James Johnson is co-founder of JL Partners. He was the Senior Opinion Research and Strategy Adviser to the prime minister 2016-2019.
Nasty, polarised, bitter. Vacant leadership. A broken media driven by political agenda. Extreme thugs, masquerading as protestors, on the streets. Echo chambers inventing and believing their own versions of the truth.
These are words usually levelled at America. But can anyone really look at the last two weeks and say that these words do not sum up Britain more accurately?
This country’s societal response to Hamas’ attacks on Israel and the ensuing conflict has been woeful.
It is our media that has been the biggest disgrace. Only yesterday, Sky News selectively clipped a video of a freed hostage on social media, amplifying her experience of the hostage-takers being “very friendly” rather than the “living hell” her daughter said she had experienced.
For days, the BBC refused to call Hamas “terrorists”. It’s tweet declaring that “hundreds of people have been killed in an Israeli strike on a hospital in Gaza, according to Palestinian officials” is still up.
Hundreds were not killed, it was not an Israeli strike, and Palestinian officials are Hamas. But five million views later, it seems more important for figures like John Simpson and the apparently unbiased BBC to be proven right than to correct the record. It is our media that has been agenda-driven, stubborn, and tainted by political ideology, not America’s cable news stations.
The Metropolitan Police’s handling of anti-Israel protests, meanwhile, has been more post-truth than our American friends.
There is a right to protest in support of the Palestinian people, and many of those who did so have a legitimate position. But someone chanting for “Jihad” against Israel? That word has “a number of meanings” said the Met , who promised to have a quiet word with the extremist instead.
A black flag with the shahada photographed at a an explicitly anti-Israel rally that someone pointed out as seeming “similar to ISIS flags”? Dismissed by the Met as a “claim about flags”.
As many Jews have said, it would be hard to feel safe in London when you have this obfuscation and whataboutery protecting you. Politicians have not been much use either: though criticising the police, the Government has done nothing to change the law, whilst Sadiq Khan has defended the Met Police’s actions.
America has had its own flashpoints of extremism on the streets: a pro-Palestine protestor holding a Nazi swastika up in Manhattan; a Hamas flag flown in Minneapolis just this week. Unlike the UK, these are often un-policeable: the First Amendment protects a great deal more as free speech.
But that provision and America’s culture of plain-speaking means that they at least call a spade a spade rather than twist themselves in knots to deny what is taking place. ‘VILE RALLY’, screamed the New York Post the morning after that swastika was shown, and the ultimate head of the New York Police Department – Democrat mayor Eric Adams – decried those who “celebrate” in the “pain of antisemitism”.
The differences extend down to the average voter too. As Adams identified, the immediate aftermath of Hamas’ attacks on Israel were a moment for clarity rather than muddying the water by talking about the plight of “both sides”.
But this both-sidesism is more endemic to the British public than we might like to think.
I ran two focus groups in the days after the attack: one with English swing voters, and one with Democrats in Atlanta, Georgia. The latter were clear-eyed: appalled by the savagery of the attacks, supportive for Israel to take defensive action, nervous about civilian lives in Gaza.
But British voters reached almost immediately for light conspiracy theories (“they’re just focusing on what’s happened, not the bigger picture”) or for both-sidesism (“I believe things just as bad have happened to the other side”). One even got close to suggesting the attacks were justified (“as tragic as it is, it’s certainly not an easy one to say what’s right or wrong”).
It is not often that the UK is a bigger breeding ground of conspiracy theories than America. This time it was.
How have Americans – by and large rancorous and divided – put their differences aside on this issue? One major element underpinning it is a deep-rooted cultural affinity with Israel. A southern Baptist in my Atlanta focus group said she prayed for Israel as she prays for God.
But with some Republican voters even rallying to Joe Biden, there is a broader steeliness that comes on show during times of foreign strife.
In Colin Woodward’s American Nations he identifies the ‘Appalachians’ amongst his eleven different American nations. Inhabiting Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia and Texas, these descendants of Scots-Irish immigrants are stereotyped as the hillbillies and the rednecks. Many of them rushed to Trump in 2016.
But these same voters have, in every single war America has fought, been the most eager to serve in the military, even when its commander-in-chief has been a president they despise.
Drive around America for five minutes and you will be struck by the number of US flags. The Appalachians and most of the rest of the nation still have a strong sense of national pride. Our Atlantic partners might be a bit mad, but they still care – about their country, about its future. Polarisation has its many negative effects, but one of its positives is its ability to galvanise that passion.
It can, paradoxically, even build faith: at any one point, roughly half the voting population approves of the president and vigorously defends the current manifestation of America. You lose faith terribly for four years, then get it back with double the fervour when your hero wins.
I am not pretending America has not had its problems. During all this, the House of Representatives has not had a Speaker. There was a harrowing anti-Muslim hate crime murder of a child in Michigan. Donald Trump could not let his differences with Benjamin Netanyahu go after the attack and personally criticised him.
But by and large, America has had a more respectable fortnight than us.
There is a final difference between the two countries – and one that we may now have found the candour to address.
While America has witnessed huge immigration (from Europe, from Central and South America, from India and China) the UK and Europe have spent the last twenty years importing people with religious belief systems fundamentally different to our own, and not doing enough to counter extremism amongst people who were born here.
Unlimited immigration with limited integration has been the order of the day, and we are now paying the price on our streets.
We have been told for years by academics – as motivated by bias as our media – that immigration is a force for good. Those who question the severe shortcomings of integration – and dare to mention that these shortcomings may be due to religious groupings themselves – are written off as racists. The events of the last fortnight may mean we now have the courage to face up to these profound issues.
We might like to say America is broken. But over the last two weeks, its politics has put ours to shame.