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Bring back our “prickly scepticism” towards America

Celebrating Britain: the Spice Girls in the 1990s. Ray Burmiston/Avalon/Getty

As America ascended to “geopolitical pre-eminence” last century, says James Marriott in The Times, we Brits reassured ourselves that although we were an “inferior power”, we were “wiser and more civilised” than the brash upstarts across the Atlantic. For all the “excitement of blue jeans and rock’n’roll”, students surveyed in the 1960s described Americans as “adolescent, materialistic and slightly hysterical”. As a child in the 1990s and 2000s, I remember a general perception of Americans as “overweight consumerists”, addicted to guns and susceptible to wacko religious enthusiasms. We laughed at headlines about them not being able to “find anywhere outside the US on the map”, and at sitcoms starring moronic tourists “ordering obscene quantities of food”.

But now the “British tradition of anti-Americanism” has almost entirely disappeared. Scepticism about US culture has given way to “credulous acceptance”, particularly among progressives. The NHS warns of prejudice against BIPOC people, even though the “I” stands for indigenous and therefore makes no sense in the UK. Manchester has a George Floyd mural, and I regularly walk past anti-Trump graffiti on the way to work. Americanisms have infested our politics, and thanks to the internet, the “cultural membrane” between our two countries has worn to almost nothing. “If you live online, you live mainly in America.” Our cringing deference to US progressive ideas is especially humiliating because many American progressives hold Britain in contempt, with The New York Times portraying us as barbarians, “flag-bedraggled, drunk and delirious”. We badly need a “revival of a certain prickly scepticism” towards America: it might help “inoculate us to its madder ideas”.