Continental Divide

Britain and America both have center-left leaders, but the two nations are further apart than ever.

LONDON—”Two nations, divided by a common language” is how someone once described Great Britain and the United States. “Two nations, divided by a common politics” is another way to put it. Ever since the days of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, the political fortunes of the United States and Britain have tracked and reflected one another in odd ways. For many years, they moved in tandem: The harmonious center-right union of Thatcher and Reagan was followed by the equally harmonious, if less affectionate, center-left union of Tony Blair and Bill Clinton.

But then came Blair-Bush, which worked out rather badly for Blair. Now we have Gordon Brown and Barack Obama, who barely speak to one another. And even though we once again have two “center-left” politicians in charge, a distinct lack of harmony characterizes trans-Atlantic political debates. Our health care conversations, for example, are now totally different. This became apparent last year, when American Republicans held up the British health care system as an example of the nightmare that might await America if Obama’s plan were passed. British conservatives—who had been bashing their centralized system for years—immediately rallied to its defense. David Cameron, the Conservative leader who is angling to become prime minister in this spring’s election, has even promised to “ring-fence” health care so that it is not affected by future budget cuts at all.

Further evidence that the days of ideological cross-pollination are over now arrives in the form of the trans-Atlantic debate about education. Many of the troubles of the British state school system will sound familiar to American ears: falling standards, inner-city violence, private schools outperforming their state counterparts, uneven performance in different parts of the country. In order to combat these ills, the bipartisan U.S. governors’ association has recently started talking about the joint creation of “national standards,” an idea the Obama administration and its supporters have embraced with enthusiasm, as have many conservative education reformers. This is now the cutting edge of the education debate: A child’s education must not depend “primarily on ZIP code,” the low standards of many school districts must be raised, and only concerted action on a national level can fix the problem.

But the British already have not only national standards but also a national curriculum and national exams. And it is precisely this curriculum and these exams that some members of the British public want to escape. Hence the popular Conservative proposal to liberate state schools from “stifling state control.” Allow parents and teachers to start new, small charter schools from scratch. Let the child’s postal code determine not only the curriculum, in other words, but the nature and philosophy of the school, the size of the classes, the methods of education. Make schools not more alike but more different. Free pupils from pointless exams.

I don’t want to make too much of these things: More than anything else, the divergence of our trans-Atlantic debates reflects cultural differences that have always been a lot deeper than they seem. But they do also reflect some trans-Atlantic and even global political changes. Thatcher and Reagan could share a simple and ideologically compatible vision of the world because they had clear ideological opponents: Soviet-style communism abroad, welfare statism at home. In the post-Cold War moment, Blair and Clinton could also share an ideologically compatible goal: Both wanted to bring the old left into the new center.

Nothing is nearly so clear anymore—and certainly not in tricky subjects like education. Is a national math curriculum right-wing or left-wing? Are smaller classrooms right-wing or left-wing? In Britain, the Labor Party is identified with standardized testing. In the United States, that honor belongs to the Bush administration. Then again, any random list of subjects—Iraq, environmentalism, homeland security—would produce an equally odd assortment of ideological positions in both countries. President Obama’s positions on Afghanistan would be considered far-right in Britain, yet a percentage of his compatriots consider him a far-left radical.

The truth is that the old labels are no longer of much use on either side of the Atlantic—except, of course, to people who prefer their politics in sound bites. They seem to work, some of the time, for political best-seller-writers, too. But as a shorthand for describing the fickle moods of the British and American electorates—or as a way of explaining the politicians in either country—forget it.