My interest in social and cultural politics extends from my interest in genealogy and history and how they project into today's societies.
America and Europe: From Common Ancestry to New Frontiers
America is founded on immigration since its discovery in 1492 by Christopher Columbus:
- The first major wave of immigration to America was Europeans escaping religious persecution; this includes the first settlement in Jamestown in 1607, and the pilgrims on the Mayflower from Plymouth, England in 1620 who settled in Plymouth, Massachusetts.
- Then, Europeans immigrated to America to seek their fortune and look for adventure or for the opportunity of a new life.
In the early days, when America was still a British colony, its culture was very European, but following its independence from Britain and the signing of the Constitution on 17 September 1787, America quite rightly set its own course in history. This historic event is celebrated every 4 July, the day in 1776 when America declared independence, which it eventually won in 1783 and ratified on 12 May 1784.
Cultural change in America was relatively slow at first; even as recently at the 19th century I don’t think there was a significant cultural difference between Europe and America.
My great-great grandfather (George Burgess) lived in America from the age of 15 to 28 (1843 to 1857), primarily to complete his apprenticeship in stonemasonry: first in Baltimore and then in Philadelphia. While he was living in there, he met Richard Middleton from Washington, who was also learning stonemasonry, and following his return to Bristol, England, George Burgess stayed on close contact with Richard and his wife (Maggie Middleton) for the rest of their lives. During the American Civil War (1861–1865) Richard served as a Captain in the Union Army. It’s from my great-great grandfather's writings and scrapbook covering his time in America, and his lifelong friendship with the Middleton family in Washington, that I’ve been able to make some personal comparisons between American and British culture for that time period.
My perception is the major divergence between American and European culture really began in the early part of the 20th century. For example:
- The Temperance movement, which although prominent in Britain and America towards the end of the Victorian era, culminated in America with the prohibition in the 1920s and early 1930s, while in Britain it just petered out.
- Progressivism (social reform) which influenced American and European culture at the turn of the 20th century. Social reform continues across Europe to this day, reaching its climax in Britain in 1948 with the introduction of the welfare state (including the NHS) following the landslide socialist Labour Party victory in the 1945 general election. Whereas progressivism all but petered out in America during the 1950s, when America turned its back on social reform due to its inherent fears of Communism (McCarthyism in 1947 to 1956).
In embracing multiculturalism, Europe has continued to enjoy a progressive—albeit bumpy—ride towards further social and cultural reforms, in spite of the odd spike of sporadic nationalism popping up in various places from time to time.
Whereas, when America tried turning the tide against conservatism and move towards a more liberated state, it seems to have been bogged down with the inertia of its own political system and overwhelmed with a tidal current of nationalism, stopping any progress in its track.
Sir Richard Branson on How to Create a Winning Culture
While I write this from a European perspective, I would like to be as unbiased as possible; but I do realise that may not be possible because of the gulf between the two cultures. It’s a chasm in attitudes that makes it impossible for me to fully appreciate the American psyche on issues such as gun culture and healthcare.
Therefore I know that, although it’s not my intention, I risk offending some descent law abiding, honourable and respectable Americans. If as an American, you feel I’ve overstep the mark on any issue, and offended, then please feel free to ‘slap my wrist’ in the comments (with constructive criticism). If I don’t get the feedback then I’m not going to learn, and better understand the American way of thinking.
Originally I thought of America and Europe as being socially and culturally similar; especially as we all live in free democracies in the modern industrialised and civilised world. However, the more I learn about society and the American culture, the more I learn how different we are. I find the gulf in some areas has reached a point where it’s Increasingly difficult to find common social, political or cultural ground other than at a superficial level.
The purpose of this article isn’t to antagonise by appearing to be unduly critical of America, while promoting European values, but rather to highlight some of the cultural, social and political differences (from a European perspective).
In doing this I wish to focus on some areas of common misconceptions and misunderstandings that frequently crop up on social forums which I’ve participated in; while aiming to skim over hypersensitive areas with perhaps just a few brief comments for clarification.
Topics Covered in This Article
The topics listed below (which I’ll be covering in this article) just scratches the surface, but I’m sure will give a flavour of the social and cultural divergence between American and European Society:-
- Social and Welfare State
- Work and Home Life Balance
- Gun Culture
- Capital Punishment
- Immigration and Refugees
- Drink Laws
- The British Weather
Weather might appear to be the odd one out but for Brits it’s a ‘cultural’ thing; as revealed at the end of this article.
Political Spectrum of British Politics vs the USA
The Inertia of the American Political System
European vs American Politics in the 21st Century
Over the past century Europe has politically diverged from America; and now has a wide political spectrum extending from the Socialist parties on the left to Capitalism on the right. Denmark is internationally recognised as being a near perfect social, economic and political model.
In contrast the Democrats, as the most extreme left wing political party in America, is no more than just a centralist party in Europe.
In Britain there are numerous political parties covering the full political spectrum from the Green Party on the left to UKIP on the right.
For simplicity, of all the political parties in the UK, with seats in the House of Commons, on the chart above I’ve only shown the seven main ones for Britain. In the chart I've also represented how the political parties overlap, to demonstrate how the left wing parties can work together, and how the Liberal Democrats can work with either Socialist or Capitalist Governments e.g. to hold the balance of power in a ‘hung parliament’.
Below is a short summery as to how Europe (including Britain) has politically got to where it is today.
1914 Europe Ruled by the British Royal Family
At the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 there were 20 reigning monarchs across Europe (seven of whom were the grandchildren of Queen Victoria); France and Switzerland being the only two countries without a crowned sovereign.
Of Queen Victoria's 42 grandchildren three were key players in the 1st world war:-
- King George V of Great Britain,
- Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, and
- Wilhelm II (William II) the German Kaiser (Emperor).
At this time Europe was in political turmoil, a complex web of allegiances; and although the royalties of Europe were not in direct control (due to lessons learnt from the French Revolution in 1798) many still had influence.
At the outbreak of the 1st world war the three first cousins (grandchildren of Queen Victoria), King George V of Britain, German Kaiser and Russia’s Tsar, were at war with each other; not out of choice but out of events that they had little control over. Although for all the sabre-rattling from the German Kaiser it was his military leaders and politicians who made all the real decision.
The direct result of this war was the overthrow of the Russian Tsar during the 1917 Russian Revolution and Communism. In fact, in the ashes of this war, those sovereigns who wielded too much power lost their thrones; while those without any real personal power generally kept their thrones. Although ultimately it was the 2nd world war that led to most western European countries becoming truly free democracies; with a couple of exceptions e.g. Portugal and Spain. Spain became a democracy in 1975, after the death of Francisco Franco (military dictator), and Portugal’s bumpy road to democracy finally came to fruition after 1976.
Rise and Fall of Communism in Western Europe: Inter war years 1918-1939
After the Russian Revolution communism became a political force in many fledgling democracies across Western Europe, including Germany, but it never got a real foothold like it did in Russia. In more seasoned democracies in Northern Europe, like Britain and France, communism didn’t even get a look in.
In the German 1930 election, just four years before Hitler seized power, his extreme far-right political party (Nazism) came 2nd in the election.
Of the five main political parties in the German general election the top three were:-
- 1st - Social Democrats (Democrats, a centralist political party): with 25% of the votes.
- 2nd - Nazism (extreme far-right political party): with 18% of the votes.
- 3rd - Communist Party (extreme far left political party): with 13% of the votes.
A nation divided that eventually led to Hitler seizing power and a few years later leading the world into a 2nd world war.
After the 2nd world war, and with the onset of the ‘Cold War’ with Russia, communism went into decline in Western Europe; with Socialism on the rise (including in Britain) to become the main political force against the establishment.
Socialism in Britain
In Britain since 1341 Parliament has been divided into two chambers:-
- The House of Commons (the lower chamber), being the elected commoners, and
- The House of Lords (the upper chamber), being the non-elected aristocracy and bishops (Church of England).
At that time the king ruled, with the aristocracy and the church being his advisors, while the elected commoners (land owners) had little real power. Generally, from 1341 until 1832 only landowners could be elected to the House of Commons; and only landowners had the right to vote.
A shift in power took place following the English civil war (1642-1651); Parliament vs the King (King Charles I). Initially, following the defeat of the Kings troops, Oliver Cromwell (politician and military leader) who led the revolt against the King ruled England until his death in 1658. Then in 1661 Parliament restored the monarchy, putting (King Charles II (the heir apparent to King Charles I) on the throne, but with much reduced power.
The House of Lords then had the bulk of the power from 1661 until 1911 when the House of Commons forced new legislation through both houses which limited the power of the House of Lords and gave the bulk of the power to the elected lower chamber (the House of Commons).
Although the House of Commons started out as a one party system, in 1688 due to a major dispute amongst its members they split into two opposing sides; forming two political parties, the Tories and the Whigs.
In the 1850s the Tories renamed themselves as the Conservatives and the Whigs renamed themselves as the Liberals.
In spite of the slow evolution towards a modern democracy, the first embryonic steps towards any form of ‘Socialism’ in Britain were with the introduction of Poor Relief Acts in 1598 and 1601. Although these basic rights to a more equitable society took a temporary backward step with the introduction of 1834 Poor Law, which watered down a lot of the basic rights for the poor.
Nevertheless, in opposition to the Conservatives (who wanted to ‘Conserve’ the status quo) from the 1850s the Liberals built on the foundations of the old poor laws to ‘liberalise’.
From that time onwards the Liberals have campaigned to improve the lives of ordinary people by improving their working conditions and social health; especially for the poor and disadvantaged. My great grandmother (Lilian Maud England, 1879-1958), from a middle class background, was a Liberal supporter who did a lot of work for the poor and needy during the early part of the 19th century in her local community.
Although the Liberal policies were radical for the times e.g. improving working conditions, public health and giving women the vote, generally their reforms were still just modest. It was against this backdrop that the Labour Party (the first true socialist party in the UK) was founded in Britain on 27th February 1900.
The Labour Party was formed by the Trade Unions, for the Trade Unions, as a political voice in Parliament; and to this day the British Labour Party is owned and controlled by the Trade Unions and its Members.
However, the Labour Party did not come to power until after the 2nd world war, when in 1945 they had their landslide victory. Then three years later they established the NHS (National Health Service) and the Welfare State, which continues to this day.
Prior to 1945 in Britain it had always either been a Liberal (Democrat) or Conservative (Republican) party in power. Since 1945 it’s always been Labour (Socialism) or Conservatives (Capitalists) Governments in power, with the Liberals (a centralist party) holding the balance of power.
UK Prime Minister vs USA President
Unlike the President of the United States of America, who can be hamstrung if he doesn’t command the support of Congress, the British Prime Minister is the leader of the Political Party who wins the most seats in a General Election.
The party with the most seats forms the Government, and if they have an overwhelming majority their leader (the Prime Minister) can have near absolute power.
Therefore, the British political system is a two edged sword where a strong government can bring in great changes rapidly with little real opposition for example:-
- Labour's landslide victory in 1945 which enabled them to introduce the NHS and the Welfare System in 1948, and
- The Conservative's privatisation of the Railway system in 1993.
This system of government vulnerable to Prime Ministers with ‘Dictator’ tendencies (such as Margaret Thatcher and Teresa May) to wield their power for good or bad without any effective checks and balances.
Like America, some European countries have Presidential elections; while others, like the Republic of Ireland, have elected Governments broadly similar to the British system. Although from what I can see, there are few democracies as complex as the USA political systems; or as flamboyant as Britain with its pomp and ceremony.
Parliamentary vs. Presidential Democracy Explained
Although I am not familiar with American politics, my understanding is that prior to Hitler’s rise to power in the 1930s America was looking to reform its health system along lines similar to Germany. However, not only was there fierce opposition to health reform from the American Medical Association (as there was from the British Medical Association prior to the NHS in Britain in 1948), but also with Germany becoming a fascist State it put the nail in the coffin of social healthcare in America.
Since then, and to the present day, America has turned its back on any real social healthcare reforms because of its revulsion of Socialism; in spite of the fact that America has the most expensive healthcare system in the world which only really affordable by the wealthy.
As a comparison with Britain:-
- American healthcare costs about $8,745 per person per year,
- British healthcare (NHS) cost about $3,405 per person per year.
In contrast to the USA rest of the modern world has healthcare systems more affordable to the poor. Although Britain is the only democratic country who have chosen a full social healthcare system paid for from taxes, that’s free at the point of use for all regardless to their income or wealth.
In debates with Americans it’s been pointed out to me time and time again that Americans are opposed to paying for healthcare through their taxes because:-
- They firmly believe in a more Laissez-faire government, and
- Benefits from taxes should only be for the needy, so that Americans only pay the minimal of taxes.
Obviously that is the American choice, and although nobody likes paying taxes Europeans are more comfortable in paying more taxes where it has greater social benefit for all. I don’t know how much more taxes Europeans pay compared to Americans. I’ve tried comparing taxes between the USA and the UK but haven’t made much progress because:-
- Unlike Britain, finding reliable information and data on the American tax and benefit system is a lot more difficult, and
- The British tax system is complex as it tries to be equitable for rich and poor alike e.g. the super-rich only pay 2% of their income on the top income tax bracket towards the NHS, State Pension and the Welfare system; while everyone else pays 12% (except the low paid, who pay nothing). Conversely, the wealthy pay a greater portion of their income than the upper working class and middle classes do for other public expenditure e.g. Defence.
For finding information on this subject Britain has a policy of ‘Transparency', so all the relevant information is readily available on official government websites. A lot of the official data is collected, compiled and published on pubic website by ‘independent’ government organisations. An independent government organisation is a government department that is only answerable to Parliament, and not to the Government. The distinct advantage being that the official data publish can be trusted as being unbiased and independent from political ideology.
1948 Launch of the Welfare State in the UK
Social and Welfare State
Although other European countries have greater social and welfare benefit systems e.g. the Scandinavian countries, Britain’s is comprehensive. Unlike America, where benefits tend to be just for the very poor and needy, the British social and welfare system is much broader with some social benefits not being means tested so that they benefit all in society.
In contrast to Americans who seem to prefer a more Laissez-faire Government, Britain’s tend to prefer Governments to have greater control e.g. more of a ‘mixed’ economy between the Public and Private Sectors.
The type of social benefits everyone in Britain has an automatic right to, regardless to their income or wealth, includes:-
- Free Healthcare for all at the point of use (the NHS).
- Free Education to all under the age of 19.
- State Pension for all who have worked most of their life.
- Child Benefit for every child, paid to every mother.
- Winter Fuel Payments to all on State Pension.
- Free bus travel to all over the age of 66.
In Britain, everyone on State Pension are entitled to ‘Winter Fuel Payments’, which are quite generous and helps to pay for the cost of winter heating to reduce the risk of the elderly dying from the cold because they can’t afford to keep warm.
Although people welfare benefits (the low paid and unemployed) don’t get the winter fuel payments, they do get Cold Weather Payments; which although not as generous, does give the poor some additional financial assistance during very cold winter periods.
Another benefit people on welfare get, and those on some other types of social benefits such as the Personal Independence Allowance (disability benefit) and the carer’s allowance, is the Christmas Bonus.
I think this benefit is a very British thing, which I can’t imagine seeing in America. It’s nothing more than a token one-off payment of £10 ($13) made by the Government, predominantly to the needy. Although it’s of no great value, I think it’s the thought that counts. Surprisingly this benefit wasn’t introduced by the socialist Labour government (as so many of our benefits are) but was first introduced by a Conservative (Capitalist) Government back in 1972.
Stiff Opposition to the Birth of the NHS
Although I don’t know what taxes Americans pay, the BBC compiled a list of where the money goes for taxes paid on income by a typical lower middle class worker. As I am technically lower middle class, the income taxes I paid before I took early retirement (about £5,000 per year) is very similar to the example below.
The BBC's compiled list of how taxes from an average lower middle class worker in Britain is spent by the Government:
- £2,080 ($2696) on State Pensions.
- £1,094 ($1418) on the NHS (National Health Service).
- £824 ($1,068) on Education.
- £508 ($659) on Welfare Benefits.
- £339 ($439) on Defence
- £160 ($207) on the Police
- £92 ($119) on Roads
- £71 ($92) on Railways
- £44 ($57) Others
I don’t know how this compares to America, but I for one much rather pay just the $1,418 per year on my income taxes for the NHS than worry about how I would pay for medical insurance or pay my medical bills. Obviously now that I'm retired (early retirement at age 55) I pay very little tax on my income these days.
For me, paying for the NHS (and other social benefits) through my income taxes isn’t so much a tax but more of an insurance for when I need these benefits; as it guarantees free healthcare for all at the point of use regardless to income or wealth, and therefore is going to be a great reassurance to me as I get older.
One thing I recently learnt while discussing taxes with Americans is that apparently all Americans have to complete annual tax returns to IRS, whereas in the UK employees don’t; albeit the self-employed obviously have to.
For employees in Britain income taxes are automatically calculated and deducted from the monthly wage by HM Revenue and Customs before the person is paid through a system called PAYE (Pay As You Earn).
Creation of the UK Welfare State 1948
In stark contrast to America, although there are variations across Europe, generally European education from nursery school to university is either free or inexpensive. University is also ‘free’ for ‘international students’ in five of the European countries; Finland, Austria, Sweden, Norway and Germany.
The philosophy across Europe is that education in the young is an investment in the future of the nation; and therefore most European education is State funded.
From discussions I’ve seen on forums not everything is free in American schools, parents are expected to provide financial assistance and pay for things which we take for granted as being free in British schools. The only cost British parents have is the cost of the school uniform when their children go to ‘Secondary School’ at the age of 11.
One of the big differences between Britain and America is that although British students have to pay university fees, they’re not crippling as they are in America. Unlike America, British university fees are capped by the Government at £9,000 ($11,650) per year, and in conjunction with this are only repayable when the post graduate earns more than £21,000 ($27,200) per year. Even then the repayment of the loan is restricted to 9% of earnings above £21,000. So for example a post graduate earning $31,350 per year would only pay their student loan back at a modest fee of just $445 per year and is unlikely to ever pay the full amount back.
Also, apart from the student loan interest being set at a low rate of just 4.6%, if after leaving university the person never earns enough to have to pay their student loan back then it’s automatically written off after 30 years.
In Scotland, which unlike Britain has a Socialist Government in power, university is free to all UK citizens (except the English) and also free to all European Union citizens.
Work and Home Life Balance
Europe has a different attitude towards work, which Americans often sneer at in forums, but from a European perspective ‘life’ is more important than ‘work’.
In spite of all the generous work conditions Europeans enjoy, which I’ve seen many Americans passionately argue is bad for business and therefore the economy, Europe has some of the richest nations in the world e.g. Germany and Britain; GNP (Gross National Product).
It’s not just Socialism (Trade Unions and Governments) but also businesses who share in the philosophy that a well-balanced work and Social Domestic life is healthier for the workforce and therefore increases productivity. An idea that maybe alien to many Americans, but it is the European way. For example the legal minimum paid annual leave in the UK is 5.6 weeks (28 working days); although many large employers make it up to six weeks.
Below gives a flavour of some of the minimum legal working conditions in the UK.
- Minimum Legal Paid Annual Leave: 28 working days per year.
- Maternity Leave: 52 weeks.
- Paternity Leave: 2 weeks.
- Working week: Maximum of 48 hours average per week, over a 17 week period.
- Flexible working: Includes what hours worked (rather than the standard 9am to 5pm job) and opportunities to work from home instead of in the office. Every employee has a legal right to request flexible working, but the details have to be agreed with their employer.
Two UK Companies (One in Manufacturing and the Other in Retail) Talk About Their Views on Flexible Working
When I recently did an article on this I was astonished from my research by how much public and private transport contrasts between America and Europe.
Europe firmly believes in an integrated transport system that, with the use an array of interconnected public transport systems, enables travellers to be less dependent on their car .
Just like Americans, most Europeans own and frequently use their own car. However, unlike America, public passenger transport (especially trains) is far more accessible and prominent in Europe.
Although (apparently) air flight is significantly cheaper in Europe than America, in contrast to America where it’s 12%, air travel in Britain accounts for just 1% of all travel.
Conversely, in stark contrast to the USA where public transport by train is less than 1%, in the UK its 10%.
The big difference is that Europe has heavily invested in its railway network infrastructure for a long time, so that not only do trains travel significantly faster than in America, but also in Europe the railway network connects all but the smallest of communities.
Britain has been expanding its railway infrastructure ever since the 1830s, and although we don’t yet have the high speed trains of 200mph, which is common across the rest of Europe, since the 1980s our intercity trains have been running at 125mph. While I understand that in America it’s genially only 80mps.
The rail network in the UK is so comprehensive that, in conjunction with bus services for the small communities, you can travel to just about anywhere in Britain within hours. The most challenging route being from Land's End to John o' Groats.
In spite of Britain’s population being less than a fifth of the USA, passenger train travel in the UK is markedly more, as shown below:-
- 1.69 billion Passenger train journeys are made in the UK each year, travelling 40 billion passenger miles.
- 30.8 million Passenger train journeys are made in the USA each year, travelling 6.4 billion passenger miles.
Why the USA Has the Worst Public Transit System
A number of European countries, including Denmark, Germany and Scotland, now produce 100% of their energy needs from green renewable energies on a good day e.g. from wind, solar, water and thermal energies etc.
Even Britain achieved an entire day early in 2017 of producing electricity without burning any coal for the first time in over 135 years; and is now well on track to meeting its target of being coal free by 2025.
A Day Without Coal in the UK in 2017
Albeit, unlike Germany who have abandoned nuclear energy, the British Government is still committed to using nuclear and natural gas as a stop gap while it makes a full transition from fossil fuels to green renewable energies.
Although in stark contrast to America, where the Trump administration is turning its back on green energies in preference for coal, Britain (like the rest of Europe) is moving in the opposite direction.
One such British project, which was recently given Government approval, is featured in the video below.
Welsh Tidal Electricity Generating Power Plant
I’m not even going to debate this as it’s such an emotive and passionate topic for Americans, and because there is no common ground of understanding between Americans and Europeans.
Therefore I only wish to make a few comments (from a European perspective) to clarify points that frequently crop up in forums.
- Not only are guns illegal in Britain (as most Americans know), but also being in possession of a knife in public is a criminal offence, which can lead to a prison sentence if found guilty in a court of law.
- 95.6% of the police in Britain are unarmed, which is not seen as an issue by the police themselves simply because the vast majority of criminals don’t carry guns either.
- Using a gun in self-defence in Britain (and Europe) even against an intruder in the home is a criminal offence e.g. murder or attempted murder. In this respect, I’ve heard many Americans who advocate gun control still firmly believing in the right to kill an intruder on the basis of kill or be killed. While in Europe it is extremely exceptional for an intruder to kill. Most often in Europe when an intruder is disturbed by the homeowner they almost invariably scarper rather than risk confrontation or being caught e.g. citizen’s arrest. Albeit in restraining an intruder until the police arrive can only legally be done with reasonable force. The use of excessive force against an intruder is a criminal offence e.g. the homeowner could be prosecuted for GBH (Grievous Bodily Harm).
It’s against this backdrop that the British and Americans can’t understand each other’s perspective on the issue of gun control.
This video below graphically demonstrates the cultural difference between Britain and American on the issue of gun violence.
Granny in England Attacks Thieves With Her Handbag
Another sensitive topic where, as far as I know, there is little common ground of understanding between Europe and America. It’s a subject which I don’t wish to debate at any great length because I can imagine it would be too emotive on both sides, with little chance of seeing each other’s perspective.
So again I only wish to make a few short points for clarity.
- The death penalty was abolished in Britain in 1965.
- The European Convention on Human Rights established in 1950, which prohibits the death penalty, has now been signed by virtually every European country. Even Russia has indefinitely suspended the death penalty since 2009, pending their intention to eventually sign.
- The death penalty became illegal across the whole of the European Union in 2000 when it passed its own legally binding legislation.
Although there is an extradition agreement between Europe and America it’s not uncommon for calls in European courts not to extradite someone to the USA on ‘humanitarian grounds’.
Richard Branson Talks About Death Penalty in USA
For the risk of sounding repetitive, this is another area where I don’t want to go into too much depth because on speaking with Americans I’ve found it can be a very emotive and sensitive subject; whereas in Britain it’s not.
Unlike America, Europe is not a very religious continent; only 6% of Europeans actually go to church, and a significant number of European Christian religious leaders don’t take the whole of the New Testament literally. A Catholic Archbishop, who I personally know socially, passionately believes in the immaculate birth but doesn’t take the resurrection literally.
Europeans don’t care whether you’re religious or not, or if you are religious then what religion or faith (if any) you belong to. What matters to Europeans is who you are as an individual, not your race, creed, social class or religion.
What bugs me as a European is Americans misconception that Muslims are taking over Europe; nothing could be further from the truth.
However, what may surprise some Americans is that in Europe there are almost as many non-religious people (including atheists and agnostics) as there are religious people. Unfortunately, some Americans I’ve spoken with who do know this firmly believe in their minds that because so many Europeans are non-religious that we are a nation of immoral heathens. In spite of the fact that atheists, like every other descent person, do have a high set of moral values that they believe in and follow; but instead of calling it religious teachings they call it humanitarianism.
To put it into perspective, religion has been on the decline in Britain (and across Europe) since the mid-1950s. In the UK 2011 census, when people were asked what religion they belonged to the response was:-
- Christianity 59.5%
- No religion 25.7%
- Not stated 7.2%
- Islam 4.4%
- Hinduism 1.3%
- Judaism 0.4%
- Other religions 1.5%
However, as other surveys in Britain constantly show, what religion people consider themselves as belonging to and whether they consider themselves religious or not are two different things. In the UK surveys that asks people whether people are actually religious, rather than whether they belong to a religion, invariably produces results similar to this 2009 survey.
- Not religious 50.7%
- Church of England 19.9%
- Christian (no denomination) 9.3%
- Roman Catholic 8.6%
- Presbyterian 2.2%
- Methodist 1.3%
- Protestant 1.2%
- Christian (other denominations) 0.4%
- Muslim 2.4%
- Hindu 0.9%
- Sikh 0.8%
- Judaism 0.4%
- Other religions 0.3%
Is Religion Being Marginalised in the UK?
Immigration and Refugees
There is some common ground here but Europe has a different perspective, and opposing attitudes to America.
No one denies it’s an issue. For example, Europe experienced a refugee crisis in 2015, but the problem has since subsided and its more back to being business as usual. Very much like in America, how much of a problem immigration and refugees is in Europe is often very dependent on politics rather than economic or social issues.
In Europe, if you’re a nationalist, which invariably are the extreme right wing political parties, then immigration and refugees are big issues. Whereas, other political parties, including centralist parties, it’s not a big issue; and in some cases can be seen as an opportunity. For example Europe is an aging population with low birth rates so its economies, and economic growth, are very dependent on high levels of immigration; especially for countries like Germany.
As in America, perceptions in Europe often doesn’t meet with reality. Generally in Britain, and across Europe, people living in the big cities who are in close daily contact with larger numbers of immigrants and refugees, and who live, work and socialise with them, see them as being no different to anybody else.
Cities in Britain, like London and Bristol (where I live) are very dependent for their commerce and economies on being multicultural; and in seeing the benefits we don’t have issues with immigrants or refugees.
Whereas in more rural parts of Britain, were people who don’t see so much in the way of immigrants or refugees, the perception based on what they’ve seen on TV and read in the papers, or online, tends to be different. It’s this perception, and not the reality, that nationalists target in their propaganda when vying for votes in elections. However, this pales into insignificance compared to the distorted perception many Americans have of the refugee crisis in Europe. I all too frequently hear an unfounded belief from Americans that all Muslims are terrorists, and that Muslims want to turn Europe into an Islamic State; which (as a European) I know is untrue.
The other aspect where there is a big divergence of views between Americans and Europeans is that Europeans have a high regard for humanitarian values, and as such are very sympathetic to the plight of refugees fleeing war-torn zones. Whereas, the vast majority of Americans I’ve spoken with have little sympathy for these refugees, and have no regards for their human rights.
Studies Suggest Refugees May Provide Economic Benefits
British humour is different to American humor. I don’t think that’s has always been the case. As far as I can ascertain (from what I’ve read and researched) there wasn’t a great deal of difference 100 years. Although I’m not an expert on the subject I get the distinct impression that the two world wars have had a profound affect on the way the British think; especially the 2nd world war.
The impact of the 2nd world war on British civilians:
- With the constantly bombing by Hitler’s (blitz), over two million British homes were destroyed.
- Rationing, and queuing, became a way of life for over 10 years.
- At the end of the war conditions were hard and the country was near bankruptcy.
The effect of all this, rather than lowering moral, has strengthened the already British attitudes of ‘life must go on’, ‘make do and mend’, ‘look on the bright side’, ‘better to laugh than cry’, ‘hold our head high with pride’ etc., and keep a ‘stiff upper lip’ all of which have been part of the British psyche for centuries.
British post war humour, rather than being superficial with lots of one liner gags for a quick laugh which focuses on the successful, like American humor, British humour focuses more on the self-down trodden and is often deep and dry.
I think largely, it’s these characteristic strengths combined with the harsh realities of wartime Britain, and the austerity in the aftermath of war, that has helped to shape the British humour for what it is today.
American vs British Comedy
Notwithstanding the different languages in Britain e.g. Welsh, Irish Gaelic, Scottish Gaelic, Cornish and English, let alone all the dialects and accents across the country, there is a distinct difference between British English and American English.
As time passed so have the two languages continued to diverge; just two prime examples being the different meanings of words like chips and pants.
- In Britain a chip is what the Americans call fries, and what Americans call chips is called crisps in the UK.
- In Britain paints is the word for underwear; and what Americans call paints is what the British call trousers.
This just scratches the surface; the list of variants between the languages seems almost endless e.g. I recently learnt that the American word for ‘bespoke’ is ‘custom made’.
This video below, which is typical tongue in cheek British humour, briefly explains how and why the American and British languages have diverged.
I know the drinking age in America is 21; whereas in Britain and across the rest of Europe it's much lower.
In Britain for example:-
- The minimum age you can buy alcohol is 18, but
- You can drink wine, beer or cider in public from the age of 16 provided it’s purchased by an adult and consumed at a table with a meal.
- Also, in England a child can legally drink at home from the age of 5; a European custom of where children have a glass of wine with the family on special occasions e.g. Christmas and birthdays etc.
Drinking Law in Weird Facts About The UK
Cats and dogs are as popular in Britain as they are in America; but from watching American TV programmes there seems to be some fundamental differences in the way they are treated as pets.
Firstly, in Britain most cat owners have cat flaps and let their cats roam as they please. In our case we call our cats in on an evening and keep the cat flap closed overnight; not so much for the benefit of the cat but more for our own peace of mind e.g. we can sleep easy knowing our cats are safe.
While I appreciate there are lots of Americans who do similar to us, I was however slightly surprised in learning the high number of Americans who keep their pets as ‘house cats’ e.g. never let them out; even though potentially they could. In Britain the only people who don’t let their cats out are those who live in flats (apartments) without gardens.
Attitudes in southern Europe towards cats is different in that they are not so much seen as pets but more as working animals e.g. to keep vermin down. So when we had an exchange student from southern France staying with us for a couple of weeks she was quite surprised that we actually buy cat food, rather than just let the cats do their job and feed naturally from the land.
The biggest cultural difference with pets is the American craze of dressing up their pet cats and dogs in clothes; something which is generally frowned upon in Britain.
The British love talking about the weather. It is part of our culture and it’s a guaranteed ice-breaker; even amongst family and friends the topic of the weather will invariably crop up at some point.
We brits talk about the weather all the time because it’s so changeable and unpredictable e.g. one minute it can be hot and sunny with blue sky (not a cloud in sight), then ten minutes later, cool, overcast and heavy rain, then half hour later sunny again. The weather also changes from day to day so you can never be confident on whether tomorrow will be hot and sunny or cold and wet.
The reason for the turbulence is that Britain is directly below four weather fronts, north, south, east and west; and whichever weather front wins determines the weather we get.
The weather fronts battling it out over Britain are the:-
- Polar air mass from the north, bringing freezing arctic air.
- Tropical air mass from the south, bringing warm air from North Africa and the Mediterranean.
- Maritime air mass from the Atlantic to the west bringing wet weather.
- Continental air mass from mainland Europe and Asia to the east, bringing dry weather.
Real British English: Talking About The Weather
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
Arthur Russ (author) from England on January 15, 2019:
Thanks for your feedback Geoff; I recently tried making comparisons of Direct and Indirect Taxes (as a whole) between the UK and USA but didn’t get far as there are too many differences. So, with taking ‘Benefits’ e.g. NHS in account, it is difficult to say if there is any significant difference in real terms between our two Nations.
FYI: Keeping it simplistic. In the UK, the main Direct Tax for most people at National Level is the Tax on Wages. The main Direct Tax for most at Local Level (Local Government) is the ‘Rates’, which is a property tax on home owners (and in practice works out to about 1% of the value of the property). And one of the main Indirect taxes in the UK (the equivalent to your Sales Tax in the USA) is VAT (Value Added Tax) which is 20% on most goods and services; albeit some good and services are zero rated, and VAT on a few essential items (such as utility bills) is 5%.
Albeit, fuel tax on petrol (called gas in the USA) is much higher in Europe, which makes petrol very expensive in the UK.
Geoff on January 14, 2019:
Yea our taxes here in the states are very different. Without going into detail were taxed at Federal, State, and Local level depending on where you live. I’m in Florida and I don’t pay an income tax just a higher sales tax on goods I purchase which goes to the states revenue. Not saying which is better or worse just giving you a broader picture
Arthur Russ (author) from England on May 18, 2017:
Wow, S Maree, a very comprehensive insightful summery of American cultural development; very informative, thanks.
As with America, Christmas has become very much commercialised in Europe, and although it may have lost its religious context, it is thriving as a celebration with plenty of traditions, new and old. In Europe different people celebrate Christmas in different ways and over different time scales although:-
• In Britain Christmas lights and trimmings in the city and town shopping centres start from mid-September and are taken down by the 12th day of Christmas (6th January), and
• Most people start celebrating Christmas from early December with the office parties and Christmas meals.
Our family tradition is to bring the Christmas tree in from the garden and put up the Christmas decorations on the first Saturday of December, and take it all down on the 12th day of Christmas.
All our friends of other ethnic groups e.g. Muslims, Asians, a Hindu family and our Chinese neighbours all celebrate Christmas in the British way.
One of the new traditions is, every year since 1947, the city of Oslo, Norway donates a Christmas tree to the people of Britain in gratitude for Britain’s support to Norway during world war two, as shown in this video: -
Tree felling ceremony – Norway’s Annual Christmas Gift to Britain: https://youtu.be/S3i1yuTK2mE
Your observation that Europe has managed to preserve local cultures in the face of change is Interesting e.g. the Morris Dancers in England (most predominantly in Cornwall). In fact, although England has been invaded many times in the last couple of thousands of years, Cornwall, Wales, Ireland and Scotland have not. Therefore in those areas local cultures and languages have survived to this day. Not only is Welsh (Cymraeg) the primary language in Wales (cymru), but even Cornwall, England has its own Celtic language dating back thousands of years. The Cornish word for Cornwall being Kernow.
What I and many others find quite fascinating is that although Britain is such a small country compared to America, the variants in its local dialects and accents across the country is vast e.g. I was born and live in Bristol so I speak Bristolian; as demonstrated in this short video: -
Bristol Dialect Words: https://youtu.be/WYecGY5X06g
S Maree on May 17, 2017:
Fascinating! Having been to Europe several times in my youth, I was hit by culture shock as often as reassuring similarities.
American/British culture dissolved quickly after the American industrial revolution, gaining fuel after each major historical impact: Wars, westward expansion, natural disasters, political upheavals, etc. Each generation often dealt with a new influx of various ethnic groups, which eroded older customs while infusing newer ones with vitality. Thus, for instance, while we might have gone on celebrating Christmas with a mix of New England austerity and Southern exuberance as practiced in pre-Hanoverian England, we instead glommed onto the German Tannenbaum and the Dutch Sinter Klaas (I apologize if the spelling is not exact). Gone were the original 12 days of Christmas ceremonies. Now, through a synthesis of multiculturalism we sort of agreed that the Christmas season is anything that keeps the domestic GNP in the black from October 31 thru January 1. It is so watered down that subcultures seek out old world customs in a desperate attempt to find some real meaning to the madness. Other subcultures simply find something of their own to embrace, such as Kwanzaa, and try to give the Christmas mishmash the old "heave-ho!"
Thus the U.S. is a country that chose to turn most colonies (i.e. territories) into states (excepting the Philippines & several tiny islands) so that the country, still pliant from newness, could see how big it could get. Cultures become crushed, molded, and reformed into Americanisms, which were then transmitted worldwide by all means available. Some were embraced. Some smirked at. Some created revolution & bloodshed.
As world communications get easier, culture suffers. This is especially true for the U.S. Nothing is dominant anymore. Old world countries have a better foothold.
Thus you find English Morris dancers, Japanese No theater, African Bushmen eschewing one-upmanship, as a bare few examples. They hold on. They just hold on.
American Indian policy nearly destroyed the First People. They have been fighting to find, rebuild & maintain what the Whites decimated. Also, Black Americans too, crave & seek what was forcibly stolen from them. These people, and other minorities are determining where American culture will go.
It is interesting to see that the EU members seem far more interested in preserving local cultures now than when they were separate entities. The fight to keep cultures from disintegrating may seem new, but one only needs to read about the Jewish Diaspora to know it's a story as old as the first civilizations.
Arthur Russ (author) from England on May 14, 2017:
Thanks Larry, it’s only a potted history for simplicity; but I hope it’s of some value to readers.
Larry Rankin from Oklahoma on May 12, 2017: