The Downside of Brit-Bashing


Obama may be spanking BP’s brass today. But the other crisis—Europe’s economic mess—reminds us why it’s important that the U.S. and U.K. stick together.

The controversy over the BP spill threatens to drive US-UK relations to a historic low point. When recently in London, several people worried that the President may be engaging in “Brit-bashing” at the expense of our historically close ties. This theme has been widely picked up in the UK press.

“It’s the gushing geyser of Obama's anti-British rhetoric,” screams Melanie Phillips this week in the Daily Mail,” that now urgently needs to be capped.” Indeed, however much President Obama wants to beat up the Tony Hayward, who certainly deserves to be both tarred and feathered, he might want to consider how “Brit-bashing” may not be in our long-term interest. This is particularly true at a time hat the world’s other big crisis—the collapse of the euro—offers a unique opportunity to shore up our now beleaguered “special relationship.”

The British Empire may be little more than a historical relic, but the current euro crash could make those old ties between mother country and her scattered former colonies, including America, more alluring. After a decade marked by sputtering movement towards greater integration with Europe, the United Kingdom, particularly its beating heart—London—might be ready to drift away from the continent and back towards America and Canada and the rest of the world beyond.

This process will be accentuated by the fact that while Europe’s population and economy, particularly on its southern and eastern tiers, seems set to decline even further, the future of North America—largely due to mass immigration and its large resource base—continues to appeal to British investors and companies. In addition, the rise of other parts of the world, notably Russia, India and China, suggests that Britain’s future, like that of North America, rests increasingly outside of Europe.

Social forces in Britain today will accentuate these trends. In London today you do hear many European languages, but the big money you see around posh places in Mayfair more often speaks not Italian or French, or even German, but Hindi, Arabic , Russian and, increasingly, Chinese. London today is not so much a British city as a global one, with a percentage of foreign-born residents—roughly one-third—equivalent to that of such prominent American multi-racial capitals as New York or Los Angeles.

Just take a look at the over 200,000 people who became UK citizens last year, up from barely 50,000 annually a decade earlier. The EU accounted for barely three percent of the total; all of Europe, including the former Soviet bloc, represented eight percent. In contrast the biggest source of new subjects was from the Indian subcontinent—roughly 30%—and Africa, which provided another 27 percent.

This ethnic transformation—much like the one taking place and widely celebrated by Obamanians in the United States—helps tie Britain, despite its proximity to the continent, more to the rest of the world. The UK may not be ready for its own version of Barack Obama, but a post-European future seems increasingly likely through ties of both blood and money. To be sure, in the coming year the level of immigration may decline under the Tories, whose party competes for voters with nativist groups. But economics—and the disastrous state of the Euro—may prove an even larger factor in the country’s transformation.

Already there is growing concern that the sovereign debt issues of places like Greece, Spain, Italy and Portugal—the so-called swilling PIGS—could force Britain, with its already weak economy, to raise interest rates and cut its budgets more than might be advisable. Last month London’s FTSE 100 has lost fifteen percent of its value as a result of the euro crisis, a steep fall made only marginally tolerable by the even worse results on the continent. Future euro-moves could prove even more threatening. Wide ranging attacks on financial speculation, so popular in an increasingly hegemonic Germany, are like a gun aimed at Britain’s economic core. After all, the UK’s exports are built not around cars, steel or fashions but its role as the world’s banker, consultant and business media center. “The euro zone,” complains one columnist in the right-leading Daily Telegraph, “may be leading us into a double-dip recession.”

But declining euro-enthusiasm is not limited to those considered conservative “nutters” by Britain’s continentally-minded sophisticates. You don’t have to be an unreconstructed Thatcherite to resist tying the country to the future feeding of widely irresponsible “Club Med” countries or kowtowing to Berlin. Rather than the Germans and their PIGS, Britain may be better off linking with both the BRIC countries—Brazil, Italy, India and China—as well as a rebounding North America.

As the ultimate capitalist entrepot, Britain’s trump lies in being hugely attractive to Americans. In this respect, beating up BP, however justified, may also be squandering an opportunity to solidify a relationship that is needed on so many fronts from battling Islamic extremism—the Brits and the Canadians are our only strong reliable allies—to preventing German-style controls over the global entrepreneurial economy.

Herein lies our opportunity. Although not “anti-European,” Britons tend to be “deeply skeptical about the institutions of the European Union,” notes Steve Norris, a former MP, onetime chairman of the ruling Conservative party and two times that party’s candidate for Mayor of London. As he puts it: “The British do not want a federal Europe in which significant powers pass from sovereign parliaments to Brussels.”

Although Labour also resisted rapid integration into Europe, the current government under the new Prime Minister David Cameron, Norris notes, has made it clear that it is even more resistant to this trend. This may prove an embarrassment to Cameron’s historically Europhile deputy prime minister, the Liberal Independent’s Nick Clegg, but the movement away from Europe seems increasingly inevitable.

For one thing, the future of the euro may depend on expanding Brussels’ control of member nation’s budgets, something few British MPs of any party are likely to embrace. Attempts by France and Germany to expand the power of Brussels to save the Euro are likely to chase away even the most devoted Europhiles in Britain.

All this is good news for a strengthened US-UK alliance—something that should not be threatened by excessive “Brit bashing.” For all its many shortcomings, Great Britain remains one of the globe’s great outposts of both civilization and dynamic market capitalism. Its economic power may be a shadow of what it once was, but its cultural, political and role as a transactional center keep the place globally relevant.

A Britain both more Atlanticist and global also can play a more positive role by adding its weight to ours in slowing a shift to protectionism, battling terrorism and in resisting the now ballyhooed trend towards state-based capitalism. And that would bode well for Britain itself, allowing the country to play to fundamental strengths that derive from its unique historical legacy.

This article originally appeared in The Daily Beast.

Joel Kotkin is executive editor of and is a distinguished presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University. He is author of The City: A Global History. His newest book is The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, released in Febuary, 2010.

Photo by Public Citizen

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I seriously don't get where

I seriously don't get where people think that Obama or Americans are being anti-British. I've so far not heard a single person here in the US make any sort of mention of being against the British. The anger is being heaped on BP- a corporation that happens to be British. This is nothing to do with the ties between the UK and the US.

Why are all my comments being flagged as potential spam?

I do sarcastic.
I don't spam.

"a historic low point"

I thought that point was somewhere between 1775 and 1865.
Or, have we all forgotten:
Boston Massacre
American Revolution
War of 1812
American Civil War

You can do better than this, Joel.

Dave Barnes
WebEnhancement Services Worldwide

Thankful They Kept Sterling

You raise a lot of excellent points. The UK is as tied to us as it to Europe. We are very fortunate they couldn't successfully enter the Exchange Rate Mechanism in the 90s and ditch their currency, can only imagine what the trade impact would be now if they were using Euros now too.

US and UK should stick together.

US and UK are the true capitalist countries whose system actually works and only time it fails is when there is federal government intervention.
Obama will fail saving our economy and won't get far with BP either.

So... if Obama's system is

So... if Obama's system is doomed to failure then I assume you are suggesting that the tactics employed by the Republicans works? Funny seeing as how Ronald Reagan not only cut the power of the SEC to regulate the financial markets but inflated our deficit out the wazoo with his ramping up of defense during the flagging years of the cold war.

Oh- and let's not forget the Bush administration, who even though took over the reins from Clinton- when this country had a surplus- oversaw an era where houses inflated to obscene levels. Nothing was done about the fact that banks, lenders, ratings agencies, and financial firms were recklessly trading worthless mortgage-backed securities, giving AAA ratings to junk, coming up with mortgage products that were bound to fail, and so on. As we all know from the mantra of the Republican party, business should be allowed to function unimpeded at all times.

Its the idea that in doing so guarantees prosperity for all. Yet somehow that doesn't seem to be the case since about 90% of the wealth is now owned by less than 10% of the population. Yet wages have gone down or stayed stagnate since the 70's. Minimum wage is a joke. Pensions are a thing of the past. The middle class barely exists and is completely gone from most major US cities.

Yes- I am a big supporter of capitalism. Its perhaps the best system in the world. But I also think you simply cannot allow it to run free and clear. Like anything else its a system that requires constant regulation and adjustments just like fine-tuning a car. Too much freedom and you get the situation we are climbing out of: Bubbles, over-exuberance, waste, and wealth being taken away from the hands of the workers. Too much regulation and you get stagnate growth, a lack of innovation, and the inability to be competitive.

What I'm saying is that neither approach works for any given time. Recessions are routine events that signals the need for a change in course. Perhaps that is why the US has been successful because we shift back and forth from more or less regulation.