The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The essential difference between British and American politics

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, left, and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson debate in Maidstone, England, on Friday. (Jeff Overs/AP)
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LONDON — Playwright George Bernard Shaw purportedly said Britain and the United States are two countries separated by a common language. This old saw was on full display in Friday night’s debate between Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn.

The debate was a solid contest from a purely British perspective. Both men are smart and articulate, well coached to deliver (and repeat) their core messages. They tussled over Brexit, spending on the National Health Service, how best to fight terrorism, and other issues. An instant YouGov poll of debate watchers judged the result a draw, which fairly met my sense. Since Corbyn’s party trailed Johnson’s Conservatives by about 10 points going into the debate, this result probably helps the Tories.

From an American perspective, though, the debate displayed the difference in our politics. America’s politics are shaped by our founding, a revolt against the British crown over the nature and extent of political power. Our Founding Fathers — those ungrateful colonials for the British — justified their act in the stirring prose of the Declaration of Independence. Most Americans know Thomas Jefferson’s signature line by heart: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” American political debate is almost always, implicitly and at times explicitly, an interpretation of what these words mean today.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson launched his Conservative Party's campaign on Nov. 6 for the December general election, hoping to win back his own seat. (Video: Reuters)

This means that the words “rights” and “liberty” or “freedom” are the basis of any serious American political discourse. Much of the division between right and left in the United States stems from the differing meanings the two sides give to these words. Philosopher Isaiah Berlin famously described these two meanings as “positive” and “negative” liberty. “Positive” liberty means having the power to exert one’s will and obtain one’s desires, which often requires the exertion of governmental power to provide that ability to all. “Negative” liberty means the removal of obstacles to one’s ability to exert will, and this often limits governmental power to establishing and enforcing facially neutral rules. In the United States, the left tends to use “liberty” and “rights” in its positive sense, while the right tends to use those words in their negative sense.

This creates the familiar substrata of our debate — the common language Americans intuitively understand. When many Democrats say “health care is a right,” they are arguing that people cannot be free if they can’t get the health care they need and therefore government must act to give them that. When many Republicans say “gun ownership is a right,” they are arguing this is something all people can do and the government cannot prevent it without overstepping its legitimate powers. The two sides disagree on what the word “right” means, but they agree that the core political question is how government ensures that all people have the secure ability to maximize their freedom.

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These concepts are completely absent from British political thought. The idea that government cannot legitimately do something — which animates so much of American conservatism — does not exist. For a British conservative, government ought not to do something that would infringe too greatly on individual liberty, but in theory nothing is ever really beyond the power of Parliament. Thus, Johnson vociferously opposed Corbyn’s aggressive tax-and-spend agenda, but he never made the American conservative argument that Corbyn’s massive extension of government inherently violates our natural rights.

This also held true for the concept of positive rights. Both leaders support Britain’s National Health Service, a system in which almost all health care is provided by the government directly and is free to all users at the point of service. Neither, however, said the government must provide such a service. Thus, Corbyn castigated what he contended was Conservative underfunding of the NHS for the nine years it has held power. He never argued, as most Democrats would have, that such underfunding denied people their right to adequate health care.

That’s not to say that British political debate lacks moral content. Britons are passionately devoted to their political causes. But the absence of the idea of inviolable rights means their debate lacks the American debate’s moral imperative. A Briton may think the majority is wrong — as millions of Remainers vehemently believe the Brexiteer majority is — but rarely would that Briton believe it to be inherently unjust. This allows the British to politically reconcile in a way today’s Americans find extremely difficult.

Friday night’s contest marks the last time Johnson and Corbyn will debate before Thursday’s election. The subtle debate between an American system that tries to define and protect rights and a British system that tries to define the right thing to do, however, is eternal.

Read more:

Henry Olsen: Next week’s British elections will be a window into 2020

Ben Judah: Russia has already won Britain’s election

Meera Selva, Rasmus Kleis Nielsen and Richard Fletcher: The real loser in Britain’s divisive elections? The media.

Sebastian Mallaby: Boris Johnson could break Britain

Henry Olsen: Democrats and Republicans alike can learn a lot from this Briton’s cautionary tale

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