- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 17, 2002

From Guantanamo Bay to George W. Bush's passion for pretzels, America-baiting is the British media's favorite pastime at the moment. But whenever I am too depressed, I remind myself that the two nations have long had an ambivalent relationship. The tensions have existed in the best and worst of times.
You find them, for instance, in Angus Calder's masterful social history "The People's War: Britain 1939-45," first published three decades ago (1971). Rereading the book recently, I couldn't help being struck by the results of a public opinion survey organized in 1943 to gauge just how the British felt about their allies. Top of the popularity ratings were the Czechs and the Dutch.
"Little was known about them," Mr. Calder explains, "except that they were conducting a heroic resistance to Germany. The Free French were well regarded by about half the sample. The Poles, always rather controversial, had lost further popularity by the friction between their Government-in-exile and the Russians. The Americans were only slightly more popular; one-third of those questioned expressed a favorable opinion. After Mussolini's fall in the summer of that year, they were actually less well spoken of than the Italians."
Less well spoken of than the Italians. That is quite an achievement when you consider the number of jokes inspired by the fighting qualities of Il Duce's troops. (You know the kind of thing: "How many gears does an Italian tank have? Three for reverse and one forward, in case it is attacked from behind.")
Yet we know the other half of the story. As Mr. Calder reminds us, American films, music, fashions and literature flowed endlessly across the Atlantic, each new outpouring being scooped up more gratefully than the last. The generation that spent half its waking hours trying to look like Veronica Lake or Humphrey Bogart has given way to Material Girls and Brad Pitt wannabes. This may or may not be a great leap forward in cultural terms, but it is an undeniable fact.
Sadly, much of the left mired in a 1968, street-fighting view of Uncle Sam seems determined not to learn from the past. With a few honorable exceptions the novelist Martin Amis comes immediately to mind the response to the war on terror has followed a predictably shrill line, with the United States cast as a rogue state and George W. Bush as a villain from his favorite Austin Powers movie.
Some of the bile found its way into the bien-pensant literary journal the London Review of Books, which entered the fray by inviting its contributors to discuss what the events of September 11 meant for America and the world at large. While some writers supported a military response, most could not resist the temptation to let loose at America. A Cambridge Classics don, Mary Beard led the charge: "However tactfully you dress it up, the United States had it coming … world bullies, even if their heart is in the right place, will in the end pay the price." Little wonder that American academics such as Stanford's Marjorie Perloff have called for a boycott of the magazine. The LRB's stance, she says, helps to explain why academia is held in such low esteem.
The magazine's editor, Mary-Kay Wilmers is obviously determined to court trouble, as she is now embroiled in a controversy involving another of her contributors, the respected political scientist David Marquand. Mr. Marquand no right-winger, by the way, but a founding member of that Labor offshoot, the Social Democratic Party upset Mrs. Wilmers by praising Tony Blair's "impeccable" handling of the post-September 11 crisis. His piece a review of a biography of Labor Chancellor Gordon Brown was duly spiked, Mrs. Wilmers arguing that she could not accept an article that contained such wholehearted praise of the prime minister.
Not surprisingly, Mr. Marquand was furious. It is probably no consolation to him, but he at least finds himself in good company. George Orwell ran into similar trouble 60-odd years ago when he mounted an attack on Stalinism in a New Statesman review of a book on the Spanish Civil War. For his pains, Orwell received a studiously polite letter from the magazine's pro-communist, hear no evil-see evil editor Kingsley Martin: "Our reviewers are always left a good deal of latitude and there is free controversy in the correspondence columns, but it is no use publishing reviews that too directly contradict conclusions that have been very carefully reached in the first part of the paper."
Martin knew that Orwell was telling the truth about the communists and their policy in Spain, but preferred not to let him air his opinions. Ever the gentleman, he promised to send Orwell his fee. Perhaps Mr. Marquand should try to track down a copy of that letter and pin it behind his desk. It might cheer him up.
It just so happens that Martin's descendants at the Statesman are having similar problems with one of their own star contributors, John Lloyd, a former editor who now writes a column for the paper. Lloyd, who has also worked as a foreign correspondent for the Financial Times, was so dismayed by the Statesman's anti-American line that he wrote to the letters column outlining his case. Was his letter published? Of course not.
How much notice should we take of all this infighting in the left-wing media? It's worth pointing out that the Statesman today has a circulation of only around 20,000. Much more disturbing is the hysterical criticism of American policy emanating from a mass market tabloid such as the Daily Mirror. Yet when the Mirror tried to whip up outrage over the so-called "torture" of detainees in Cuba, it discovered that some 80 per cent of its readers disagreed.
Even the conservative Mail on Sunday joined the chorus of complaints over Guantanamo. No doubt the Pentagon and the White House have more pressing issues on their hands, but from this side of the Atlantic it does look as if the United States is too slow to counter the negative messages coming out of the British media elite. In this war, perhaps more than any other, words and perceptions are deadly weapons.

The historian Paul Johnson, in a puckish mood when I paid a call at his West London home, has his own explanation for the transatlantic contretemps: "The English always like to look down their noses a bit at the Americans you know, it's that sense of saying 'We've been in this before you chaps'. But that's not anti-Americanism in the way that you get it in France or elsewhere."
As the author of a bestselling history of America and, in his long-ago, left-leaning days an editor of the aforementioned New Statesman Mr. Johnson knows whereof he speaks. He certainly seems remarkably unflustered by the media coverage of the war. He believes the US-UK alliance is in a healthy condition overall. The real dividing-line, he thinks, is the English Channel: "That's much wider, psychologically speaking, than the Atlantic."
With the European Union being driven towards ever closer bureaucratic union, hostility to America is inevitable, he argues. None of that, though, should deter the United States from completing its unfinished business with Iraq.
Mr. Johnson's optimism even extends to the British Conservative Party. He believes it can and will win the next election. Tony Blair may have had what the British call a "good war" but his domestic liabilities will be his undoing: "He has done brilliantly since September 11th. But you have to say that on the four main domestic issues the health service, crime, education and transport he's done appallingly badly. Things are worse than when he came in.
"It's true that, on the whole, the economy is in good shape. But on the issue of sleaze which was one of Labour's strongest suits when they were elected they're heading for disaster. It's no good saying the opinion polls haven't gone down yet, because they will … Labour is very good at losing elections, so I'd say that now is the time to get very good odds on the Tories. You can quote me on that, if you like."
And so I have. But I have to admit that I haven't been to the bookmaker's yet.

Clive Davis writes for the Times and the Sunday Times of London.



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