by Denis Lyons
Wimbledon Windmill Photo: Denis Lyons
Bravo, Vincent! The United States of America’s self-inflated bubble of arrogance, stupidity and self-indulgence deserves to be punctured and your ‘American Paradox’ article - American Paradox (only-connect.co.uk) has done a masterly job of it.
It was so good in fact that I’m still trying to shake off memories of a dream I had last night after reading your excellent article. In my dream, I was invited to take tea with Professor Royston Brewster III, (one of the Connecticut Brewsters), in his elegant rooms at Harvard College.
Royston, as he generously invited me to call him, had also enjoyed your article and, puffing on his pipe, he said he was sorry that he had not been able to refer to it in his recent runaway bestseller: Britain – Europe’s Last, Best Hope. Brushing away a stray ember which had fallen from his pipe onto the sleeve of his tweed jacket, Royston emphasised his pro-British bona fides by pointing out that, despite his publisher’s protests, he had refused point blank to add a question mark at the end of his book title.
“Your friend Vincent has certainly got the American Bible-burning thing spot on“, Royston observed. “Mind you,” he mused, “did I hear correctly that over a third of the librarians in Britain have been asked to remove not just the Bible, but a whole range of books from their shelves? And that some librarians have actually been threatened with physical violence for not doing so? Still, thank goodness you’ve cleaned up all that offensive language inAgatha Christie’s books and in the James Bond series”. Pausing reflectively for a moment, he added, “And let’s not talk about the gobblefunking going on with Roald Dahl’s books, where they’ve cut out disgusting words like ‘fat’ and ‘ugly’, or about how they’ve limited the younger audience for Watership Down because of what happens to the bunnies”.
“And I loved Vincent’s quote about America going to war in order to learn geography. So true! When Britain was a world power, it was obliged to learn geography because its home market was such a small part of its total empire. When America overtook Britain as the world’s biggest economy in about 1890, admittedly its trade with the rest of the world did begin to surge. But its enormous domestic market was by far the biggest portion of its overall economic activity, so knowledge of global geography was not exactly imperative. No one is proposing gold medals for America’s foreign policy but, on the other hand, we learned a fair amount of geography when we travelled a very long way from home to help Europe sort out a couple of world wars….or ‘to bail out Europe’, as some of our regrettably uninformed Americans still put it”.
“And the obesity! Oh boy, has Vincent got that one right! Have you ever tried to get past two wide-bottomed midwesterners on a New York sidewalk?! But surely these reports about obesity and its unfortunate stepsisters, diabetes and heart disease, in the UK can not be true?” Royston rose from his leather armchair with an amazing agility for a man of his age, and scanned his bookshelves before pulling out a fat binder labelled, appropriately enough, ‘Obesity’”.
“Here we are”, he said, “the World Health Organization and the OECD both say that Britain has the most obese and overweight adults among the major west European countries”. He drew reflectively on his pipe before adding, “And have you been to Wakefield recently? A colleague of mine told me that over three-quarters of the population there are overweight or obese!”
“Vincent also has the US healthcare system dead to rights. We do spend more per capita than pretty much anyone else. But what is it I read about the UK? Your NHS is so venerated that it is almost a national religion? People actually stand in the streets applauding NHS staff? That’s touching. And yet you pay them so poorly that doctors and nurses who are not on strike are leaving their professions in droves. So much so that the NHS England is short of 133,000 people – about one in 10 – and the adult social care sector is short of 165,000 people, according to one of your Parliamentary reports. Might we call that a paradox?”
“I know that the UK has world class surgical skills, but the NHS’s waiting lists are longer, its hospital beds are fewer and its health outcomes are worse than in most of its OECD peer group – with higher avoidable mortality rates, below-average survival rates for many major cancers, and poorer outcomes from heart attacks and strokes than other OECD countries. A venerated institution and an institution on life support? Now that really is a paradox!”
Royston already seemed to know that 25% of UK patients on waiting lists for surgery have been waiting for over a year and that 17% had their procedures cancelled with no new date given, so I didn’t have the heart to tell him how difficult it is just to get a GP appointment these days.
Royston set his pipe aside and leaned forward in his chair. “Shall I be mother?”
“Ah, yes. Thank you”.
Royston added milk. “After the tea has been poured”, he noted, “just like your late Queen requested when she visited here a few years ago”. He smiled wistfully at the recollection and then asked, “So why does Britain still believe so fervently that it has the finest healthcare system in the world? I read recently that up to 500 people a week were dying due to emergency care delays and over 7 million people were waiting for elective treatment”. His question made my brain seize up and I felt like I had turned up at a tutorial without having done my homework.
Smiling, and not waiting for an answer, Royston said, “Now here’s another paradox for you. A few years ago the Commonwealth Fund, an American organisation, ranked the UK’s healthcare system first – and the US last - among the 11 developed nations which it surveyed”.
“The UK scored highest on quality, access and efficiency. However, as the Guardian noted laconically at the time, ‘The only serious black mark against the NHS was its poor record on keeping people alive.’” Royston chuckled, “One of my favourite examples of British humour.”
Royston seemed to forget his tea; he retrieved his pipe and reignited it, having added some fuel from his tobacco pouch. “Several US presidents failed to overhaul the broken US healthcare system until Obama expended an enormous amount of political capital to get the Affordable Care Act (‘Obamacare’) passed. Within six years Obamacare halved the uninsured part of the population and health insurance coverage was provided for over 20 million additional people. When it was passed, it was projected that Obamacare would result in health coverage for about 94% of the American population. It hasn’t solved all the problems, but what do you say? A step in the right direction?”
“Tell me now, which of your brave politicians is leading the charge to overhaul your clearly struggling NHS which was set up in 1948 and which, by any measure, is now fighting for its life? I can’t think of anyone, can you?”
Royston turned again to your article, Vincent, and pointed his pipe at the section about drugs. “Oh Lord”, he sighed, “we’ve had a runaway drug crisis here for decades, but some are saying that the current fentanyl epidemic is the deadliest drug crisis in US history. I hope you manage to escape it – it’s ravaging the country. It’s so bad that I sometimes think people confused Nancy Reagan’s slogan ‘Just say no’ with Nike’s ‘Just do it’”!
“But tell me, how is Scotland doing these days? It wasn’t long ago that drug-related deaths in Scotland were the highest in Europe and, believe it or not, higher even than here in the US where – even before fentanyl - we were supposed to have the world’s worst drug epidemic. Now there’s a paradox!”
“And guns”, he said, “another huge problem. Gun ownership and gun-related deaths in the US are higher than in any other OECD country. I’ll give Vincent that one. But the UK crime trends must surely concern you: I see that gun crime in England and Wales almost doubled recently in the space of one year. And, on top of that, last year there was a 21% increase in knife crime and an 18% increase in violent crime”.
“And then, oh God, do we really have to talk about that horrendous blob, Donald Trump? Vincent is absolutely right, he’s a complete disgrace to our democracy. But, despite his controversial term in office, and the turbulence he caused around the election of his successor, we did boot him out of the Oval Office. Ultimately, the democratic process did its job and we’ve only had two Presidents in the last seven years”.
“But here’s another paradox. How many Prime Ministers have you had in the last seven years? Two? Three? Oh no, I do believe it’s five. And when was the last time a British Prime Minister first reached Number 10 via a General Election? It was 13 years ago, when David Cameron managed it. Theresa May, Boris Johnson, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak were all ‘elected’ Prime Minister initially not as the result of a General Election, but by winning the Conservative Party leadership contest. Now that’s what I call a paradox!”
“But wait, it’s even more perplexing: when Joe Biden was elected President, 66% of the 240 million eligible voters, about 158 million people, cast ballots. But when Rishi Sunak was being ‘elected’ as your Prime Minister, you could have bought a vote for £25 and become one of just 200,000 Conservative party members – in a nation of 67 million, mind you – eligible to choose the new
leader of your country. That’s the sort of democracy which even Putin would endorse! Votes for cash? In the Mother of all Parliaments? How about that for a paradox?”
I sipped my tea nervously; Royston was warming to his subject.
“And if that wasn’t enough, you have the House of Lords”, Royston continued, “a 700-strong unelected chamber which is even bigger than the elected chamber. The Lords’ ermine robes are quite classy, and I understand that it’s a cool club which the Prime Minister can reward his pals with. But Evgeny Alexandrovich Lebedev? Lord Lebedev? Baron of Hampton and Siberia? Really? Come on!”
“Liz Truss, one of your recent short-term residents at Number 10 took only a few weeks to damage the economy quite dramatically. It took Boris Johnson a bit longer but he had an even bigger impact with that thing he did….what was it called again? Oh yes – Brexit! Your Chairman of the Office for Budget Responsibility has said that Brexit cut 4% off your GDP and yet it’s all a bit like the drunk uncle at the wedding – everyone is walking away from the spectacle in embarrassment”.
“It’s a sort of collective Basil Fawlty – ‘Don’t mention Brexit!’ But why not? It has aggravated all the problems it was supposed to solve – cost of living, immigration, employment, supply chains, the NHS, inflation, labor shortages, travel. Even Nigel Farage, ‘Mr. Brexit’, has said ‘Brexit has failed’. It looks like a self-inflicted Dunkirk situation – the only difference is that Dunkirk worked”.
“Another paradox here is that, as horrendous as The Donald was, he never managed to wreak such economic havoc. Even the chaotic Trump regime was unable to match Boris’s signature triumph – the amputation of Britain’s 40-year old economic agreements with the EU, its largest trading partner. Misleading the queen was a pretty good Boris ruse, but misleading a majority of the British electorate was even better. It looks to me like Johnson, with his particular brand of perverse political genius, could give Trump a few lessons in the art of making paradoxes work for you”.
“I did like Vincent’s reference to Dr Samuel Johnson. I am a big fan of Johnson. I even studied at his old Oxford college a long time ago and, being an egalitarian American, I always think of him as Sam. I seem to recall that Sam’s response to the Declaration of Independence was that Americans had no more right to govern themselves than the people of Cornwall. He also wished that the whole American Independence thing would conclude with ‘English superiority and American obedience’. Sam was certainly opinionated, but he was a bright guy and, if he were around today, I think even he might concede that he was very slightly on the wrong side of history with that one”.
“However, the Samuel Johnson lines which Vincent quotes do accurately highlight one of American history’s major paradoxes: how on earth did America become a shining beacon of freedom for so many people all around the world, when so many of its own people were enslaved? This paradox has stoked up racial tensions which persist to this day”.
“Another striking American paradox for you is how the American Revolution, unlike so many other violent revolutions, has produced one of the longest running democracies in the world”.
“I guess one thing that Dr Johnson shows us is that it’s easier to spot the other guy’s paradoxes than it is for him to spot his own. After all, I think you guys dabbled a bit in the slave trade too, didn’t you?”
With those words Royston started to fade away behind a cloud of tobacco smoke and his book-lined Harvard study was gradually transformed into the Oval Office. My cold cup of tea had been replaced by a tall flute of champagne and I was standing right next to the President’s Resolute Desk where Joe, (as he insisted I call him), and Suella Braverman, (“Address me as ‘Ma’am’”, she barked helpfully at me), were signing a historic, juicy, bumper new US-UK Trade Agreement.
At which point it finally dawned on me: like the juicy new US-UK Trade Agreement, it had all been just a dream.
Denis was born in Cornwall, raised in Ireland and Yorkshire, worked throughout Europe for Reuters, then for many years in New York for Spencer Stuart, before returning to London to brush up his English - still slightly more fluent than the Italian and French which he studied at university. We hope we can persuade him to join OC's stable of regular contributors.