When is patriotism not patriotism? Brexit and the Americanisation of British politics

18 Dec 2017


I never expected to get a good night’s sleep on 22 June. Being at Glastonbury meant embracing the sound of bass, strangers snoring and rain against the tent roof, which was leaking. I was abruptly woken by a chorus of ‘Rule, Britannia’, which, despite my watery surroundings, was coming not from 18th century sailors but from the shirtless and very drunk men in the next tent.


What made this so jarring was the fact that it was as brazen a display of patriotism as I’d ever seen, football matches aside. We have always looked at Americans chanting ‘USA! USA!’ with what is, at best, a sort of wry amusement, at worst, morbid fascination. Yet last year’s referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU awoke in us exactly this sort of chest-beating and flag-hoisting.


The Americanisation of British politics is not a new phenomenon. We have been rather shamelessly plagiarising their political customs in recent years; fixed terms of parliament, the use of primaries to select candidates and televised leaders’ debates.


In 2015, both main parties hired American strategists - David Axelrod for Labour and Jim Messina for the Tories. Our elections have become increasingly presidential and we have succumbed to the cult of the individual: Cleggmania, Corbynmania, Moggmania and Milifandom. 


The Brexit-furore was the most obvious example to date of our unstoppable march towards Americanisation. Both Donald Trump and Barack Obama made unprecedented and opposing interventions in the debate. Facts were ignored in favour of hyperbole. Traditional British rationality buckled under the weight of raw emotion. A retired veteran wrote in The Telegraph that 'Brexit will make Britain great again', whilst Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage labelled 23 June ‘Independence Day’.


Americans would have found the whole thing exceptionally ordinary.


The campaign and its vestiges have fissured a new fault line in society, pitting globalised liberals against isolationist traditionalists. As the report ‘Understanding the Leave Vote’ concluded: ‘this was less a traditional left-right battle, and more about identity and values. It is a strong sign that the so-called ‘culture wars’ of the US have arrived in Great Britain in earnest'.


This was no accident. The co-founder of the Leave campaign, Arron Banks, told The Guardian that the campaign purposefully took 'an American-style media approach. What they [American Political strategist firm Goddard Gunster] said early on was ‘facts don’t work’ and that’s it….You have got to connect with people emotionally. It’s the Trump success'.


We are not America. They understand the rules of their own political game, and have installed checks and balances accordingly. In the U.S, an amendment to their Constitution requires a two-thirds majority in both houses of Congress, as well as ratification by 38 out of 50 states. They may hold more referendums than us, but the idea that a matter of constitutional reform would be put to the electorate, let alone requiring a majority of only 51%, is unthinkable.


Of all the historical epochs in which to emerge as an ersatz America, this is undoubtedly the worst. Trump has withdrawn from multilateral trade deals, the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris Agreement on climate change, his insolence and isolationism raising eyebrows across the world. He has exacerbated divisions in an already deeply fractured nation and ignited an all-out war with the press. Yet, he will be visiting Britain next year with all the pomp and circumstance of a state visit.


Have we jumped off a comfortable European ocean liner onto a splintering raft? Didn’t Britannia once rule the waves?








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