Getting it wrong

Lord Norton

I was listening to Broadcasting House on Radio 4 on Sunday morning when they introduced a listener, an American novelist, who wanted to complain about the coverage in the UK of American politics.  She took exception to references to ‘swing states’ on the grounds that Americans took the view that each vote counted as equal.  What?  Tell that to Senators Obama and McCain.  Their campaigns are based on the whole concept of swing states: look at their own speaking schedules.  The last presidential candidate who promised to campaign in all fifty states was Richard Nixon in 1960.

She then went on to have a swipe at the UK, claiming that Britons were more racist than Americans and we were not likely to have a black person running for Prime Minister or occupying a senior Cabinet post.  Oh dear.  There are survey data that show that British society is one of the most tolerant among Western societies, more so than the USA.  And she seemed unaware that we have already had Cabinet ministers who are black: Paul Boateng was the first, then from the Lords there was Baroness Amos, who served as Leader of the House and then Secretary of State for International Development.  There are presently six ministers who are black or Asian, the most senior being Baroness Scotland (Attorney General, who variously attends Cabinet) and David Lammy (Minister of State, Innovation, Universities and Skill).  Given that we have a political system that produced Benjamin Disraeli as PM in the nineteenth century and Margaret Thatcher in the twentieth, it is not inconceivable that we will have a black PM in the twenty-first. 

The ill-informed views expressed by the novelist were not challenged.  Where is Jeremy Paxman when you need him?

15 comments for “Getting it wrong

  1. howridiculous
    28/10/2008 at 3:23 pm

    Dear Lord Norton,

    Thank you very much for alerting us to the latest piece of shoddy broadcasting from the BBC. I hope someone from the Corporation reads this blog and that a correction is broadcast on the next episode of BH. Somehow I doubt it will be.

    Whilst I’m on about the BBC, why on Earth is it giving so much coverage to the US election? I’m sure licence fee payers’ money could be better spent than on shipping broadcasters over to the United States for the duration of the presidential campaign.


  2. Senex
    28/10/2008 at 7:27 pm

    Novelists need to experience life from many viewpoints and in the many levels of society in order to write fact or fiction that sells. This novelist on a visit to the UK may have experienced racism by virtue of being an American white or otherwise.

    In Hollywood productions, you can immediately guess who the villain is by their English accent. Is this oblique racism? In the original ‘Star Trek’ TV series with William Shatner it was always those wearing the red shirts that got bumped off. Was the universe guilty of colour prejudice?

    You might better have enjoyed an episode of the American mini-series of John Adams currently showing Saturdays on More4. This excellent series captivates as the American republic is established in the face of a perpetually warring Europe and an aversion to a British Parliament and a mad king.

    However, with all of its intellectual excellence this republic that aspired to the wording in the declaration of independence, first drafted in England:

    “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

    Would from the very start deny Black Americans equal opportunity and to create inequality because they were not regarded as a people but objects to be abused by their fellow Americans.

    John Adams (starring Paul Giamatti, Laura Linney, David Morse) available on DVD

  3. Bedd Gelert
    29/10/2008 at 11:17 am

    In fairness to the BBC they do broadcast a plurality of ‘views’ and ‘opinions’ – perceptions differ and we are all intelligent enough to make our own minds up.

    “here are survey data that show that British society is one of the most tolerant among Western societies, more so than the USA. ”

    Justin Webb, the US Editor, covers this point in his book ‘Have a Nice Day’, which tries to get behind some of the stereotypes of America.

    He makes the point that just as class is more of an issue in Britain than in the States, he thinks race is still more divisive in the US than the UK, and still potentially a source of trouble.

    But don’t take my second hand view of things – his blog covers many aspects of American life, although it does tend to be in a period of ‘carpet bombing’ coverage of the US election.

    Your point about Swing States is well made – but I guess the flip side of this is what would happen if [say] Obama won the ‘popular vote’, but somehow McCain sneaked more ‘electoral college’ votes.

    Okay, that is somewhat unlikely – and they would still have been focussing their effort on ‘swing states’, but it would raise some interesting questions. Indeed, if the Electoral College were tied [by no means an impossibility] would they hand the crown to the person who had amassed huge majorities in non-swing-states.

  4. lordnorton
    29/10/2008 at 4:33 pm

    Bedd Gelert: It is because of the Electoral College that there is such an emphasis on swing states. Almost but not quite all states adopt a winner-takes-all approach to the allocation of Electoral College votes, hence the candidates’ focus on the large states that could go either way.

    The Electoral College is not well understood. I think it is often overlooked that although Americans go to the polls next Tuesday, the President of the United States is not formally elected until December.

  5. Bedd Gelert
    29/10/2008 at 6:56 pm

    “The Electoral College is not well understood. I think it is often overlooked that although Americans go to the polls next Tuesday, the President of the United States is not formally elected until December.”

    Lord Norton, I’m not entirely sure what you mean here ? My impression [and I may have got completely the wrong end of the stick here] is that the new President is ‘President Elect’ until the swearing-in during January, and until then things continue as they are, with the ‘new team’ being picked, since there is not a ‘civil service’ which stays in whoever is ‘Prime Minister of the UK’ as in Britain.

    But I may be barking up the wrong tree on this.

  6. lordnorton
    29/10/2008 at 8:06 pm

    Bedd Gelert: When Americans vote next Tuesday they are not electing the President but rather the members of the Electoral College; they are voting for slates of candidates for the College committed to vote for a particular candidate. The votes of members of the Electoral College are transmitted to Washington DC and counted in December and that is formally when the President is elected.

    In practice, unless you get a situation as in 2000, then it is immediately obvious soon after polls close who has actually won and that candidate can start the preparations for creating a new administration.

    Incidentally, Electoral College voters are not necessarily compelled to vote for the candidate they are slated to vote for (it depends on the state law) and occasionally you get a voter who is supposed to vote for a particular candidate casting their vote for someone else. In 1968, when it looked as if no candidate may get an absolute msjority in the Electoral College because of George Wallace’s third-party candidacy, some Democrats who were candidates for the Electoral College did discuss switching their votes to create a majority for the Republican (Richard Nixon) if he won the popular vote, in order to avoid the contest going to the House of Representatives. In the event, there was no need.

  7. 29/10/2008 at 8:52 pm

    Her name is Grace Andreacchi, by the way. I also don’t understand her complaints on the use of the term ‘swing states’, and have read comments by American people complaining that the elections revolve around them, they too used exactly that term. Here’s one such comment. There are also plenty of complaints from people in red and blue states that their ‘votes don’t count’.

    I don’t believe this novelist’s opinions are particularly representative. She is, in my opinion, wrong about Sarah Palin being really admired. For example, Phrases like ‘Another cringe-inducing performance‘ and ‘disaster‘ show she’s looking like an idiot in interviews. Matt Damon described a Palin presidency as ‘terrifying’ and ‘like a really bad Disney movie‘.

    Racism does seem different in the US and the UK, she almost got that point, it’s not about colour though. In Britain racism is all moaning about ‘the Frogs’ and ‘Eastern European scum wot don’t intagrate with owre cultur’, then spending a long-weekend in Paris, shouting at French waiters because they don’t speak English. While taking advantage of the united Europe, they hate so much, to buy up homes in eastern European countries for really low prices.

    My apologies for being controversial; it’s worth noting that there’s a difference between being skeptical of the way a united Europe is run, and expecting to be able to exploit foreigners without giving anything back.

    It seems to me that British racism is linked to a colonial sense of privilege. Whereas people in the US either just fear foreigners, because of the country’s insular nature, or still believe black people to be inferior.

  8. Bedd Gelert
    29/10/2008 at 9:13 pm

    Lord Norton,
    Either you have are astonishingly interesting, intelligent and erudite or you have a small team of eager beavers poring over the internet and a slew of local libraries researching the answers to our questions…

    Methinks it is time for you to branch out and reach an even wider audience – what about a show on the BBC ?? Or even a Question and Answer facility on your very own ‘YouTube’ channel ? I understand that there may also be some vacancies on BBC radio where you could fill a couple of hours in a slightly more ‘Public Service’ way than there appears to be an appetite for at present – ‘A Serious Man for Serious Times’ ?

  9. lordnorton
    29/10/2008 at 10:15 pm

    Bedd Gelert: I can confirm that it is all my own work! I don’t believe in putting my name to any output that I have not researched myself. I should explain that I teach American as well as British politics (I did one of my degrees, in American politics, at the University of Pennsylvania) so this is in my territory.

    I am available for disseminating my work through other media: I may be considerably cheaper than some who appear on the BBC.

  10. lordnorton
    29/10/2008 at 10:18 pm

    Liam: Thanks for your comments. And as a postscript to my response to Bedd Gelert, thanks for the research embodied in your opening paragraph – very interesting.

  11. freebornjohn
    30/10/2008 at 11:56 am

    Lord Norton,

    I wonder if Ms Andreacchi realises that there are quite a few nations that have beaten the US in the race to have a female leader. Even more ironic is some of them are Muslim countries. I’m hoping that the next occupant of the White House knows a bit more about the wider world than Ms Andreacchi.

  12. 31/10/2008 at 8:14 am

    Being part of the Commonwealth of nations we have always been a wonderful mix of different people. We only have to look back at Her Majesty’s Coronation and or Wedding to see that. Remember the wonderful Queen of Tonga enjoying every minute-in the rain?

    All those that sit in the Houses of Parliament should of course be of British Nationality (Act of Settlement, and Magna Carta-both part of our Constitution)and also swear allegiance to the Crown and through the Crown to all the people here in the UK and Commonwealth.

    As regards your last paragraph Lord Norton, it is doubtful we will have a Prime Minister at all in the latter part of the twenty-first century if “Lisbon” becomes active, for this Country will just be Regions of the EU. We will however, have a President.

  13. lordnorton
    02/11/2008 at 4:11 pm

    freebornjohn: Female political leaders, as you say, are to be, and have been, found in many countries. If the USA eventually has a female President, it will be well behind a great many other countries. Anne Palmer: I agree – this country has historically been a mix of many races and the Commonwealth continues to have a role, not least in the House of Lords where there are several members who are from other countries of the Commonwealth and former colonies (including Hong Kong). I believe we will continue to have a Prime Minister for a great many years; I do not detect any appetite to move away from that.

  14. 23/12/2008 at 7:40 pm

    It’s perfectly true – I don’t actually know much about politics, which don’t interest me, nor about the ‘real world’ for that matter. I just did the ‘Broadcasting House’ thing because they happened to ask me. I was a bit surprised at the hostility stateside to the now irrelevant Madame Palin, as I thought she was kinda cute, and there was no real threat of her ever holding high office – which God forbid. I’m a MUCH better novelist than I am a ‘commentator’ – have a look at my website, she says shamelessly.

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