Sunday, May 08, 2005

A stranger in my own country

I have recently returned from a 12 day trip to the United States, and it has made me look at my country of birth (the UK) in a very different light.

My first trip to the US was in 1995. I returned having enjoyed my trip but happy to be home. America's obsession with guns, commercialism and personal liberty was I felt, a little extreme. We Europeans seemed more civilised, had a welfare state, and didn't execute people.

Ten years on, I realise how naive I was. Gerard Baker's article which appeared in the Times at the end of April sums up just how much things have changed. He describes the UK where political debate is limited to an increasingly narrow range of issues. Where there was once competitive debate, a political concensus has built up where fundamental issues such as Europe and reducing the size of the State are off-limits. And where there is competitive debate, it centres around more Government, not less. Every aspect of day to day life, from performance targets of local police to school meals is dictated by central Government. Every time a problem arises such as anti-social behaviour or a rise in hospital waiting lists, the solution is always the same: Legislate!

Increasingly, the legislation is not coming from Parliament but from Brussels. The House of Commons has become little more than a rubber stamp for European law. Don't like the new laws? Tough, you can't vote on them! The European Union may have been invented to stifle extremism out of European politics, but it has also stifled debate.

The United States may be a country with some unsavoury elements but it has a diversity of opinion that as a European I can only envy. Time and time again, I heard discussions that have become taboo in Europe: abortion, the importance of giving back power to States and the role of faith-based politics. Maybe it's the sheer size of the place that makes this possible. After all, when you spend time in Liberal Massachusetts or Washington DC, you can be forgiven for thinking that these bible bashing gun-toting extremists are a figment of Europe's imagination.

But it's more than this. It's a "live and let live" political culture that thrives on difference rather than feeling threatened by it. Nobody gets this across better than Mark Steyn:
"Because Texans, Vermonters and Georgians all agree that they're Americans, they're happy to go their own way in matters of capital punishment, income tax, gay civil unions: that's a dynamic, creative federalism. Because Greeks, Scots and Austrians still regard each other as foreign, a European identity has to be imposed from top down, as if by harmonizing tax codes and passport design you can harmonize a bunch of foreigners into one nationality, regulate a European consciousness into being: that's not federalism, but a stagnant over-centralization."