Tuesday, 9 February 2010

A British Tea Party

Reading some of the US blogs you occasionally come across British supporters of Sarah Palin. Their comments usually run along the lines of 'if you guys don't want her, we'll take her off your hands'.

I wondered why in Britain we don't have an equivalent of a Palin or a Tea Party movement. Here are a few reasons that come to mind:

1. There's not the same suspicion of the state in the UK as in the US.

2. The US has a revolutionary tradition and we don't (cf. Tea Party).

3. We have some Tea Party equivalents. One is UKIP. However, the state it opposes - the EU - doesn't fuel the same popular feeling. Another is the LibDems: a third party with mainstream representation that continually opposes business as usual and so provides a lesson in the potential and limits of this approach. Finally, the nationalist parties in Wales and Scotland are intrinsically anti-establishment (or at least anti-Westminster establishment).  Perhaps an English nationalist party would be our Tea Party equivalent?

4. There's much more cynicism (or a lot less idealism) about the possibilities of politics over here. It's difficult to see people getting excited about any politician or any political cause at the moment. It's more a case of disengagement and 'a curse on all your houses'.

5. The importance of the individual. We don't have a Sarah Palin - a charismatic populist capable of tapping into people's anti-government and anti-élite feeling.

6. The class system has got the British used to being screwed over by an élite - the perpetrators of economic and financial disaster produce a shrug of the shoulders rather than anything more concrete.

7. There's no room in the British political system for a radical movement to get any traction, at least at the centre: first past the post, power focused on Westminster, the inconsequentiality of local councils.

8. There's no TV channel to fuel and support a Tea Party movement, unlike Fox in the US (though there are a lot of newspapers that I'm sure would sponsor something like it).

9. The US is a bigger, more diverse country - there's simply more space between federal government and the people and between the coasts and the interior for such particularism to thrive. Conversely, the British élite has much more of a grip on the country than any US grouping could possibly hope to possess.

10. Perhaps the biggest difference: the Tea Party movement seems to get a lot of its energy from the religious right. We don't do religion in the same way.

And finally, you couldn't use the term 'Tea Party' over here as it brings to mind chimps drinking PG Tips.

Any more? Will anything change to produce one? Should we wish for one?

35 comments:

Gadjo Dilo said...

Wasn't Guy Fawkes a Tea Party sort of a chap? And now we have that popularist blogger Guido Fawkes who aims to continue the tradition and who - so I'm reliably informed, by Dr Francis Sedgewick - is a total arse. Or maybe I've missed the point again.

worm said...

I think point number one is the most salient one. We in the UK like to think we're all independent and free spirited, but we're practically socialist in our reliance and trust in the state compared to America

Brit said...

Do we want one of our own? God no. It's cringe-inducingly infantile.

Recusant said...

Frankly, I don't think it could work over here because the whole thing sounds too much like a 'Tupperware Party'. Your average Brit, especially the English version, generally suffers from tongue-tied embarrassment when forced to mingle with a bunch of strangers masquerading as neighbours in someone else's house. I mean, you will inevitably meet these people again in your neighbourhood and have to acknowledge their existence and be friendly; best avoid the whole thing altogether and stay in your own Englishman's Castle.

Nations are best defined by what they fear most. For Americans, it's being thought a loser; for Frenchmen, being thought subservient; and for Brits, public embarrassment.

Peter Burnet said...

Of course you don't want one. They are mad, bad and dangerous to know. Or, rather, they would be anywhere else than in the States.

I confess to absolutely loving watching the fair Sarah leading this charge of the 21st century version of Green Mountain Boys. The heads exploding on the left would win a fireworks competition. This would be a perfect time for a re-make of the old Jimmy Stewart classic with an updated title: "Mrs. Smith Goes to Washington".

Recusant, it's not the fear of being a loser that is driving this, it's the dream of being the hero that overthrows the tyrant that beats strongly in the breast of every American. All together now: "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the..."

Gaw said...

Gadjo: No, I think you've got it there. But I do think arses play an important role in the informal British constitution.

Worm: Our national motto should be 'why don't they do something about it?'.

Brit: You'd be dismissed as a member of the West Coast élite [Bristol branch].

Recusant: I can almost hear the jeers already. The enterprise would collapse under the weight of piss-taking.

Peter: I suspect the whole of Canada can be neatly categorised as the US's North Coast élite. In fact, you're not Real Americans at all.

BTW the idea of a Real Briton is inconceivable, laughable, preposterous. It's not even sinister. But is this a wholly good thing?

Peter Burnet said...

Of course we aren't real Americans. We don't do this kind of stuff any more than you do. Puts us off our biscuits, it does.

Americans do revolutions, we do publically funded community consultations.

malty said...

We Brits know our place and would never rock the boat, what was good enough for our forebearers is good enough for us, our betters know...best. We kneel before the alter and defer to the political, legal, upper, chattering, media and professional classes, under no circumstances would we take up Kalashnikov, RPG and vest in protest. We should carry on standing to one side as these important people hurry on their way, things to organise, lower orders to save, laws to make, crisis to solve, speed on your way good sirs and ladies, god bless you, merry England needs you, please save us all. God bless Gordon and Harriet, Shillings and Eady.
Here's my wallet please help yourselves, doctor, lawyer, banker, teacher, postman, BBC, Ms Wark.

Oh, they already have.

Gaw said...

Malty: That's the sort of thing our poet laureate should be writing. After all it doesn't have to rhyme, does it?

Sean said...

I used to live in a very nice Victorian villa type house (2 staircases front and back), which was next to a Victorian park, with a Victorian library in it, with a Victorian school opposite on the main road, just a mile or so down the Victorian road was a Victorian hospital. All serviced by a Victorian water supply and sewer system supplied by the Victorian built reservoirs. And in the centre of town was the Victorian town hall and city hall, all of the above are still in use., unlike too many of the sixties eyesores built by French communists that still blight Sheffield skyline, not yet dead but still towering Zombie like at the request of London intellectuals.

All this was not built by central government, in the main it was built by local government working closely with the private sector.

If we still remembered this maybe we would have a Palin type figure, but we are nation of BSE, (blame someone else) instead of learning to keep the best bits of our political history.

The state in the UK has grown bigger as a result of 2 world wars, disastrous flirtations with socialism and the common market, (sorry the EU.)

we could do with a revolution.

Brit said...

I like the way all of Malty's prose/poems end in either Wark or Gill.

A good trademark.

dearieme said...

Because some sceptical so-and-so would point out that the original Boston Tea party was a riot by tea smugglers pissed off because the import duty on tea had been reduced to almost zero so that they would no longer be able to undercut the legitimate importer.

Vern said...

I think #7 & #9 are quite important- the US is geographically and culturally very diverse + it's a lot more democratic than the UK. People elect their judges, their district attorneys, and state legislatures that have real power, and so there is a real sense of the value of devolved power... and when someone tries to rule on a Federal level it hits a whole series of walls of resistance.

Not sure that the religious right angle is all that important. The demand for small government doesn't have much to do with it.

Gaw said...

Sean: All that good Victorian stuff came about partly as we didn't have a revolution. As well as being highly unpleasant, they waste a lot of time.

Gaw said...

Dearieme: Aha! Historical pedantry - one of my favourite weapons! That'll learn 'em.

Vern: I'm not wholly sceptical of the TPM for that reason. I think we could do with more popular revolt over here. It would do our polity some good, help keep the buggers honest.

I do think the fusion of religion and politics has a big part to play in fueling it all: enthusiasm is originally a religious term.

Sean said...

Good point Gaw (head still a bit dizzy from saturday)

As ive said before, we are at the stage where democracy is becoming or is just a petition to the ruling elite.

I think Popper pointed out the test of a democracy was if you could peaceable change your government without bloodshed.

We are sailing dangerously close to the wind on that one. i will sharpen my pitch folk.

Vern said...

If you mean religion in the broadest sense, as an underlying current in American culture secular and otherwise, then I'd certainly agree with you. We saw the same, if not greater, enthusiasm in the crowds hailing Obama as the saviour of America a year ago. Thus enthusiasm is not the exclusive affair of the 'religious right'- the allegedly secular left can dig it too. Indeed, even the purportedly rational Englishman Andrew Sullivan got quite carried away with it back in 2008...

icowrich said...

Guy Fawkes was not a populist. He was, in fact, a Catholic, who wanted to reinstate a Catholic government. In the 16th century, this meant opposing democracy. The people celebrated Fawkes' defeat and even burned him in effigy. The only similarity was that he was opposed to the regime that was currently in power and that was willing to use violent means to make his point.

Sam Hutcheson said...

Vern says:

"Not sure that the religious right angle is all that important. The demand for small government doesn't have much to do with it."

I would suggest that you look a little closer at the Tea Party movement in general, and Palin in particular. The people running on "Tea Party" platforms are uniquely united along a strain of evangelical Christian activism. The god-father of the Tea Party movement, a Representative named Ron Paul from Texas, is being challenged by three (3!) Tea Party activists because he doesn't support endless war in central Asia and because he *fails* to bring federal monies "home" to his Texas district.

It is a mistake to conflate the "Tea Party" movement with "small government conservatism." They talk the talk, but they fail to walk the walk repeatedly. (Note that Alabama Senators currently have holds on federal appointees to military oversight committees because the new budget cuts a 40 billion dollar Airbus contract from that state.)

Palin, in particular, is nothing *but* religious rhetoric. Beyond that she is as empty a vessel as you're ever likely to find.

Gaw said...

icowrich: Crumbs, I'm not sure we're going to manage to resolve the nature of the contemporary US Tea Party movement as well as the nature of violent religious protest in sixteenth century England.

Sam: It looks more like irresponsible demagoguery than reasonable leadership to me too.

0>w/hole>1 said...

From my standpoint, the driving force behind the Tea Party movement is not small government and budgets and all that jazz, even though they mouth those words. It's rascism, religious nuttery, and class resentment ("tired of feeling like college types are sneering at me").

I guess my questions to British folks would be:

a) How well does anti-intellectualism play in the UK *as a political standpoint*;

b) how well does intolerance play *as a political standpoint*; and

c) does class resentment in the UK act itself out in action in the same way as in the US, or is it more or less accepted as a static gestalt?

It seems to me that while intolerance etc exists in the UK in general -- for instance skinheads -- it doesn't get enshrined as platforms in a political party. (I could be wrong.)

I reckon it's because these things are embarrassing, and too easily mocked; you have a better grasp -- being closer to both history and Europe -- of how fascism/fanaticism starts; England is (I've heard) largely a-religious; the English sense of irony would never be able to choke down the treacle-thick "earnestness" required for a Tea Party.

An English friend of mine pointed out a long time ago that you guys just don't have anything similar to the US near-totemic worship of the flag and other patriotically ridiculous accoutrement. I think that's related to this subject, at the root.

Anonymous said...

As an American, may I comment?

Is there no hope for Britain? You sound so dispirited, empty, decadent, tired.

Shame.

Anonymous said...

Dearime: Pedantry shall be met with pedantry. MORE technically, actual tea smugglers were outnumbered by those who believed Parliament didn't have the authority to impose the duties that determined who was a legitimate or illegitimate tea importer. (Further pedantry: No, not all such duties. Merely those intended to raise revenue, rather than the type intended to discourage consumption. Which adds some irony to current teabaggers' beliefs about the nanny state. I suspect they would be perfectly willing to accept a low sales tax but rather miffed about the sort intended to influence behaviour--"nanny statism!".)

Gaw said...

O>w/hole>1 (I hope that's right): Interesting questions.

- We like intellectualism as long as it's lightly worn. Being otherwise ordinary would be very important.

- Intolerance plays very badly. Most issues of personal morality (namely homosexuality and abortion) are almost entirely outside party politics. I see the lack of this state of affairs in the US as being why there seems to be a lot more venom over there.

- Strangely, at the moment we seem less concerned with class that the US, which has always been seen as a much more classless society.

Overall, I think a general cynicism about politics in all its manifestations would make a Tea Party movement difficult. Plus the ridicule it would face.

Anonymous: We've had over a thousand years of central government. Perhaps we're allowed to be a little jaded?

Anonymous II: I love the smell of pedantry in the morning.

Anonymous said...

People here in the US talk a good game regarding their independent spirit, but just subject them to the endless delays and humiliations of the security-industrial complex (police, TSA, etc.) or the demands of the corporate elite (tax cuts for the wealthy, breaks for big business) and they fold like a cheap suit. Question their patriotism or willingness to toe the line, and they'll shred the Constitution in a nanosecond.

BTW, the TPM will be co-opted and then destroyed by the Republicans, just like they did to the Perot movement of the early 90s.

Vern said...

Class resentment- a bit, I suppose making it the mirror image of the class hate that emanates from self described 'liberals' to the lower orders.

Racism- in some of the nutbag elements, but it's asinine and bogus to tar them all with that brush.

Religious nuttery- some of them.

Ron Paul is himself a bit of a nut.

Generally speaking tho' that does not constitute a close look at the movement but is just a parroting of the bog standard demonizing of the feared mob, trotted out daily on MSNBC, HuffPo etc.

Yawn.

Karen Scott said...

Not sure that the religious right angle is all that important. The demand for small government doesn't have much to do with it.

Are you kidding?

You need to look more closely at the people forming the Tea Parties. They are all mini Rush Limbaughs, Sean Hannitys and Stephen frick Baldwins.

It's horrendous enough that we have somebody like Nick Griffin who seems to have found a certain amount of mainstream acceptance, but to be bombarded by squalid mini Hitlers, kissing their holy crosses in the name of Jesus Christ, everytime they put one foot in front of the other, puts the fear of Gerry Adams into me.

I have to be thankful that in Britain at least, we know the value of keeping church and state separate.

I feel rather smug that we don't have the faux Fox News over here. Give me lily-livered middle ground reporting anyday, over the agenda-filled crapshoot that parades as hard-hitting journalism.

Also, because issues like personal morality are indeed outside party politics, there is little room for fundamentalism and extremism to be spawned in the British political arena, like it is over in America. All that venom and hate must be frickin exhausting.

I despise Gordon Brown like a fat kid hates celery, but give me his bumbling, slightly narcissistic demeanour, over the dangerously ignorant and freakishly religious, Sarah Palin, any day.

Chris Brew said...

The big difference is that in the US, Senators (and to a lesser extent Members of the House) have real power to influence legislation, and to direct money to their constituencies. They also need to collect lots of money for their campaigns, so they finish up looking like shills for whichever interest group(s) they can get money for. Ron Paul and the Tea-Partiers, look, by comparison, like principled people who really do stand for small government. Their counterparts on the left (not many of them, but include Dennis Kucinich) are basically ignored as nutcases.
But given how close votes often are, Senators from both parties can have power, and a few TeaParty people could really influence things. Not necessarily in a good way.

The Republicans are working hard to co-opt the enthusiasm of the TeaPartiers, and of course aim to do that without giving up their cushy financial relationships with their interest groups.

The Democrats, insofar as they have a plan at all, seem to be hoping that the Republicans will go so
far right that they become unelectable. The strategy
is to do as little as possible and hope for self-destruction by their opponents. Seriously uninspiring.

British MPs vote the party line and look like total non-entities. So electing a slightly different set of minority MPs has basically no effect, and everyone knows it. The reason why there is no TeaParty is that it would make not difference.

nckd said...

1) Chris Brew's comment gets to one point here -- the US is not a parliamentary system, and it has no minor parties with national reach. There's a different kind of casual party identification and retail politics. It's nearly impossible to form a new national party, and comparatively easy to form a bloc or caucus within an existing party.

2) Point 9 is a big one, too - the US is much larger, and has more regionalized culture, than non-Americans generally realize. Also, gerrymandering over-represents rural and exurban white voters on the state and national level. So a movement appealing to those voters (and their resentments) more newsworthy than it would be in the UK, even if it only has 2 or 3 candidates who could win a statewide election in most of the country.

3) You do have the BNP and UKIP, after all. (I don't think the LibDems sound anything like the Tea Party.)

DBX said...

The Teabagger phenomenon is a cultural phenomenon rather than a function of institutions. The US Senate in particular is bought off by corporate special interests even worse than Westminster, plus the evolution of the filibuster into a supermajority requirement makes it a block on almost everything. But that alone isn't enough to create the "Tea Party".

What clinches the deal is paranoia. Paranoia is far more deeply engrained in US political culture than in Europe. And why not? Americans have had more to be paranoid about -- Indian wars, the real dangers of the frontier, greater class insecurity (the flip side of not having a class system), much more vicious union busting, a much more ethnically diverse society, larger scale recent experiences with rank sectarianism (as opposed to geographically confined to, and intensified in, Glasgow and Belfast), more rapacious capitalism, more elitist politics on both the liberal and conservative sides of the aisle, and so on. And on top of that, throw in a weaker safety net and a tax code that positively incentivizes shipping jobs to China, meaning that the non-university class has been systematically screwed here in a way worse than in Europe. But unlike in Europe this non-U class has a, organizational base from which to organize -- charismatic Pentecostal churches, most notably "megachurches" with congregations numbering in the thousands, networked through groups like the Christian Coalition and Focus on the Family, who were able to network through mass media as early as the 1970s, a time when that kind of access to the airwaves was unknown in Europe but already widespread in the US.

It's that non-U class that forms the base of Sarah Palin's following. There isn't a counterpart in Britain; the non-U class in the UK has not been as severely screwed economically, and it does not have the megachurch venue in which to organize nor is there the freedom to spread overtly political messages on broadcast media. I might be inclined to say "give it time", as social conservatism is prevalent amongst the non-U's on both sides of the Atlantic. But in Britain, there's yet another barrier; a well-engrained culture one. More people in the UK accept evolution as scientific fact than in almost any other country; the scientific method is too deeply engrained for mass religion to emerge as a social organizing force on a parallel with the United States or even elsewhere in Europe.

Gaw said...

Anonymous III: Someone, somewhere made the point that for all Americans' bluster there hasn't been anything like our poll tax riots or miners strike in recent years. Mind you, nor have we.

Interesting point about the Republicans and what they did to Perot.

Vern: Just because something is parroted doesn't make it wrong. Particularly as you concede the kernel of most of the accusations.

Karen: I don't think comparing Tea Party people to Hitler and Gerry Adams particularly useful or fair. And we have an established Church over here - but I think you mean keeping religion and politics separate (BTW it's peculiar that we have an established Church but a non-religious politics - or are the two related?)

I agree about the value of making an attempt to be objective in TV news. Though there are plenty out there who see the BBC as a liberal conspiracy!

Chris: That's an interesting point about the respective power of Senators and MPs. There are plans over here to make MPs more independent and directly accountable - if implemented, they could open up some space for more popular pressure.

nckd: I think your first two points explain why UKIP and BNP (and other extremist parties in the past) find it so difficult to get traction over here. The LibDems aren't like the Tea Partiers - but they do keep claiming to be insurgent and radical, tending to make this a normal - and boring - part of the general political discourse.

DBX: Fascinating analysis - any good books on it?

hisgirlfriday said...

American here. DBX that is pretty interesting analysis and says things a lot better than I could (as has a lot of the Brit analysis of my country throughout these comments). Unfortunately, that won't stop me from posting.

The Tea Party in America holds itself out to be about small government and a protest against excessive government spending and burdensome taxation, and if it truly was that maybe it would be a useful force in American politics. But for the most part -- as their recent convention showed -- the Tea Party is just a bag of American resentments shared by a smaller segment of the population than the amount of attention they receive reflects.

Resentment against the black man in the White House (with one Tea Partier calling for a reimplementation of Jim Crow-era literacy tests for voting and the whole "birther" phenomenon to portray Obama as a foreigner that it is a big part of this craziness).

Resentment against our growing Hispanic population (and the hypocrisy of a nation of immigrants complaining about immigration).

Resentment against the debasement of our culture (because at the same time our religious bigots are as loud as ever, our movies, television shows and music are as violent, racy and coarse as ever).

Resentment against gays (not necessarily because these people are gay and that is supposed to be immoral but because they are open about it and the bigots aren't allowed to say politically incorrect things about them without public condemnation any more).

Resentment against the elites encompassing a hatred and fury that is as equally contemptuous of the bankers who are robbing us as the politicians who have sold us out in exchange for campaign cash (at the same time the gap between rich and poor in this country is at its greatest since before the Great Depression).

Resentment against the college educated and comfortable office class (when this nation has exported so many factory jobs overseas the last thirty years).

Resentment against unions (who are the few workers who haven't been totally screwed over the last couple decades which has breeded jealousy and contempt that big business has fostered as non-union folk simply think well if I'm getting screwed then these guys should too).

Resentment against the ever-weakening mainstream media (which has been so thoroughly tarnished thanks to the propaganda of the right at the same time its suffered in quality and courage because of complacency among the press we now have and the dreadful economic climate for newspapers in this country).

Resentment against doves and non-interventionists (for being right that Iraq was wrong and their existence reminding them of their foolishness... and on the point that someone mentioned earlier about America being defined from the fear of being a loser, I'd modify that slightly to say only that a bigger fear than being a loser is the fear of being thought a wimp) and anyone who in any way doesn't seem to embrace the theory of "American exceptionalism."

Along this same line is the resentment against gun control proponents who have been so thoroughly demonized by the NRA that our liberal president with a supermajority in the Senate didn't dare even consider bringing back the assault weapons ban that passed under Clinton (but that doesn't stop the NRA from calling these Tea Party crazies and basically any gun owner and misinforming them that Obama has a plan to take away all their guns).

Thankfully, as I said before, this group is definitely a minority of the electorate. I believe the Tea Party convention last weekend had just 600(!!!) people, although I believe Palin's $100,000 speech brought perhaps a 1,000 attendees. With this group being such a muddled mess of resentments, it's quite disorganized with certain segments resenting each other as some Tea Partiers fight with other Tea Partiers over what is the "real" Tea Party and whether it should be allowed to be coopted by profiteers and/or the Republican Party.

hisgirlfriday said...

Guess this was too long to add to the previous post...

This piece in Newsweek had some interesting tidbits about the movement (comparing it to the John Birch society of the middle 20th century), told from the perspective of an author who is himself a conservative.

http://www.newsweek.com/id/233331

hisgirlfriday said...

And since I can't seem to shut up, I'll just add that I don't think this Tea Party craze is really anything new in American politics.

It's just the child of the Ross Perot/Pat Buchanan third party/reform movements of the 1990s and grandchild of the John Birch society of the '60s, which itself was an heir of the Nazi-sympathizing America First movement led by Charles Lindbergh that wanted us to stay out of WWII.

Before that we had the rabid agrarian populism of William Jennings Bryan who not only ran for president three times on a platform of opposition to the big banks and railroads and in support of a silver-backed currency and prohibition of alcohol, but also would argue against the teaching of evolution in schools in the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial.

And before that we had the dreadful Whig Party offshoot, the Know-Nothing party of the 1840s and 1850s, an organized resentment of the immigrant Catholics who supposedly were coming from Ireland and Germany in droves as part of some plot to subjugate America to the vicars of Rome.

Paranoia and resentment run deep in the American political fabric.

Gaw said...

hisgirlfriday: Thanks for the insights. That's sure a great many resentments to be shared out amongst 600 or so people (and I'm shocked the convention was that small). And thanks also for the historical context.