Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Dominic Sandbrook on why Britain is not America

As far back as when I was a boy I recall my late mother saying that many of the things which happen in America seem to find their way to Britain sooner or later. I have read or heard the same thing since then many times from many other people.

And sometimes it is true, as with many aspects of the so-called "Culture wars."

But it is not always inevitable, and indeed the differences between ourselves and our cousins over the pond sometimes make it extremely unlikely. Indeed, when we import arguments from the "Culture Wars" of the United States of America to Britain we may find ourselves fighting arguments which are almost entirely irrelevant to the situation here.

Dominic Sandbrook has written on the excellent Unherd website a counterblast to those who keep importing arguments from the United States called

"Stop Pretending Britain is America"

which makes some very important points about the differences between our two countries.

The idea that anything like the overturn of Roe v. Wade could happen in Britain is just daft. Not least because we actually write things we want to be legal or constitutional rights into law rather than have courts create them.

When in the late 60's there was a majority view in Britain that abortion should in many circumstances be legal an MP who was then a backbencher - many people reading this will have heard of him, his name was David Steel -  proposed what became the 1967 Abortion act and parliament passed it. This is how most democratic countries change the law, and although the exact details may be amended from time to time as medical technology and society changes, I confidently predict that this act will not be repealed in my lifetime or my children's lifetime.

But in America both sides of the abortion debate have in turn created and removed constitutional and legal rights through a court which in every other democracy would have been addressed by writing them into the constitution, the national law, or both. 

In the "Roe v. Wade" decision, instead of creating a constitutional right to an abortion by writing it into the constitution, the US created one because the Supreme Court ruled that the "due process" clause of the 14th amendment to the US constitution, which says this ...


... conferred a right to privacy and in turn that this right to privacy over-rode the right of states to make laws imposing extreme restrictions on abortion.

This month, after working towards that end for fifty years, the opponents of that decision finally managed to persuade the present Supreme Court to overturn it.

One of the many ironies of this situation is that both sides appear to be perfectly happy to have an unelected court create or destroy constitutional rights, over-riding the ability of elected legislative bodies to make law in the process, when they like the decision and regard it as an absolute outrage when the same unelected court uses the same power to make an opposite decision which they don't like.

This is very important in the USA, and if I lived there I would probably have a lot more to say about it, but no sudden swing anything like this extreme could happen in Britain where instead of our law on abortion having been created by a court, it was passed by parliament in 1967, and only about 2% of our electorate want to repeal that law and make abortion illegal.

There are many other aspects of the situation in the USA which simply do not translate well on this side of the pond.

As Sandbrook writes in response to those who suggest that the British Conservatives will follow where the US republicans are leading,

"If you’re hoping to win selection for a safe Tory seat by talking about ending abortion, outlawing socialised medicine and encouraging the high-street sales of automatic weapons, then I’ve got a nice padded cell for you." 

He adds, in response to those who are suggesting that the repeal of Roe v. Wade could happen here:

"Well, I suppose it’s just possible that in the next few years we could completely change our political system, radically reshape the relationship between the executive, the legislature and the judiciary, adopt a version of the US Constitution, develop a deeply religious political culture and set up a fervent anti-abortion movement — all of which would be the cue for our own Supreme Court to hand down a judgement allowing individual counties (Dorset? Wiltshire?) to outlaw abortion. Yes, I suppose it’s possible. It’s certainly no more implausible than a major British political party campaigning to throw out the 1967 Abortion Act — another thing that is clearly never going to happen."

and concludes

"Britain isn’t America. Why would we want to import their hysterical tone? We have plenty of issues of our own, of course; but they’re ours, not theirs. Our race relations aren’t perfect, but they’re among the very best in Europe, not that you’d know it from much of the media. Boris Johnson really, really isn’t a fascist, and the worst thing you can say about Keir Starmer is that he’s incredibly boring. And yes, we do take “the right to abortion, contraception, gay rights and same-sex marriage” for granted. But why wouldn’t we? Who’s threatening them? Does anybody seriously think Boris Johnson, of all people, is going to abolish contraception?"

You can read Dominic Sandbrook's piece in full at Stop pretending Britain is America - UnHerd

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