Perhaps restrained by an exaggerated sense of their influence on the American electorate–or haunted by the memory of 2004, when they called it for John Kerry–the BBC refused to project a winner until nearly 4 am. But when they did call it, the sense of relief–and the hope that at last America’s long national nightmare might really be over–was almost as strong here in Britain as in the United States. For the chattering classes, the American election became a matter of obsessive interest–indeed, for the past week the BBC’s probing examination of swing voters in Virginia and the likely turnout in Ohio left little room for the mundane bank failures, tragic knife-slayings and looming by-elections that were the network’s previous stock in trade.
There were occasional complaints from resentful little Englanders, but most people here seemed to share Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland’s view that “the US election is our business” too. Our Obama bumper-sticker drew approving comments from the neighbors, and a post office clerk, noticing the sender’s Obama button, hand-carried our absentee ballot to the overseas post bag with the loving care of a delivery room nurse.
So when the votes were finally counted, the universal European wish to usher George W. Bush, his doctrine and his entire presidency into the dustbin of history made for widespread jubilation. If the left-leaning Guardian was triumphant, consider the redoubtably conservative Daily Telegraph, whose editorialist welcomed Obama’s opportunity to “transform America’s view of itself and the world’s view of America, which has rarely been more reviled. The 9/11 attacks should have been the pivotal moment when America started to win back its moral authority–but the Bush/Cheney White House unforgivably fumbled it.”
Even the Sun, Rupert Murdoch’s resolutely down-market tabloid, though echoing its master’s voice in worrying that Obama may prove too protectionist and urging the president elect to show “greater understanding of the needs of risk-takers to keep more of their cash,” declared that “there’s no doubt Obama’s administration will alter American society for good.”
No British politician summoned the eloquence–or the familiarity with American literature–deployed by Jack Lang, Mitterrand’s former culture minister, who, in an endorsement that might have dealt a fatal blow to John Kerry’s campaign, pronounced Obama “the kind of American we love. His is the America of jazz and Fitzgerald and Faulkner and Kerouac and Kennedy.” (If the election were held in France, the Times reported, Obama would have beaten McCain by 72 points.)
But the leaders of all three British parties were quick to celebrate a victory that Prime Minister Gordon Brown said would “live in history.” Boris Johnson, the tousle-headed Tory mayor of London, actually endorsed Obama before the election–a popular as well as populist move for the leader of a multi-ethnic city, and a handy way for both Johnson and party leader David Cameron to separate themselves from their party’s toxic proximity to American Republicans. Cameron was also quick to hail Obama as “the first of a new generation of leaders,” seizing on the president-elect as instant rebuttal to Brown’s recent claim that the current economic crisis is “no time for a novice.”
Running underneath all the media frenzy and political opportunism and genuine joy and relief was an undercurrent of envy. “If only OUR elections could be like this,” moaned the right-wing Daily Mail. On the BBC, anchor David Dimbleby repeatedly wondered at the passionate nature of American political disagreement compared with the far more constrained tone of British debate. Yet the real envy, everywhere echoed but seldom acknowledged, was for the heroic history of the American civil rights movement and the way the quiet persistence of African-Americans made Obama’s victory so much more than a partisan or even an ideological triumph. British politics once had a heroic narrative of its own. But Margaret Thatcher killed the British labor movement, and Tony Blair shoveled dirt on its coffin. And there is no one in British politics who shows any sign of bringing that buried legacy back to life.