Bring Home the Revolution
"Freedland's 'Revolution' is regularly invoked by the two most powerful men in British politics, (Tony) Blair and Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown. The text has been excerpted and debated recently in every national newspaper, including the best-selling tabloids." Washington Post 14 January 2000
There was a remarkable publishing event in Britain in June 1998. Bring Home the Revolution by Jonathan Freedland was published by Fourth Estate. This was remarkable because the book, by a journalist on the left-leaning Guardian, gave prominence of an almost taboo notion. The American system of government is superior, the author argues, to the British. After 200 years of denial the British were being asked to take seriously the proposition that in the contest of ideas their country had been left behind.
The author acknowledges at the start that to persuade the British of this will require a massive change of attitude. For millions of Britons, he says, the USA is a "vulgar, vile monster." Indeed, contempt for Americans may be the only politically correct hatred left in Britain. If there is any justification for this it is, as Jonathan Freedland points out, that the British are exposed to and grab at the least worthy aspects of American society like fast food and action movies. The best of America is scarcely understood or acknowledged. "We are shipping in junk and leaving behind gold" the author says.
America at its best is American democracy in action, Freedland argues. This may raise wry smiles on both sides of the Atlantic but he makes a persuasive case. The differences between the two societies start at the roots. They rise from there to affect not only democratic practice but the two peoples' attitudes to life.
Her Majesty's Government
In Britain the government is "Her Majesty's" government, not the government of the people by the people. Half of the legislature is not elected at all. Even the land on which we build or farm is ultimately owned by the "Crown." This British experience has resulted in an ingrained view of political power rightly flowing from the top. Even British pride in the "mother of parliaments" is misplaced, according to the author. For in reality we have and executive dictatorship over which Parliament is powerless. Power is centralised in London, in the central government. Many agencies are governed by un-elected "quangos" (quasi-autonomous non-government organisations). Britons vote for politicians who are bound by their party line, not for an individual representative who will respond to what their electors want. Thus there is no capital punishment in Britain, although opinion polls suggest that about the same proportion of Britons as Americans favour it.
The sense of powerlessness that this engenders is reflected, Freedland reports, even in phone-in shows. Britons like to ask questions, he says, but are much less likely than Americans to express their own opinions. In a Britain where the people are subjects of the Crown rather than citizens from whom political power derives, it has been so much easier for the state to extend police powers to search, to end the right to silence in court, to maintain an unjustifiable blanket of state and corporate secrecy and to restrict the freedom of the Press.
There is a preference in Britain for inherited rather than achieved status. And a deference to those of higher status. Jonathan Freedland very neatly captures what is offensive about the British obsession with titles such as "Lord" and "Baroness" when he describes their use as a "verbal bow." In a society that finds its validity in its long history rather than in a democratic project, those who do not share that history can find it very difficult to feel that they will ever belong. British patriotism has historically been xenophobic, Jonathan Freedland writes, and now hankers for a pre-industrial world. Its no surprise then than Britons lack the optimistic self-confidence of the Americans. Almost a half would like to emigrate.
The contrast with the United States is readily apparent. Whatever the flaws, the idea that power should rise from the bottom, a popular view of democracy, is entrenched there. Political power is shared between the branches of government and between national, state and local governments. Americans are not "subjects." They have rights that are enshrined in the written constitution. Free speech is guaranteed, no matter how offensive the majority may find some minority opinions. And the public dialogue is in plain language, accessible to all, Jonathan Freedland emphasises. Many Britons are inclined to sneer at that, claiming to see in it a inability to meet European standards of linguistic agility. But Freedland notes that in a democracy where the people really exercise the power, something that all democrats pay lip service to, politicians have no choice but to speak the language of plain people. There is also a genuine social mobility in America that means that no one need accept the status into which they are born.
Why if all this is so, are the British so hostile to the USA? "Much of the British elite's apparent anti-Americanism could be read instead as a coolness towards democracy itself" this book claims, with a great deal of validity. Jonathan Freedland does not add that it might also be related to the way in which the British news media reports America. The British media have a fascination with the USA that they have with no other foreign country. Many Britons also like to sneer at the supposed triviality of American news reporting. Yet even the broadsheet British newspapers focus on the sensational and the weird in American life. They are most unreliable guides to the complexities and subtleties of that nation. Jonathan Freedland is a onetime correspondent in the USA for the Guardian newspaper.
Larry Siedentop, Democracy In Europe
Bring Home the Revolution is also somewhat journalistic in its approach. In his enthusiasm for the American way Jonathan Freedland often does not look very far into the complexities and contradictions that are undoubtedly to be found, or at the arguments among Americans about their society. He does not shy away from the problems that America has grappled with and which continue to expose it to criticism. But he sometimes finds an outcome that supports his thesis with more ease than is decent.
Nor is the author always reliable. "Even during the Depression, Americans never made redistribution of wealth a slogan," he writes. In fact Huey Long, with his "Share Our Wealth" movement, did make a slogan of it. And even if it was not much more than a slogan there is some evidence that it scared FDR into more radical moves than he might otherwise have chosen. Another subject not mentioned by Jonathan Freedland is the much greater degree of regulation in the US. It is widely admired in Britain but runs somewhat against the grain of the libertarianism that the author admires in America. Much of the detail in this book will be familiar to those who with a knowledge of both Britain and the USA. And there are some topics, such as the length of American vacations, on which the author has not caught up with the latest research.
Bringing It All Back HomeWhat would bringing home the Revolution to Britain mean? A written constitution to end the mystery about how our democracy works and what our rights are. The end of monarchy. No more queens and kings because, contrary to their apologists, they can exercise real power and even as symbols are corrosive of the ideals of equality and popular sovereignty. An elected second chamber in Parliament. Separation of powers as in the US, with more effective checks on the exercise of state power. Less power for the central government; more for regional governments. More election of officials, including mayors and chief constables, by the people. The end of the special status of the Church of England as the state church and a reversal of the hierarchical structures of other churches. A new national anthem to replace the monarchist anthem. A new flag to replace one associated with colonial oppression.
Jonathan Freedland calls for a taming of the state in Britain and an expansion of the institutions and values of civil society which would take over some of its functions. A culture of rights would strengthen individuals and minorities. Equal opportunities would increase social mobility. Britain, he believes, could become a society that is bound together by shared ideas, rather than by the notion of a "blood" bond that encourages xenophobia.
He calls what his is proposing economic and social liberalism. And it is not, he insists, an alien idea. The Founders of the United States were English and the "core ideas" of the revolution "were rooted in English radicalism." There is something tragic about this, he says as he concludes. "We showed the world the way of freedom, but never found it for ourselves."
Responses to the book were predictably mixed. Will Hutton, editor until recently of the Sunday Observer enthuses on the dust jacket that "This is one of those rare books that compels you to rethink your world view from first foundations … (It is) the most persuasive case for British republicanism I have ever read."
In the Independent Labour Member of Parliament Denis McShane found much to praise in the book. "Anti-Americanism," he wrote, "is the new socialism of fools." Yet in an otherwise thoughtful review he seemed unable to distinguish between endorsing the death penalty and accepting the death penalty if that is what the democratic process entails. He also mistook Jonathan Freedland's inability to embrace values and institutions in Britain that are alienating to an extraordinary extent, with self-hatred. And in his conclusion that the US may face hard economic times in the future while "geography and history require that Europe is also a success" he seemed to have missed the point.
More characteristic of British attitudes was Toby Young in his New York Confidential column in that same newspaper. When there is no serious defence to be made, a flippant one may be the only way to go. So Mr Young argued that the US would benefit from a monarchy. America is as socially stratified as Britain, he wrote, but having an hereditary head of state helps us to recognise the importance of luck in achieving success. So we do not take the successful as seriously as Americans do. Americans, he claimed, worshipped the lucky few with money but dismissed the rest as losers. This bizarre picture of both countries testifies chiefly to the unwillingness of many British people to engage in serious debate about democratically illegitimate nature of some of Britain's institutions.
Others resorted to the ignorant defensiveness that characterises so much British comment on the United States. Boyd Tonkin, literary editor of the Independent insisted that "if you covet the American way, you have to buy the entire shooting-match." Note that figure of speech. Brits will soon be carrying Uzzis in their pickups, he goes on to imply, if we make the mistake of believing that we can learn from the American form of government.
Letter writers to the Guardian seemed to divide into those who are sure that that the US is controlled by big business and those who blame what they dislike in that country on an excess of popular power. They offered the following thoughtful points in defence of the British way:
- The Founding Fathers were property owners who feared "the ignorant mob."
- America democracy is a form of "mob rule, arising from an intellectually spurious identification of liberty with consumer demand."
- Slavery survived a generation longer in the USA because of the real political power wielded at state level.
- "The epitome of American-style democracy is the success of the gun lobby."
As an American letter writer to the Guardian commented: "The English really only know approximately nine things about America, six of which are invariably incorrect."
This is an important book. You do not have to buy its arguments lock, stock and barrel. Nor do we necessarily have to adopt every American idea and institution. But we should not reject them unless we are able to imagine and implement something better.
Bring Home the Revolution. How Britain Can Live the American Dream.
Published by Fourth Estate, London