American Misconceptions and Fears of British Social Politics
A Personal View
I recently severed contact with what was a very good and long standing American friend, simply because our cultural, social and political views are polls apart.
I was willing to be tolerant in our correspondence but he constantly preached to me how the American ways are best and ridiculed British culture for being too ‘Socialist’ and damaging to the economic, financial and business interests of corporations who are the powerhouse to prosperity. Comments I naturally resented having shoved down my throat from a foreigner who has no idea of the ethos of British Culture and Society.
He’s not the only American by any means with similar attitudes; my experience from Americans I’ve corresponded with is that most seem to have similar blinkered views of Britain; to varying degrees. Therefore, on social media its one subject I try to veer away from where possible.
So this article, based on my personal experiences of social media contact with Americans, aims to highlight some of the misconceptions and fears many Americans seem to have about Britain.
My Skill Set on the Subject
At school I studied and gained qualifications in the following related subjects:-
- Civics (focusing on the roles and duties of local government)
British Constitution (amusing considering we don’t have a written constitution); albeit the Magna Carta, signed by King John of England in 1215, is the founding document upon which today’s British Political and Democratic System stems.
At college, on day release from work between the age of 16 and 21, I studied and gained qualifications in these relevant subjects:-
- Economic History
- General Principles of English Law
- Mercantile Law
- Accounts (Business trading accounts including the ‘Profit and Loss Accounts’, and Balance Sheet.
My Personal Interest in the Subject
I’m not politically or business minded by nature but I do have a fascination for and a keen interest in history.
As a government employee for all my working life (39 years), until I took early retirement at age 55, I have gained a profound knowledge and experience of the workings of British governments (of all political suasions) from the inside.
Most important of all, is the stark fact that political policies followed through by the government of the day has such a profound effect on our daily lives e.g. the ramifications of political decisions made by Parliament.
Differences Between Living in the US Vs the UK
Misconceptions Fuelled By News Media and Online Media
One of the main hurdles in trying to correspond with Americans is their faith in the media, whether it be news or online.
Trying to tell Americans I’ve spoken with that you can’t believe everything you read, in the newspapers or see on the TV news, is like bashing your head against a brick wall; so frustrating.
Likewise, many conspiracy theories are fuelled by dodgy online media. A prime example being how the American friend I used to correspond with is convinced the Bank of England is controlled and owned by the Rothschild family. Even though he kept citing websites proving it, he couldn’t be any further from the truth.
The plain truth is online media and newspapers are not restricted or controlled in what they publish, and consequently most frequently twist the facts and or fabricate the news for:-
- Political spin
- Political gain
- Making stories newsworthy or controversial to increases readership and thus revenue
As with newspapers in Britain and America, America TV news channels are not regulated, and therefore prone to tell porkies; whereas British television is heavily regulated.
As part of the checks and balances to avoid the risk of government control of News on British TV the government appoints ‘Independent Organisations’ who although financed by the tax payer are answerable only to Parliament, and not to the government itself.
So consequently, although Sky News on British television is part of the American Fox News organisation, Sky News on TV comes under the same regulations that guarantees the BBC are restricted to reporting honest and balanced news.
- The positive side to a British TV News channel having to provide non biased reporting is that you do get a chance to hear both sides to the story.
- The negative side is that in an attempt to balance the report the story can at times be unduly weighted in favour of the wrong side.
Interestingly, Aljazeera News, TV news channel and online news run and owned by an Arab Royal family in the Middle East, who are not restricted by regulation, pride themselves in non-biased news reporting.
Consequently I tend to watch the Aljazeera news channel as often as I watch BBC or Sky. We also get CNN on cable TV in Britain, and although their reporting isn’t as bad as FOX news (which I’ve seen online a few times), I find it difficult to watch CNN because they all too frequently twist the facts into propaganda when it comes to reporting on affairs in Britain.
When I’ve mentioned the above points to Americans their response is almost invariably that the BBC and Sky News are left wing socialist channels, and they shudder at the thought of watching Aljazeera because they link them with Muslims and terrorists!
Some of the basic political differences between American and British politics that often causes confusion and misunderstanding when I’m engaged in conversation with Americans include:-
- The Prime Minister in Britain has more power than the American President,
- The two-party system in America compared to the multi-party system in Britain, and
- The wide political spectrum in Britain which extends way beyond the narrow politics of Liberal and Conservatism of American politics.
The British Political Spectrum
There are 650 elected seats in the House of Commons, with elections taking place once every five years. Those seats are currently shared between 12 political parties, with the government having 329 seats giving them an overall majority of just 14 MPs (Members of Parliament).
As most Americans may know the current government is the Conservative party (equivalent to the Republican Party). The equivalent to the Democrats is the Liberal Democrats who in British politics is classified as a ‘centralist’ party e.g. in the middle rather than being left or right wing. Currently the Democrats have a grand total of 9 seats in the House of Commons. The main opposition to the Government being the Labour Party with 231 elected MPs.
Labour is a left wing socialist party, albeit not the most extreme left wing party in British politics, currently that being the Green Party with one seat. Although in local elections (local government) the Green Party does significantly better; and occasionally (as they did in Bristol until recently) can hold the balance of power on the local council. Albeit, in local elections it tends to be the Liberal Democrats who hold the balance of power when no single party has overall control.
An introduction to Parliament
House of Commons
With respect to the House of Commons, in aggregating the various political parties into the political spectrum there are a total of:-
- 339 right wing MPs
- 296 left wing MPs
- 9 Centralist politicians
- 5 Independent politicians
- 1 Speaker
The Speaker chairs meetings in the House of Commons, and although he or she is an elected MP the Speaker is elected by the House of Commons, and on accepting the post gives an oath to the House of Commons (not to his political party) and gives up his or her right to vote on political matters in the House (so becomes politically neutral).
House of Lords
The House of Lords is the check and balance to ensure the House of Commons doesn’t command too much power e.g. Legislation can be amended or delayed by the House of Lords.
Members of the House of Lords are not elected, they are either life peers awarded a peerage by the Queen or appointed by the government, hereditary peers or Bishops.
There are currently 809 Peers in the House of Lords, as follows:-
- 26 Bishops
- 255 Conservatives, of which 49 are hereditary peers
- 204 Labour, of which 4 are hereditary peers
- 103 Liberal Democrats (Democrats), of which 4 are hereditary peers
- 221 Independents (179 Crossbenchers, 28 non-affiliated and 14 others), 34 of these peers are hereditary. Crossbencher is essentially the House of Lords word for 'Independent'.
In practice, the Conservatives have a tougher time with the House of Lords than Labour because on balance the members of the House of Lords tend to be more socialist minded rather than conservative.
Each City, County or District in the UK has its own local government to ‘Administer’ Local ‘Social Services’ e.g. Housing, Education, Refuge collection and Recycling etc.
Local Governments are called ‘Councils’ and elected politicians to Councils are called Councillors. In the UK there are 418 Principal Councils; the one where I live being Bristol City council.
Bristol Green Capital Partnership
The City and County of Bristol, England
Bristol, which was granted County Status by Royal Charter in 1373 was originally established as a small community next to the River Avon by the Anglo-Saxons, probably sometime after the 8th or 9th century. Avon is the Anglo-Saxon word for ‘river’, and the original spelling of Bristol was Brigstowe, which is Angle-Saxon for ‘Bridge Place’.
One strange fact which always amuses me is that American databases always make the mistake of putting Bristol in one of the neighbouring counties e.g. either Somerset or Gloucestershire; presumably because it’s such a small County and they get it confused with the City of Bristol?
Bristol Local Elections
In Bristol today there are 70 locally elected politicians (councillors) and an elected Mayor. Unlike the national election which is first past the post, local councillors are elected by proportional representation.
Of the 70 seats in Bristol (local government):-
- 37 are Labour
- 14 are Conservative (Republican equivalent)
- 11 are Green, and
- 8 are Liberal Democrats (Democrat equivalent)
So currently Labour has an overall majority, especially as the elected Lord Mayor also happens to be Labour.
In the previously elected ‘Administration’ Labour didn’t quite have enough seats for overall control and depended on the Greens for political support against the Conservatives. At that time, although Labour had the majority of seats, with the Conservatives coming second, like Labour the Greens are left wing Socialists, so both Labour and the Greens working together outnumbered the Conservatives and Liberals when it came to voting on local political issues. This gave them along with the Greens a lot of political power at the local level e.g. enabling them to spend money on local infrastructure, housing and services unhindered by the austerity measures of Conservatism, and the inherent caution of the Liberal Democrats.
The Bristol Pound
Americans Unfounded Paranoia of Socialism
One thing I consistently get when conversing with Americans, which is why I try to avoid politics when corresponding with my oversea (American) friends, is some misguided belief that Democrats are Socialist and that Socialist is too close to communism. Another common misbelief is that fascism is communism even though they are at the opposite extremes on the political spectrum. I think the misbelief comes about because both are ‘State Control’; whereas in fact any Dictator is State Control regardless to whether they are extreme left or right wing.
Although Labour is a Socialist Party (and the Greens more so), they are a million miles away from Communism. British Socialist Parties are ‘Social Democrats’; the emphasis being on the word ‘Democrat’ (not to be confused with the Democratic Party). In this context Democrat means a strong and deep rooted belief in ‘Democracy’; a ‘Principle’ which is lacking in communism.
Socialism is popular in Britain because of the great benefits it’s brought to British Society over the past 70 years since Labour came to power on a landslide victory in 1945:-
- The Welfare State
- NHS (free health care for all)
- State Pensions
- Workers’ Rights, and
- Social Reform for the benefit of the masses
I know many Americans I speak with baulk at this, but it is an integrated part of the British ethos and British Society; and for those who live here, not something to be feared.
Liberalism in Britain
Historically the Conservatives have always been Right Wing Capitalist with the Liberals (Democrats) being more in favour of social reform.
However, the Liberal Democrats would never go as far as a Socialist Party, such as Labour and the Greens, so prior to Labour’s landslide victory in 1945 whenever the Liberals were in power they only tinkered at social reform.
Other Aspects of British Society Americans Baulk At
When conversing with Americans I often find many differences that are not immediately apparent, and when I highlight them in conversation the feedback from Americans I communicate with is always negative.
The two prime examples being the voting and drinking age.
Although the voting age in Britain is 18 (which I think is the same as in America), the voting age in Scotland was lowered to 16 for their referendum, and there is political pressure to lower it to 16 for all elections in the UK. On speaking with Americans, some think 18 is too low, let alone 16, on the ground that at that age people are not mature enough to understand politics!
Drinking Age in Britain
I understand that the minimum age at which alcohol can be consumed in America is 21; something which as a European I find difficult to understand. When speaking with Americans they can’t seem to understand that’s there’s nothing wrong in drinking alcohol under the age of 21, and any younger than 18 is just bizarre to them; although as a British, it all seems natural to me.
In Britain, the minimum age you can buy alcohol is 18, but at 16 you are legally entitled to drink beer, wine or cider in public provided it is consumed with a meal and provided an adult buys it for you.
Also, on private property e.g. at home, you are legally entitled to drink alcohol from the age of 5; which stems from the European tradition of allowing your children a glass of wine at home during a celebratory meal at the dining table e.g. Christmas, Easter etc.
Also in English law, you can give alcohol to under-fives only under medical supervision or in an emergency; I’m not sure when these situations may arise, but that’s the law.
Minimum Drinking Age
In Britain you can drink in public at 18, or at 16 if it is with a meal and an adult buys the drink, what do you think the minimum drinking age in America should be?
As a Britain I just can’t understand why Americans are so fascinated by guns. In my view they are just killing machines that should be banned; as they are in the UK.
In Britain, the penalty of even being in possession of a gun is high, and fortunately with the high penalties and restrictions not even criminals carry guns; so I can walk the streets at night in relative safety.
Enough said, as I guess this is another example of where the American mind-set differs so greatly to that of the British that any reasoned debate just isn’t possible.
I would be interested in constructive feedback in that I find it as difficult to understand the American political and social ethos as Americans seem to struggle in understanding the British political and social ethos.