political changes. Thatcher and Reagan could share a simple and ideologically compatible vision of the world because they had clear ideological opponents: Soviet-style communism abroad, welfare statism at home. In the post-Cold War moment, Blair and Clinton could also share an ideologically compatible goal: Both wanted to bring the old left into the new center.

Nothing is nearly so clear anymore, and certainly not in tricky subjects such as education. Is a national math curriculum right- or left-wing? Are smaller class sizes right- or left-wing? In Britain, the Labor Party is identified with standardized testing. In the United States, that honor belongs to the Bush administration. But then any random list of subjects -- Iraq, environmentalism, homeland security -- would produce an equally odd assortment of ideological positions in both countries. President Obama's positions on Afghanistan would be considered "far right" in Britain, yet a percentage of his compatriots consider him a "far left" radical.

The old labels are no longer of much use on either side of the Atlantic -- except, of course, to people who prefer their politics in sound bites. They seem to work, some of the time, for the authors of political bestsellers. But as a shorthand for describing the fickle moods of the British and American electorates -- or as a way of explaining the politicians in either country -- forget it.

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