Friday, April 18, 2008

Faithful Follower

Guardian Comment is Free

On Dominie Brown, Pope Benedict and benighted Bush.

Premier Brown and Pope Benedict share some superficial traits, not least a sense of infallibility. But when the son of the manse meets the father of the church, there's no competition in the USA.

There is a reason why it is Captain Kirk who is the hero of Star Trek, and not Scottie down in the engine room of the USS Enterprise. Sad to say, the era has gone when many, let alone most, Americans would resonate to a dour Scots engineer keeping things running steadily down below.

The Pope may not have many divisions, but he is Catholic, which guarantees him a hundred million or so fans. Poor Dominie Brown may "love America", and even may love American TV, but it does make one wonder how closely he has scrutinised either.

If he had viewed closely, he would have realised that the somewhat befuddled and less-than-popularly rapturous reception for "Who?" - as he is affectionately referred to by the person on the street in New York and Washington - puts the "special relationship" in its proper, very low-profile perspective.

As House speaker Tip O'Neill declared "all politics is local". With all those voters behind it, the Vatican can chide the US over abortion and the death penalty. With the inimitable lobby behind it, Israel can break promise after promise over the Road Map, and still ask for more.

However, there is no British lobby in the US, despite millions of expats living here. Collectively they have no presence at all. The cultural flow from Britain to America probably does not resonate too much with most Americans now. Britain is neither the mother country, nor even the original enemy. It is as irrelevant as any other country that generally does what its told.

The Pope never committed the Swiss Guard to Iraq, so he avoids Brown's embarrassment at inheriting a British troop presence there. Brown is in the uncharismatic position of actually having divisions in Iraq that Blair so foolishly committed, but practicing a sort of military coitus interruptus, keeping his troops on the edge of withdrawal but never quite reaching the climatic moment to pull them out.

Indeed, while the Pope is not shy of promulgating dogma, justifying Galileo's fate and generally being a hard man on the theology front, Brown's Americophilia goes so far as to emulate the coy circumspection of American candidates when confronted with a hard issue.

Above all "Don't mention the war", from Basil Fawlty, seems to be the text of the day for Brown, whose editorial in yesterday's Wall Street Journal had all pointedness of an over-boiled haggis. He called for a joint Anglo-American crusade to teach the world English. There is no doubt that Webster's rather than the Oxford English Dictionary would serve as the reference book, but more to the point, the proposal does nothing to excite Americans, who assume that foreigners will learn English anyway. But worldwide it associates Britain ineradicably with the country that opinion polls show is almost terminally unpopular across the world. Now is the time to distinguish Britain, not to put truth in the rumours about it being the 51st state. (It isn't of course. It's a commonwealth like Puerto Rico, bound by Washington's edicts but without representation in its councils.)

As 1945 Prime Minister Clement Attlee proved, you do not have to sparkle to be a great prime minister, but Attlee had a stellar front bench, while Brown does not.

So it's all up to him. If Brown wants to play the dour Dominie, it's about time he got some hellfire and damnation in his sermons to Americans that will make them sit up and remember them. Reading the riot act to a lame duck president who historians consider to be the US's worst ever will do Britain no harm, and could lend some charisma to its prime minister, who is beginning to make grey John Major look like a superstar.

No comments: