The Yanks are still coming

Having just returned from a holiday in the USA it was interesting to read David Hands’ blog about President Obama’s health reforms. Those of us brought up with the virtues of the Welfare State running through our veins find it astonishing that such a large body of American opinion should oppose enabling an additional 40 million American people to access health care. One news story I picked up in Florida was of a doctor placing a sign in his surgery saying supporters of Obama were not welcome. He later said that he was merely making a point and would not, of course, have turned any of his patients away!

My immediate reaction to the US health care debate was to conclude that the political ideology which underpinned the thinking of Obama’s opponents was so distant from mainstream thinking in this country that everyone would be as surprised as me that there should even be a debate. A bit naïve and idealistic perhaps but my way of offering my own personal vote of confidence to our National Health Service. Then I watched the first Prime Minister television debate and began to reflect on how much we have been influenced by the American way, or certainly American initiatives, in the last 30 years or so.

Here are some of the examples which came to mind. Out of town retail parks; Macdonalds and other fast food outlets; deregulation of public transport and the growth in car use; 24/7 opening hours; Starbucks and other coffee houses; 24/7 news coverage; 4×4 trucks; the internet; mobile phones; the growth in commercial television; and the acceptance of a whole new way of spelling our language, epitomised by the acceptance that it is ok to spell it ‘epitomized’. We could have a poll on which are good and which are bad, which we like and which we don’t, but the truth is that all these things, and others, are here to stay.

The worry I have is that I think a tacit acceptance that ‘what America does today, we should do tomorrow’, has crept into our culture and if this is allowed to run its ultimate course it would lead to the demise of the NHS, the BBC and any other institutions which were based on the notion that the collective good is more important than the individual. The first TV election debate summed this up perfectly. It was all about which of the 3 party leaders could impress us more, not which policies would produce the best way forward for our country. The fact that they are representatives, albeit leaders, of their parties seemed to be lost. It was described by some journalists as the most public job interview in history. It was an American presidential debate superimposed on a British political system.

Personally, I thought the first debate was a dispiriting event and, again naively perhaps, find it offensive and concerning that voters should be influenced by the colour of a suit and tie, the degree to which you looked down the lens of the camera, and your ability to tell a joke, all of which featured in the post-debate analysis. Interestingly, Karen Lewis’ blog on the 15th April about the richness of storytelling as a means of understanding real issues was in sharp contrast to the universal opinion of the political journalists that the 3 leaders had all been guilty of overdoing the anecdote, typified by ‘a cancer patient in wherever was telling me last week that he couldn’t get the right drug because….’.

We are yet to see, of course, whether the TV debates will actually lead to changes in voting but we should all be concerned that 90 minutes of television, which covered no more than 8 questions, all relating to home policy, can lead to such dramatic movement in opinion polls. We are told that there is now no going back and that the debates will now be a permanent feature in Parliamentary elections. And if you think I’m overstating this Americanisation theory, have a look at the way all the parties seem to be supporting the introduction to Charter schools which many believe represent the potential end of our state schools.

I’m sure if Alistair Cooke was still alive and presenting his ‘Letter from America’ we would all be listening in carefully to find out what we’ll be doing differently in the next few years.

Written by Tony Garthwaite, WIHSC Senior Fellow

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