As if driven by a looming millennial deadline, Britain has experienced a national burst of achievement over the past month, solving a series of major problems that had festered for years or decades.
In Northern Ireland, a power-sharing government of Protestants and Catholics was created, promising an end to the bitter sectarian conflict that raged for 30 years and killed more than 3,500 people. In London's Covent Garden, the world-famous Royal Opera House reopened with a glittering new theater and a balanced budget after years of locked doors and fiscal turmoil. And London's subway system finally finished its most ambitious line, providing the only regular transit to the nation's new billion-dollar exhibition hall, the Millennium Dome.
All three achievements have been described as "miracles" by the euphoric British press. And the breakthroughs have one other thing in common: Each was brought about by Americans, called in after years of frustration under British management.
Those three high-profile success stories reflect a larger pattern in contemporary Britain. The United Kingdom today is a thriving, prosperous society, with education standards that can match any on Earth and a global corporate presence. British imports are among the most popular shows on U.S. television--even "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" was created by Britain's ITV network--and some of America's best-known businesses, including Burger King, Holiday Inn and Brooks Brothers, are owned by British firms.
But when it comes to reviving their own institutions--from freight railways to financial regulatory agencies, from Jaguar to Burberry's, from the BBC Orchestra to the tunnel under the English Channel--the British tend to turn toward pragmatic Americans to get the job done.
The pattern says something about Americans, and something about the British. "Yes, I think there is something about Americans that makes them focus on reaching a result," said George Mitchell, the former Senate majority leader who spent the better part of four years brokering the Northern Ireland peace agreement.
"I don't want to take anything away from the British and the Irish. They are warm and wise and articulate. But sometimes you get the feeling that these guys are so articulate they could go on talking forever. Americans are more likely to say, 'Enough already, let's get the thing done.' "
"I think Britain is a much more conservative society than the U.S.," said Cliff Mumm, a plain-spoken civil engineer from South Dakota who was hired 18 months ago to resuscitate the long-delayed extension to the Jubilee Line, the newest stretch of London's subway system.
"The British take on every project like a game of chess," says Mumm, a veteran trouble-shooter for the American engineering firm Bechtel. "They worry endlessly about rules and procedure, you know, doing things the way they've always been done. But when we got this job, we put together an Anglo-American team and said, 'Let's do what it takes.' "
Another useful U.S. trait, Britons and Americans here agree, is that the Yanks are far less concerned about class distinction, still a central aspect of life in this stratified nation. In fact, one of the best tools any American manager brings to an assignment in Britain is an accent--or, more precisely, the lack of any British accent.
In Britain, the way you talk speaks volumes about you--your economic status, your school, your ancestry, your career prospects. But American speech, whether it's Mitchell's Down East Maine accent or Mumm's flat Midwestern monotone, conveys nothing to sensitive British ears.
That has proved particularly useful to U.S. arts manager Michael Kaiser, a former member of the Washington Opera's board of trustees. He was called in just over a year ago by the nation's desperate culture secretary to get the Royal Opera House back on its feet. "Because I don't have a British accent, you can't place me in any social class," Kaiser said. "I'm sure that helped avoid the resentment and condescension."
Another reason for the Americans' achievement is the familiar adage that nothing succeeds like success. As the planet's dominant financial, technical and military power, the United States is accustomed to sending people off on rescue missions around the world. That builds a priceless pool of experience.
While London's transit authority was intimidated by the scope of the Jubilee Line extension--a $5 billion project that crosses the Thames River four times within 10 miles--the Americans at Bechtel had built subways all over the world.
"The bigger and more complicated the job, the more fun it is," said Mumm, who had worked on subways in Seoul and San Francisco--not to mention the Ankara, Turkey, beltway--before he came to Britain. "I love these huge projects that have romance and glamour and poetry, and the Jubilee Line had it all."
For the most part, the British have given strong support to the American fix-up artists in their midst. John Hume, a Northern Ireland politician who was a co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, said flatly that "nobody in Britain could have done what George Mitchell did here." The Guardian newspaper has a simple title for Kaiser: "Turnaround King."
But as in most countries, there is ambivalence here toward Americans and their contemporary dominance in global finance, politics and culture. "Of course we recognize American achievement. How could we not?" said Jonathan Freedland, a prominent commentator and author. "But of course we also resent it a little. We have to find the scars on American society and play them up as much as possible."
Consequently, the British media regularly depict the United States as a crass, money-worshiping society struggling to cope with drug abuse, political corruption and violence. Earlier this month, the Observer newspaper published a collection of 20th-century photos, grouped into chapters on "Science," "War" and and like. One section was devoted completely to photos from the United States--the chapter on "Crime," with images ranging from Bonnie and Clyde to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
For all that, the British seem to feel more admiration for and trust in the United States than for any other nation. A recent poll found that 59 percent of Britons consider the United States to be their nation's most reliable ally. Only 16 percent picked continental Europe, and 15 percent chose the British Commonwealth nations.
In addition to the growing reliance on Americans to solve national problems, Britain these days seems fascinated with American political institutions. Prime Minister Tony Blair is regularly said to be running a "presidential" administration. That was once a harsh indictment in this parliamentary nation, but because Blair has turned out to be the most popular prime minister in 50 years, "presidential government" is losing its negative connotation.
The most striking political manifestation of Americanization has been the popularity and influence of Freedland's recent book, "Bring Home the Revolution." Freedland, an unabashed Yankophile, argues in his provocative text that Britain should take up such American notions as elected mayors, referendums, party primaries and a written constitution. He even suggests that the nation's head of state should be elected.
While these ideas presumably do not go down well at Buckingham Palace, it is known that Freedland's "Revolution" is regularly invoked by the two most powerful men in British politics, Blair and Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown. The text has been excerpted and debated recently in every national newspaper, including the best-selling tabloids.
"The initial reaction to my book is always shock," Freedland says. "The ideas are just too American to swallow. But then people say, 'Well, Jaguar [now owned by Ford Motor Co.] is profitable again. And look at Northern Ireland! Maybe those Americans know what they're doing.' "
Americans to the Rescue
When the going gets tough, British institutions go to America these days to find the management talent that can turn failure into success.
Northern Ireland: After 30 years of sectarian warfare, former Senate majority leader George Mitchell brokered a historic peace deal that took effect last month.
Royal Opera House: After three British executives had been fired in three years, New Yorker Michael Kaiser restored order, and black ink, at the fabled company.
The London Subway: With the project far over budget and behind schedule, South Dakotan Cliff Mumm, of Bechtel Corp., took over and finished the extended Jubilee Line.
The Chunnel: Similarly, when the long-delayed tunnel under the English Channel was beset with seemingly unsolvable technical and labor problems, Bechtel managed to open the tunnel.
Jaguar: After years of declining quality and sales, Ford Motor Co. bought the famous sports car company, restoring its reputation and profits.
Aston-Martin: Another historic British automobile line, also restored to profitability by Ford.
Freight Rail: When the decrepit British Rail system was privatized, Wisconsin Central bought most freight service. The line is now the most reliable and most profitable of Britain's 30 new private rail companies.
The BBC Symphony: One startling break with tradition came when this venerable orchestra gave the job of principal conductor to Leonard Slatkin, below, music director of the Washington Symphony. Slatkin takes the baton this fall.