Nora Caplan-Bricker interviewed Her Majesty’s Ambassador to the United States of America Sir Nigel Sheinwald on the 23rd of February — here are some questions she asked him about culture in the U.K.
Q. Are there any aspects of American culture that took getting used to for you?
A. I’ll give you two. One is the weather. You think that we’re obsessed with the weather, but I have to tell you that there’s nothing like the American weatherman for creating a crisis. I mean sometimes they do exist, and there is a weather crisis. You do have extreme weather in this country, so I shouldn’t diminish or disparage that, but the role of the weather in your society is even more serious than in the U.K., and I thought we took the biscuit in many ways for taking weather seriously and talking obsessively about it.
And the other, I don’t know if it’s the same at Yale, but in New York and Washington, the new American obsession with cupcakes, and traditional pastries and things, suggests a desire to revert to the warm memories of a lost past. We’re not really doing so much of that in the U.K.
Q. How would you compare the way Americans relate to their government to the way people in the U.K. relate to their government?
A. In both countries there’s the same trend. As people have gotten more prosperous and have many more opportunities than they did 50 or 100 years ago, governments probably have a smaller role in their lives because people naturally feel that they have greater control over their personal and economic destinies, so they wouldn’t be looking to the government for absolutely everything in the way that perhaps was the case when the government controlled more and was more responsible for things. That’s certainly been the case in the U.K. That said, I think that, probably, to make a generalization, there’s a greater overall receptiveness in the U.K. and Europe to there being an important role for the government, certainly a role in establishing how business can operate. One example is climate change — we’ve established very clear legislative frameworks and accept that that’s an important part of the government’s setting a signal for business, which provides them with predictability and certainty. So far in this country it hasn’t been possible to do that. It’s an example of the way attitudes differ. I think the trend is clear, and it’s towards personal responsibility, but I think there’s a greater European understanding of the role of government.
Q. Do you think Americans are less in touch with politics and news than the British?
A. I haven’t noticed that, but that may be part of the job I do. I tend to be with people who are well connected and read things. There’s a big difference. We have national newspapers in the U.K. You have some in the U.S., but that’s a fundamental difference. We have more national radio programs, more national television than you have. That provides maybe a bigger pool of common information than perhaps is available here, though we have exactly the same debate you have here over internet versus print. That’s a challenge for everyone working in the traditional media. But I haven’t come across a fundamental difference in information between American people and British people.
Q. I was wondering if you’ve found the American obsession with sports overwhelming in comparison to the U.K.
A. Not at all. The British are completely obsessed with sports, and it’s obligatory as a British politician — or an American one — to be well-versed in sports metaphors. I will face my biggest test as ambassador this coming June 12, when England plays the U.S. in football at the World Cup in South Africa. If we lose, it could be the end of the special relationship!