Small town's knickers in a twist as Brits' dislike of America grows

August 06, 2006|By RONAN HEAD

MALVERN, England -- Tony Blair's recent visit to Washington belies the ideological chasm growing between the U.S. and Britain. Consider the current Israel-Lebanon crisis: The New York Times reports that only 7 percent of Americans want their government to criticize the Israeli military effort. In the U.K. that figure rises to 61 percent. The British public is up in arms over the secret refueling in Britain of a U.S. plane carrying missiles bound for Israel.

Blaming America as much as Israel for the conflict, firebrand British Member of Parliament George Galloway has described America as the center of this current "axis of aggression"; but more moderate politicians are also banging the anti-American drum.

But British anti-Americanism goes beyond the unpopularity of American policy in the Middle East and the noisy complaints of ultra-Socialists like Galloway. Even jolly old "Middle England" hates America, it seems.

I grew up in the cozy Victorian town of Malvern. For the last four years I have called Baltimore home and have watched with wry amusement from afar as my hometown has been engulfed in a wave of anti-Americanism. Malvern is not typically a hive of political activism; if the local newspaper ever receives irate letters, they are from hikers asking mountain bikers to stay off footpaths on the Malvern Hills, or complaints about the closure of public restrooms in the town center.

At least, that was until George W. Bush assumed the American presidency and anti-Americanism reached Middle England.

Every year in Malvern there is an "American Extravaganza." Or there used to be. Line-dance-loving and Chevy-driving Brits gather at the local fairground to celebrate American culture: Elvis, Stetsons and Big Cars. In the summer of 2003, the extravaganza was canceled because of scheduling problems. A small notice announcing the cancellation was posted in the local newspaper, the Malvern Gazette.

A week later, the Gazette letters page exploded into life. Foremost was a missive from a young man who expressed delight that the extravaganza had been canceled. Citing his distaste at America's policy in Iraq, he decried any attempt to celebrate America, whose culture was "devoid of any value." The message: We don't want anything American in Middle England, thank you very much old chap.

A week later, the debate continued. One English expat living in the U.S. was livid: "I also don't support the war in Iraq," he said. "But to suggest that we should despise all things American is offensive. Perhaps [he] should petition to have every book by an American author removed from Malvern library, or every American movie thrown out of the local video shop. I bet he owns a few himself."

Unfortunately for the image of the U.S. overseas, this America-defending Englishman was in the minority. Most letters supported the anti-U.S. sentiment. A year later, the argument continued. One letter, complaining that the Town Council had refused planning permission for a German-owned supermarket, suggested that Malvern look commercially toward Europe and not to "oil-hungry, war-mongering Bush." What Mr. Bush had to do with a small English town's shopping choices would escape many, but such is the resentment of America that it is blamed for a bizarre litany of England's woes.

Then there was the scare-mongering over the water. Spring water gushes from the Malvern Hills and has for years been bottled as "Malvern Water." So celebrated is this water that the queen refuses to travel anywhere without it. The company that bottles the water recently proposed that a new sourcing site be opened to meet demand.

"Hills to be `bled dry'" screamed headlines in the Malvern Gazette. Angry letters again filled the paper: Water that had run for millennia was in danger of drying up because of, yes, the Americans. You see, the company that bottles Malvern Water is owned by Coca-Cola. Those Yanks were at it again.

Americans have come to expect flag-burning in the Middle East and condescension from Old Europe. But such rabid hatred in Britain, America's greatest ally?

The left-leaning newspapers of London's chattering classes have long detested America, but Malvern is a quiet, conservative place. Childish resentment over car rallies, supermarkets and spring water are symptomatic of a deeper malaise.

Britons need to shake off the immature resentment of their bigger cousin, and America, if it is to rely on the British public's support for things that really matter, needs a PR offensive - and it needs one now. Never has America been more unpopular.

Ronan Head is a Near Eastern Studies graduate student at the Johns Hopkins University. His e-mail is ronan@jhu.edu.

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