LONDON — The British have long enjoyed complaining about American cultural imperialism. Blue jeans, beer in cans, saying “French fries” instead of “chips,” or “elevator” instead of “lift,” and other assaults on the mother tongue.
Then again, Americans fuss about British shows all over HBO and PBS, and British actors playing Americans in beloved entertainments from “Gone With the Wind” to “Succession.” Some of the chattering classes (a British expression eagerly adopted by U.S. political pundits) plunged into a moral panic when American children, addicted to the British animated series Peppa Pig, began to call their mothers “mummy.”
Some Gen Z-ers have watched too many episodes of “Love Island” (the British original, not the American copy) and “The Only Way is Essex,” in which a bunch of lavishly eye-lashed and air-brushed 20-somethings go clubbing and say “innit” a lot.
Panic! The youth of America have taken to imitating what’s known in these parts as Estuary English.
But not all the trans-Atlantic trading is fun and games. Some of the worst ideas concocted by the American right are landing here, including voter ID.
Voting in the U.K. has always been so clean, so easy, it would make your average Florida elections supervisor weep with joy. There’s a poll register. If you’re on it, you go to the polling station, which must (by law) be within walking distance of your home, get your paper ballot, mark the box by the name of your favored candidate, and stick it into a box.
It’s nearly impossible to commit fraud. Nevertheless, the Conservatives who control the British government decided to combat that nonexistent fraud by making voters present an approved form of identification: a passport, a driver’s license, or one of the travel passes issued to people over 60. Student ID cards are not allowed.
It is, no doubt, the merest coincidence that older folks vote Conservative while younger ones do not.
Rhetoric of censorship
Book banning is still rare in the U.K. but you are beginning to hear the rhetoric of censorship from the usual reactionaries as well as a few progressives. Some lefties want to “fix” writers such as Roald Dahl, Agatha Christie, and Ian Fleming, whose novels contain racist, sometimes antisemitic, and frequently misogynist language. For their part, right-wingers police libraries’ books by or about LGBTQ+ people and attack attempts to “decolonize” their collections, stocking materials that counter the very white, pro-Empire version of British history.
In the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher was Republican America’s sweetheart and Ronald Reagan’s dominatrix crush. Nigel Farage served a similar function for Donald Trump: In 2016, the head Brexiteer and racist campaigned for Trump in Mississippi, where those white people just loved him.
This year, America’s most toxic variety of Coca-colonialism turned up at the National Conservatism Conference in London. The “NatCons,” as they call themselves, seem to be inspired by America’s own CPAC, that delightful group of reactionaries, Christo-fascists, and alleged criminals which holds an annual meeting beloved of scared white people who want to hang with their own kind and assure each other of their superiority.
The NatCons are the British Conservative Party’s culture warriors, pro-“traditional values,” anti-gay, and anti-immigration — even though some of the most prominent members are immigrants or children of immigrants. No wonder they invited the likes of Kevin Roberts, head of the Heritage Foundation, an outfit that often waxes hysterical about how diversity and “family breakdown and rampant abortion have torn apart the soul of our country and sapped it of its strength and moral authority.”
Also on the roster was former Trump administration official Michael Anton, a relentless foe of diversity who has compared Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid to Islamic terrorists trying to destroy America.
Anton, a big fan of Hungarian autocrat Viktor Orbán, says the West is in danger of falling to the demonic coalition of George Soros, the “woke” media, diversity, critical race theory, and the “university-NGO-international busybody complex.”
To paraphrase the ghastly-but-effective patriarch of the Roy family, these are not serious people. They are, however, dangerous.
Britain is not as close to stumbling off the cliff into fascism as we are in America. There are as yet no viable challengers to the comparatively moderate Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, no little dictator-wannabes like Ron DeSantis who, after the embarrassing roll out of his presidential campaign, took to friendly media to complain about how the big fashion magazines have yet to storm the Governor’s Mansion demanding to shoot Lady Macbeth for their covers.
But there has long been a nasty, if relatively small, strain of xenophobia and racism in this country. Cabinet minister Enoch Powell famously delivered his “Rivers of Blood” speech in 1968, warning that Black people would soon have “the whip hand” over whites, and railing against immigration from former colonies.
Fifty years later, the British government went out of its way to be cruel to the Windrush Generation, Caribbeans who’d been invited to come over to help with the post-World War II labor shortage. Many who’d lived in the U.K. since the late 1940s were deported unlawfully to Jamaica and Barbados.
Off to Rwanda!
Now the sitting Home Secretary, whose ethnically Indian parents emigrated from Mauritius and Kenya, wants to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda and crack down on legal immigration.
Suella Braverman (believe it or not, she was named after Sue Ellen Ewing on Dallas) exhibits all the rage and cruelty of our own Ron DeSantis. Post-Brexit Britain desperately needs workers, but Braverman thinks it would be better for native British people to learn to drive trucks and pick fruit — whether they want to or not.
She is, of course, a member of the NatCons — and many of them think Ron DeSantis is a great U.S. presidential candidate. Perhaps he’s flattered; perhaps he returned the compliment in his weird campaign launch video by having the voice-over performed by someone who sounds British.
On the other hand, as someone tweeted: “Folks, let’s be fair to DeSantis. Maybe his species doesn’t know what a British accent sounds like? It could be new to them — like all other human interaction.”
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