Before Christmas, I was delighted to be asked by Matthew Taylor at the RSA to contribute to the RSA's Fellowship newsletter. He asked me to to write something about my relationship with America and its politics. It's not online at the RSA's site, but if you're interested, here it is:
My father, who became a lifelong devotee of Frank Sinatra from the moment when, as a teenager in the north of England, he first heard The Voice on an EP brought home by his sister, used to point out to me that although Sinatra would have been a great singer wherever he was born, things might not have been quite the same if he'd been British. To see instantly what he meant by this, try singing I've Got You Under My Skin in a Yorkshire accent.
American culture had and retains a glamour Britain struggles to match. My dad and I used to play a game which involved inserting British towns into the titles of popular American songs, producing timeless classics like Burnley On My Mind, Do You Know The Way To Shrewsbury?, and that old crowd-pleaser, York, York. British placenames have a beauty of their own, of course, and there was a time when the sound of the word Birmingham must have crackled with the electricity of Chicago. But the music of an old country is different from that of a young one.
So are its politics. I have always been a political geek. As a twelve-year-old boy I knew more than most of my classmates (well, all of my classmates) about the results of Labour's shadow cabinet elections, or who was likely to take Social Security in Mrs Thatcher's forthcoming reshuffle. But even then, and even though I knew much less about it, I knew that American politics was where the real action was – even if it somehow enabled a trigger-happy old buffoon to wield destructive power over the planet.
When I was 28 I moved to New York, where I was to stay for four years. Instead of reading reports in British newspapers I was now getting the real thing, the uncut stuff, from CBS and ABC, the New York Times and the Washington Post. I realised that the coverage of American politics in Britain made it seem dumber and madder than it is (even though it is frequently both). Just as history had shown that Ronald Reagan was a figure of more subtlety and substance than the British press allowed for, so I discovered that American politics isn't as dominated by wild-eyed religious loonies as I'd been led to believe (I'm not saying the Rapturous ones aren't a force, but they are one among others).
I also discovered that, in the United States, politics isn't restricted to politics. More so than in Britain, it's part of the national conversation, on the street, in the bars and diners, on the radio and on late-night TV talk shows. Actually, 'conversation' implies something a little too decorous: it's more like a raucous, rowdy and occasionally ugly family row. For all its flaws, however, politics there is part of everyday life in a way that isn't true here. Unless you count Question Time.
But if American politics got under my skin it wasn't because it represented some noble democratic ideal, but because it was a source of the best and the biggest stories (I'm a writer, after all). An American presidential election is the highest narrative form democracy ever created. It is an epic drama, played out on the grandest of stages, containing all the Greek themes: power, money, war, fate, family, human ambition and human frailty. Its structure is essentially gladitorial: every four years, the combatants enter the arena knowing that by the end only one will be left standing. Their fortunes trace long, criss-crossing arcs that end in disappointment, disaster, or – for one man or woman and their legions of supporters - triumph. In dramatic terms, at least, it beats proportional representation.
When I returned to Britain in 2002, British politics seemed cramped and provincial by comparison. Front page headlines had the flavour of a gossip column in a local newspaper reporting on the machinations of the parish council. Was Gordon upset with Tony this week? It was hard to care.
Having said that, mundanity in a democracy isn't necessarily a bad sign. If our politics aren't as exciting as America's, that may simply be a sign of our maturity: of our knack, practiced over centuries, for muddling along with each other.
The wounds of America's formative battles are fresher. The modern U.S. political map can be overlaid on a map of the civil war alliances without too much being obscured. The fires have been submerged but they burn just beneath the soil, producing fury and bitterness but also heroism and poetry.
I can't resist the great American story, or its politics – they are so deep in my heart that they're really a part of me. Every four years I'm surprised to find I don't get to vote.