A good deal of scoffing has been blowing its way across the Atlantic towards Britain in recent days. For some Americans, the pomp and pageantry of King Charles III’s coronation seemed to all be a bit grandiose and nostalgic for a 21st-century democracy.
“Hard to take this seriously,” tweeted a prominent American political scientist during the ceremony on Saturday, along with a picture of the newly crowned king holding two golden, jewel-adorned sceptres. The tweet was liked more than 12,000 times.
A few days earlier, it was Britain’s version of Chinese food that provoked derision, after American TikTokers got wind of the “disgusting” videos that their hungover British counterparts had been posting of themselves opening takeaways. “Just found out what the British call Chinese food, at a loss for words,” wrote one American on Twitter. (One only has to glance at US chain Taco Bell’s “Mexican pizza” to feel a similar sense of wordlessness.)
I should say that I’m no great fan of British Chinese takeaways myself, though I agree with food writer Angela Hui that they have become an integral part of a distinct culinary landscape, and symbolic of the way in which various cultures have been assimilated into the UK. Nor was I immune to finding elements of the coronation a touch risible — Charles’s Michael Jackson-esque single white glove, for instance, and the royal guards thrusting their huge, eye-obscuring Canadian-bearskin hats into the air while sombrely shouting “hip hip hooray” for the new king.
But I am interested by what feels like the increasing regularity with which many Americans — particularly members of the commentariat — poke fun at Britain. Could their mockery be masking an anxiety that they might feel when they look at a country that once ruled over a quarter of the Earth’s surface, but has long lost its status as a global power?
A Pew Research survey carried out last month found that 71 per cent of Americans think the US will be “less important in the world” by 2050 — up from 60 per cent in late 2018. For many, the bad times are already here: 58 per cent say life for people like them is worse than it was 50 years ago — a 15 percentage point jump from July 2021.
“Americans are worried about the direction of their own country — that’s on both sides of the political divide,” Patrick Davies, Britain’s deputy ambassador to the US between 2013 and 2018, tells me. “For Trump supporters, the Democrats and progressives are destroying our country and what we stand for.” And in the eyes of progressives and Democrats, Davies says, Trump supporters “are undermining the very essence of what America really is”.
Just as the playground bully picks on the others as a way of dealing with his own insecurity, so America laughs at Britain because it is terrified about losing its own global dominance. When I was in Florida in November, I was struck by the delight with which Americans responded when I told them I was from the UK. “Oh man, British politics — what a shitshow!” was the response I got on many occasions.
Admittedly, we had just appointed our third prime minister in less than two months, but it felt quite remarkable that a country where two-fifths of the population still believed the 2020 election had been “stolen” felt in a position to laugh at our political travails. Similarly, while he was prime minister, Boris Johnson was frequently dubbed the British Trump by the US media and commentators. I am no fan of Johnson’s, but the two men really have little in common once one gets past their bravado and their shared shocks of blonde hair.
Jed Esty, an English professor at the University of Pennsylvania and author of The Future of Decline: Anglo-American Culture at its Limits, tells me that “Americans use Britain as almost a metaphor . . . kind of a cultural projection of American anxiety”.
“The crisis of the American mind these days is looking at a Chinese future and a British past, and feeling a sort of moral panic,” Esty says. He adds that this explains the jokes “about [British politicians] floundering and the coronation being a spectacle of nostalgia. Americans are themselves concerned that we are drifting and floundering and wallowing in our own nostalgia.”
The US is still a huge economic, military and cultural power on the world stage — as Britain once was. But it also faces grave internal problems: not just political divisions but soaring rates of overdoses, obesity, cardiovascular disease and gun deaths, all contributing to a life expectancy that has fallen off a cliff. Perhaps America could worry more about that present, which it can still do something about, and panic less about a future in which it is no longer top dog, which it surely cannot avoid.