A Tale of Two Nations: How the UK is Influenced and Shaped by US Presidential Elections

Gerry Hassan
4 November 2008

In an OK essay marking the US election, Gerry Hassan looks at how past
presidential elections have played out on this side of the Atlantic.

This is a momentous week for democracy, the future of America and the world, but it is also a week which yet again shows the inter-connections and differences between US and UK politics.

Today, November 4th 2008, US voters go to the polls in an election which looks set to witness not only the victory of Barack Obama, the Democratic candidate, but draw to a close the era of right-wing Republicanism as the dominant party and ideas.

Two days later, with a little less media frenzy, money and hype, Labour and SNP continue the latest episode in the ground war for supremacy in Scotland in the UK Westminster by-election in the Fife town of Glenrothes. Labour hold a 10,664 majority over the Nationalists and were thought to be dead in the water until the economic crisis erupted. The battle is one between two governments – the Scottish (SNP) and UK (Labour) and two competing visions of Scotland.

If we go back to another November 4th in 1980, another political age began with the election of Ronald Reagan as US President defeating Jimmy Carter in a Republican landslide. This heralded in an era of American empire, imperialism and dynasty which has ultimately led the US to disaster and defeat. 

The emergence of US dynasty is closely related to the rise of a new class of the super-rich and the fawning of wealth and power. From 1980 until this year every US Presidential election had either a Bush or a Clinton on the ticket as a Presidential or Vice-Presidential candidate of one of the two main parties. One of the many welcome aspects of Obama’s candidature has been to stop this dynastification in its tracks.

The following Thursday in 1980 the Labour Party still in a state of disarray and denial after its 1979 defeat at the hands of Margaret Thatcher, reacted by electing the perpetual rebel and romantic Michael Foot its leader. This was seen at the time by many on the centre and left of the party as the best hope for party unity. Instead, Foot’s leadership was to prove no match for Thatcher or a party bent on self-destruction and civil war. It was to take a long time for Labour to recover from its self-inflicted wounds of ’79-’83 and in a sense they have still not fully recovered – considering that New Labour was a reaction to the Foot-Bennite period.

Eight years on from this, on November 8th 1988, George Bush mark 1 defeated Michael Dukakis in a contest which saw the Republicans run a bitter, nasty campaign on race and crime which tarred the Democratic candidate. This was to prove to be the shape of things to come for the next twenty years.

Two days later, on November 10th, Scottish politics provided one of its most sensational by-election victories, when former Labour MP Jim Sillars won the Glasgow Govan constituency from Labour for the SNP. The main issues in the campaign had been Scotland’s constitutional status and the question of the legitimacy of a Westminster Tory government ruling Scotland on a minority of votes. Ultimately Jim Sillars personally imploded and lost Govan at the subsequent election, but the result galvanised Labour to join the cross-party Constitutional Convention, and ensured the plans for a Parliament were more thought through and comprehensive.

Whatever the result and size of votes tonight and on Thursday, UK politics for the post-war period have been shaped by an obsession in our political classes and media with the US and the notion of Atlanticism: namely, the idea that the UK’s national interests are best served by being the junior partner to the US’s world role. 

One of the down sides of an Obama victory is that it offers the prospect for the reinvigoration of the whole ‘Camelot on the hill’ liberal rhetoric, and of a political class and media who want to see, believe and live in that imagined fantasy America, rather than looking at what we need to concentrate on in this small, European country called the UK. 

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