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How David Cameron is trying to make Britain a little bit more American

By Jonathan Isaby
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Picture 16 With the State visit to Britain by President Obama having taken place this week, there has been a lot of focus in the media on the UK's relationship with the United States - special, essential, unique or otherwise.

By coincidence, at the beginning of this week I returned from a three-week trip to the US under the auspices of the State Department's International Visitor Leadership Program, spending time in Washington DC, New York, Arkansas, Arizona and Seattle.

As someone who had only been to the US once before, it was a fantastic opportunity to learn more about the politics and culture of our greatest ally by observing it at first hand and getting to understand how it functions.

And coming back home, I have been struck by how in a number of areas this Government has been seeking to make the UK just a little bit more American.

Here's what I have in mind:

Philanthropy and volunteering
Voluntarism and charitable giving is far more hard-wired into the American psyche than it is here in the UK. If Americans see a problem in their community they are far more likely to wonder what they can do about it rather than look to the state for a solution - and I would argue that this is part of what David Cameron's fabled Big Society is all about. Just on Monday the Prime Minister announced new measures to boost voluntarism and philanthropy. These included, in particular, encouraging people to make small yet regular charitable donations through payroll giving, which a third of Americans already do, compared to a mere three per cent of Britons.

National pride
There's no doubt that Americans almost universallly have a pride in their country, its place in the world and their flag in a way that many Britons sadly do not. Whilst a government cannot exactly legislate to change that, this Government is doing its best, whether through cutting bureaucracy for those who want to fly the flag and encouraging the teaching of British history in schools, for example.

Respect for the military
The sense of respect for those who serve or have served in the US forces is far more palpable than it is currently in Britain. There is a Department of Veterans Affairs (separate from the Department of Defense) whose Secretary was given Cabinet rank by George H W Bush in 1989 and which oversees a whole range of matters for veterans and their families, whilst serving members of the forces are afforded a respect I have not felt in the UK: I noted that those in military uniform are specifically given priority access when boarding planes, for example. David Cameron again appears to be moving to make Britain more like America in this respect, with his recent confirmation that the principles of the military covenant will be enshrined in law.

Elected mayors
The Coalition is proposing referendums to introduce elected mayors in the twelve largest English cities. Elected mayors have long been part of the fabric of American towns and cities - although their powers do vary considerably from place to place, depending on the state.

Police Commissioners
Another mainstay of the American democratic system is the elected police sheriff. Whilst the elected police commissioners which Nick Herbert has been championing would not have precisely the same powers, there's no doubting where the inspiration came from.

Free schools
Although much has been made about the Swedish model as being behind Michael Gove's planned free schools, do not forget the inspiration that has been taken from the charter schools in the United States. Former Gove adviser Rachel Wolf, now of the New Schools Network, wrote about what she observed in New York here on ConHome last year (although the British model does not, of course, allow for such schools to be profit-making initiatives).

Primaries, recall ballots and citizens' initiatives
The Coalition Agreement proposed funding all-postal primaries in 200 constituencies, recall ballots where 10% of an MP's constituents demand one if he or she is found guilty of serious wrongdoing and for petitions securing 100,000 signatures to be eligible for a debate in Parliament. All these are variations on the American democratic model which put more power in the hands of people rather than the political establishment. It is possibly for that reason that we are yet to see movement on the introduction of any of these measures, but we live in hope... 

I'm not saying that we are being transformed into the 51st state overnight and neither am I suggesting that we should necessarily be seeking to replicate everything about the American way of doing politics and structuring government and society; but on my return to these shores after being immersed in all things American for most of this month, I did get a sense that our Government has been learning a few more lessons than perhaps we realised from our cousins across the Atlantic.


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