Stop ignoring the neighbours and obsessing about the US

By Martin Kettle (THE GUARDIAN, 01/04/06):

It would not be hard to capture the worldview of the British political class in one of those celebrated Saul Steinberg New Yorker magazine covers that depict the world as seen from 9th Avenue in Manhattan. That’s because so many of the people who practise politics and government in this country – and certainly those who write about it – have such a limited and solipsistic view of the rest of the planet.

Occupying most of the foreground would be Westminster and Whitehall, with Islington or Notting Hill, according to taste, in their shadow. In the middle distance maybe Brighton, Bournemouth and Blackpool. And beyond? Mostly ocean. Washington and New York would be prominent on the horizon for sure. There might be a hint of Brussels to one side. Somewhere perhaps a suggestion of the Middle East. In the far distance a vaguely threatening sense of China.

Most conspicuously absent would be any focus whatever on the individual nations of Europe. No France. No Germany. No Italy. No Sweden. Not even Ireland, where at least they speak our language, would have a place on this narrow mental map.

It is an extraordinary thing to say but, for most British politicians and commentators, these places remain of no interest. They and their politicians are deemed to be boring. We need not concern ourselves with what is happening there. They have nothing to tell us. Most of the time they do not even amuse us. They might as well not exist.

There are, of course, a handful of individual exceptions to this generalisation. The mental maps of Labour’s Denis MacShane or the Liberal Democrats’ Nick Clegg would be compendiously crammed with European landmarks. That of Robert Jackson, the former Tory minister and ex-Labour MP, would be a veritable Gobelin tapestry of European threads. But they are exceptions. In British politics, as in British journalism, the numbers who can or wish to locate their sense of Britain in the context of where our national neighbours are going are small.

This is not intended as a pro-EU remark. It is merely a statement about who we are and how we have got here. We share a region, climate, history, demography, economic space and culture with these countries. Our business corporations, leisure time and intellectual life are all intertwined with theirs. We face shared problems in comparable ways. But our political and media culture barely engages. We leave that to specialists while we obsess with the who’s-up-who’s-down of domestic power struggles. Nothing is more unnatural for our political class than to imagine itself in a European context or to think for itself about trends in French, German or Italian politics and society. This is stupid, it is lazy, and it is very much to our common detriment.

In recent times, each of these three countries has witnessed genuinely interesting and seriously important domestic political battles directly related to the same transition from late 20th-century national prosperity to early 21st-century global challenges with which Britain is also engaged. In France this is currently taking the form of a very large street upheaval directed at the prime minister’s very modest labour-market reforms. In Germany the issue has been the capacity of an economically reformist left-right coalition government to survive its first regional electoral challenges. In Italy, where there is a general election in a week’s time, the question is whether a mildly reformist opposition coalition has the strength to unseat the failed and opportunist modernising government of the right.

It would be untrue to suggest that these episodes are all interchangeable, and foolish to reduce them to different manifestations of the selfsame common crisis. Dominique de Villepin, Angela Merkel, Silvio Berlusconi and Tony Blair preside over different societies, each marching to its own drum. But real connections and dialectics exist, partly because of the EU and partly in spite of it, and there is more in common between the issues facing these four European countries than there is between any of them and the United States, the only foreign nation on which the British political class focuses.

It is therefore depressing that so few of our politicians and commentators address today’s European scene with any generosity of spirit or intellect. British attention to the French crisis offers little more than condescension. Chirac? A pompous scoundrel. Riots in the streets? That’s the French for you. Good news from Germany – real signs of an economic upturn, strong showings for the Merkel coalition in the regional elections – stir no imaginative response. Italy’s election has been little more than an opportunity to mock or denounce Berlusconi, however understandably.

There is something truly ludicrous about the determination of so much of the British political class to stand aloof from serious engagement with countries that are undergoing experiences so comparable to ours. That is largely the fault of our own traditions, of which Gordon Brown is an all too faithful example. But Blair bears responsibility too; he has made pro-Americanism rather than the social market the defining mark of his European statecraft – as a result of which he is catastrophically on the wrong side in the Italian election, for example.

Today’s only large political conversation, Brown rightly said this week, starts with the response to globalisation. Right now, that exact conversation is taking place all over Europe. Nations across our continent are trying to define who they now are, how to become economically competitive, how to remain socially cohesive, and where they fit into the modern world. Britain is just one of the nations doing this. But actually we’re doing it rather well – better than France or Italy, that’s for sure. Blair or Brown, we are set on a course that, as Bill Clinton noted in London this week, has caught the world’s attention. As Clinton said, if we could only see ourselves as others see us, we would raise our sights a lot higher than they are today.