“We are all Americans now”. So said Tony Blair the day after Britain, and the world, watched in horror as the two towers of the World Trade Center crashed to the ground. Even before September 11th, America, with its largesse and the religiosity of its politics, amazed Blair. A recently converted Catholic, he saw the fervor of American beliefs as something admirable. Blair felt that the American style of politics, one that rests on founding myths and a bullish construction of an American identity, was the style that suited him. He believed in an idea. He threw his lot in with the neo-cons and the ideologues. He told them, come what may, Britain will support you.
As an Englishman, I understand that instinct. America is vastly impressive to us. I’d say that I, too, feel American (whatever that means). I, too, see something admirable in the American commitment to a set of ideals written on a piece of paper and displayed in secular temples that lie underneath the seat of American power. It is hard not to feel a thrill as you drive down the I-90 late at night and see the cupola of the Capitol lit up in the distance and visible from miles around, as you think about how a city built on the swamps that surround the Potomac became the center of democracy. The shining city on a hill. This vision is so enticing that for a while I thought about getting a tattoo of the American continent emblazoned onto my left bicep, a searing reminder of a country that felt like my own.
This is what America does to English boys like myself and Tony. We return to the mother country and are bored by its quaintness, its smallness, its ever so tedious eccentricities. We shrivel with embarrassment when an American talks about the royal family. They see it as cute, we see it as another example of our hideous parochialism, destined always to be America’s quirky old uncle, fun at a distance but never to be taken seriously and only invited to Christmas every other year.
And yet there is a danger in all this. Tony led us gung-ho into a criminal and nefarious war, tugged along by the sweet whisperings of “Dubya” and the American idea. Blinded by the conviction that he, alongside the president, were messiahs riding out into the desert to save the world from the scourge of “terrorism”, he turned destroyer and helped cause the death of over a hundred thousand soldiers and civilians. I almost got a tattoo on my arm.
Last week the British capacity for quaintness outshone, in my mind, the American capacity for idealism. Another year, another crisis in the Middle East. But this time, Parliament, the ancient institution with a somewhat checkered history that sits on the banks of the river Thames, said no to a prime minister and an American president itching to venture again into that thin line between “humanitarian intervention” and old-style Western imperialism. While in 2003 Parliament had retreated in the face of Blair and Bush, this time they held firm. War was averted, not by grand acts of rhetoric or a presidential veto but by a system put in place to restrain executive power. A new prime minister’s belief in the interventionism (or imperialism) that has always been the hallmark of American foreign policy was curtailed by the right honorable gentleman for Warwick and Leamington, and the right honorable gentleman from Brent Central, and the right honorable gentleman from Louth and Horncastle and so on.
It might be quaint, and it might not always work. But Parliament’s decision does show that in the midst of all the messiness, sometimes the right choice is made. I am still an American patriot, but last week’s vote reminded me that our muddled, unglamorous system still has the ability to truly represent the people.