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Whom Is Great Britain Afraid Of?



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The internal Anglo-Saxon flap over Governor Romney’s comments on the London Olympics is so silly that I did not originally intend to write about it. But so many comments sillier than the flap itself have been expressed that it’s hard to stay quiet without bursting.

The first thing to be said is that Romney’s comments — in reply to a question from a television interviewer — were both accurate and sensible. He was asked a question and he gave a very reasonable answer. Here are his actual words (which you may have forgotten by now after being told so often how insensitive, undiplomatic, and foolish they were):

You know, it’s hard to know just how well it will turn out. There are a few things that were disconcerting. The stories about the private security firm not having enough people, the supposed strike of the immigration and customs officials . . . that obviously is not something which is encouraging.

Well, in short order: (1) It is unquestionably true that it is hard to know how well the games will turn out since the answer lies in the future. (2) There undoubtedly are a few things about the games that were disconcerting. (3) Those things include the reports about the security company having too few people and the threat of a strike by immigration and customs officials.

Nor did Romney predict the failure of the games; he merely wondered if people would come together and “celebrate the Olympic moment” when it arrived. On that question, see point (1) above.

#more#So much for what Romney said. The real story is that these reasonable observations provoked a cataract of nonsense from the British media, not only in the tabloid “red-tops,” alas, but also in some of the broadsheets. Indeed, it is the Daily Telegraph correspondent Alex Spillius who wins the gold medal for a verbal tantrum disguised as “commentary” and entitled “If Romney doesn’t like us, we shouldn’t care.”

Well, fair enough, and vice versa. That at least is what some American commentators, Charles Krauthammer for one, seem to be saying in response. But since there’s nothing in what Romney said to suggest that he dislikes the Brits, so there’s no reason for Brits to get hostile toward him. But that doesn’t deter Spillius.

Here’s his introductory strapline: “Mitt Romney is perhaps the only politician who could start a trip that was supposed to be a charm offensive by being utterly devoid of charm and mildly offensive.” He then wanders down the page disparaging Romney’s leadership qualities, his “derisory” remarks, the “Anglo-Saxon” brouhaha, and — despite that and his intention to revive trans-Atlantic ties — Romney’s very understanding of the “land of his forefathers,” arguing, “If he possessed a smidgeon of insight into the British psyche he would have known that despite all the pre-match whingeing and the carping, that on the night we will celebrate the games with all the gusto and fervour they deserve. We moan, and then we smile; that is just our way.”

Well, jolly old us. Usually, as a loyal subject of Her Majesty, I would applaud this kind of spiffing stuff. And doubtless everything will be just tickety-boo on the night. But isn’t invoking the Spirit of the Blitz a slight case of overkill in response to a few sentences about the Olympics?

It doesn’t get any better, I’m afraid, but if you’re feeling up to it, try the full piece.

As if the media weren’t silly enough, both David Cameron and Boris Johnson felt compelled to respond like subalterns going “over the top” armed only with swagger sticks; Cameron with a sly waspish reference to hypothetical Olympics held “in the middle of nowhere” (helpfully translated by the press as “Utah”), and Boris all but reprising Obama’s “Yes, we can.”

With heroic restraint Romney responded in the way that in the past an English gentleman was popularly supposed to respond to excitable foreigners jabbering over some grievance. Though there was always the risk of errors, he said, he was sure that they would be overshadowed by the courage, character, determination of the athletes . . . perfectly splendid . . . good show . . . nice being here . . . is that the exit? . . . etc., etc. 

Where does this odd transference of national personalities come from? Also in the Daily Telegraph, Tim Stanley, in a very interesting and (I think) pretty sound reflection on this little brouhaha, suggests that it is the result of the dramatic changes in power of the two “Anglo-Saxon” powers in the last 80 years. As a result of this change, he writes, “we [the Brits] really want you to suck up to us, because we’re aware that we’ve been pretty insignificant for fifty years and could do with an ego boost.”

I would suggest the problem is just a tad bit more complicated. Any Brit who has lived in several countries for any length of time knows that his country is not nearly so despised abroad as it is at home. Most foreigners regard Britain as an important middle-ranking power with serious military clout and disproportionate diplomatic and cultural influence. It is the Brits who believe, with something approaching fanaticism, that we are dust beneath the chariot wheels of the American colossus or any major power.

This masochism is hardly natural — though it has some natural causes such as the retreat from empire. It is rather an attitude that has been inculcated over the last 40 or so years by a political establishment that wants to foster multiculturalism in domestic affairs and Europeanism in foreign policy. In pursuit of those objectives it has downplayed and denigrated Britain’s national identity, patriotism, historical achievements, and all things with the words “British” or “English” in front of them.

Thus when a foreigner, however friendly, turns up and offers even a reasonable criticism, we suspect that it must reveal his underlying contempt for us. And if instead he praises us in some way, we suppose that he must be insincere and condescending. Which is why the Anglo-American “special relationship” sometimes looks (and sounds) like a neurotic marriage — think Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

It’s not Romney who needs to wonder what went wrong in London; it’s his ungracious hosts.

P.S. Not all reports of the Romney visit were poor. Maeve Reston’s account in the LA Times is impartial in general, fair in its judgments, and nicely dry in its writing.



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