Are there any limits to the Americanisation of Britain? Alan Ryan, who has just returned from nine years in the US, hopes that Britain will resist the punitive and religious enthusiasms from across the Atlantic, but argues that there is no alternative to copying the US model in higher educationby Alan Ryan / December 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
When Karl Marx wrote Das Kapital, he knew that a sceptical reader might wonder why he had spent hundreds of pages reciting for German readers a contentious account of British economic history. De te fabula narratur-this is your story-was his reply. “The developed country shows to the less developed the image of its future.” This is an apt moment to wonder whether a modern Marx would want to tell the British, not that they show the future to Germany, but that the US displays their future to them. To put it more bluntly: is what Americans are getting from Bill Clinton what the British will get from Tony Blair? Is the US inner city the future of Glasgow or Liverpool? Are the housing estates of Sheffield and Leeds the Cabrini Greens of our future?
Less excitedly, one might wonder whether the US economy, with its increasing inequality of rewards, and its inability to find work for the least skilled, is the future of the British economy, too. And whether the US higher education system, with some 3,500 colleges and universities, and 14m students operating at all levels of competence, is a glimpse of the future for British higher education.
Perhaps less plausibly, one might wonder whether the punitive enthusiasms of Michael Howard are a foretaste of a Britain that has followed the state of California by spending more on prison building than higher education, and has cut welfare payments in order to spend $40,000 a year to keep in jail the angry young men that neglected children turn into. And since in the US, the new culture of punishment goes along with the rise of the religious right, and a constant hubbub of demands that public schools should resound with prayer when they are not echoing with the sound of corporal punishment, one might wonder whether the current wave of moral zeal among British politicians is not the first stirrings of what in the US is a full tide.
The obvious answer to such questions is “heaven knows.” For the most surprising feature of the recent election season, and for the two years before, has been the unpredictability of events. The most sensible reaction to the politics of the past six months has come from Newt Gingrich. “I just don’t know what’s going on,” he has been saying whenever asked for an opinion. The Speaker who thought in November…