President Obama’s address to Parliament in Westminster Hall yesterday was of a piece with all his other major public statements. In fact, it was all his other major public statements. Except for some boilerplate on Britain, it was the same speech he has been giving since his inauguration: unobjectionable generalities coupled with sketchy history, a rejection of false choices, and the confident assertion that everything he wants to achieve is modest, reasonable, and entirely in tune with the unobjectionable generalities. Will he ever get bored with sham reasonableness?
Even so, the President’s speech was better than the commentary on his visit to Britain. Consider Julian Lindley-French of the Atlantic Council, for example, who manages to insist, in the same column, that the Anglo-American Special Relationship no longer exists (because Britain is no longer a great power), Britain’s decline is exaggerated, and the kingdom’s new task is to organize all of Europe and the Commonwealth into outward-looking and Western-aligned blocs that work in partnership with the U.S. Not a bad summary of Harold Macmillan’s hopes for Britain and the world circa 1954! Both contradictory and completely irrelevant to 2011, though.
Lindley-French is a thought-provoking goad next to David Brooks. In his Monday effort, “Britain Is Working,” Brooks praises the British strategy of muddling through, which has been working nicely, he swears, ever since 1979. This is a thesis that has no contact with reality.
How can it be said that Labour Governments from 1997 to 2010 were making serious efforts at reforming the welfare state, “energizing the populace,” and moving to a “networked, postindustrial” society? In reality, they oversaw the massive growth of the state sector and a steady increase in centralized, inefficient government. How can it be argued that Prime Minister Cameron has “remained popular”? In reality, every poll shows the Tories have lost their 2010 lead and are now running behind Labour.
Above all, how can anyone claim that British leaders “are less likely [than their American counterparts] to get away with distortions and factual howlers”? This is nothing but an armchair declaration. It stems not from any assessment of the British system, but from the apparently standard clause in the contracts of Times columnists that requires them to slag off the American political system. Tom Friedman fulfills his contact by praising China, while Brooks praises Britain. Point to Mr. Brooks, I suppose, but this relentless elite disparagement of the Constitutional order bodes very ill.
The only thing that has not happened so far as a result of Obama’s visit to Britain is a single announcement that bears in a serious way on a substantial issue of public policy. And there are a lot of open questions in the Anglo-American relationship, from the U.S.–U.K. Extradition Treaty to the Defense Trade Cooperation Treaty to the future of the Mutual Defence Agreement. But if we’re not going to address these questions, we could at least lay off the think pieces, which have produced nothing but nonsense and headaches.