Regardless of whether or not the criticism that Mitt Romney and his campaign have been facing abroad is fair, they should have known better. The British press can be lethal at the best of times, and, as Boris Johnson demonstrated with his ungentlemanly comments in Hyde Park, the Brits are generally game for a spot of America-bashing — especially those in the self-conscious chattering classes who have accepted by osmosis that America is a gauche version of Britain and considered the matter unworthy of further inquiry. Certainly, the Ra Ra Britain! aspect of the Olympics will not have helped here.
Indeed, before Romney even got to Britain, the usually-conservative Telegraph ran a hit-piece implying that an unsourced quote that his aide may or may not have said may or may not have implied that Obama may or may not be able to understand the “Anglo-Saxon” relationship because his father was African. That should have sounded warning bells, but it seems not to have done so. I understand some of the defenses of Romney — that he was answering the question about the Olympics “managerially,” and that Americans (and presidents, including Obama) often don’t understand the intricacies of British protocol, etc. — but he is going to have to be more savvy than this if he wishes to win the White House.
The British relationship with America is complicated. Britons know deep down that Americans are their friends, but the loss of the British Empire segueing directly into American global domination unfortunately exacerbated what has, since the revolution, been a sort of reverse Oedipal complex in which the parent hates the child for its success. This is coupled with a deep-seated misunderstanding of what America is actually like. (As the British writer Stephen Fry noted, “anti-Americanism always comes from people who don’t know America.”) Unfortunately, reflexive anti-Americanism is tolerated in Britain and beyond to an astonishing degree. I have been at many a dinner party at which it has been stated, without embarrassment, that Americans are “all fat” or “all stupid,” or . . . well, choose your own negative epithet. With statements such as these there is often general agreement — or at the very least indifference. The latter is no excuse — qui tacit consentire — and I like to point out that if you were to replace the word “American” in any generically disparaging sentence with, say, “Indian,” or “Nigerian,” you would be frowned upon, and possibly asked to leave. In Britain, you could even be arrested.
This notwithstanding, it is a general social rule that one is allowed to criticize one’s own family but that outsiders are not, and this would have been a good rule for Romney to observe — especially in a country that has a highly active gutter press. Romney may well be, as he said yesterday, “a guy from Great Britain” who is “married to a girl from Wales,” but he has an American accent and he is a Republican and, in Britain today, that’s pretty much enough to prejudice everything he says. Such things are unlikely to affect the election, and it is no high crime to say controversial things in Britain. But one hopes that the Romney campaign learns from this before it does something equally naïve — something that could have a real impact come November.