I recently received my UK National Insurance number. American friends warned me before I left what this would mean: high taxes, long waits, and terrible hospitals. Apart from the ongoing aluminum versus alumninium tiff, views on healthcare are one of the most divisive issues in the special relationship. Joking aside, I believe this difference actually reflects the much deeper matter of the stories we tell ourselves about who we are.
So much of a people’s character seems to involve a glorification and reenactment of formative national events: America’s finest hour was in fighting for its freedom in the late eighteenth century; Britain’s finest hour was in enduring against tyranny in the mid-twentieth century. Since those times, Americans continue to fight under the belief that they are doing so for freedom, and the British continue to endure hardship under the belief that it is toward a noble end. In times of financial difficulty, the American military budget remains sacrosanct. In Britain, it is the National Health Service that is unassailable.
Without monarchs or fascists threatening American freedoms, much of U.S. foreign policy since the Second World War has been governed by a terror of communism. The Red Menace became an emblem of assault on all that was American, conveniently giving us another opportunity to “fight for our freedom” in places like Korea and Vietnam. Substitute “terrorist” for “communist,” and the Middle East for the Pacific Rim, to bring this reenactment of our national story into modern times.