Home > Letters from France: Divided by a single language
Letters from France: Divided by a single languageby Open-Publishing - Saturday 18 September 2004
by Robert Thompson
It is said that the late Sir Winston Churchill was the first to make the comment
that the U.S.A. and Britain were divided by a single language, and listening
to spokesmen for the present administration in the U.S.A. this becomes more and
more evident as the election campaign rolls on on your side of the Atlantic.
It seems almost comic when one has to learn that what you call "diapers" are
the ordinary British "nappies", or that your "sidewalk’ is the British "pavement",
but the differences in the use of political labels and definitions are rather
By British standards, both your main political parties are definitely "right-wing", and, since the departure of the unbalanced extremist Margaret Thatcher, there is no party in Britain quite so far to the right as either of them. This may, of course, change as Mr Michael Howard moves the Conservative Party further to the right, although many of its members are far from sharing that vision of the future.
Then there are words such as "republican", which in Britain means a person who wishes to remove the royal family and install a presidential system, or "democrat", taken to be any person who is in favour of rule by the people for the people. Similarly, in Britain, "labour" describes a political party with a range of opinions from marxist to right-wing, "conservative" anything from unbridled capitalism to the ideas expressed in the 19th century by Benjamin Disraeli and "liberal" a generally middle-of-the-road series of attitudes.
Looking at your use of the same or similar words, we are bound to be surprised, since we cannot understand what your President means when he says that he wishes to support "democracy" in other parts of the world, and this is particularly noticeable in the Near and Middle East. He has solemnly told us that the government of Mr Sharon is democratic, despite the fact that it rules over substantial populations with no right to vote, whereas he considers Mr Arafat’s administration elected by universal suffrage to be undemocratic. Similarly, Mr Bush supports the Saudi régime, which is shortly to introduce the first timid experiments in the election of local authorities by a limited number of the inhabitants, but criticises other governments, such as those of Syria or the Lebanon, which have moved far further towards what the British think of as being democracy.
Obviously, all eyes are on Iraq, whose current puppet administration most probably deserves a chance to prove itself, but which nevertheless seems entirely to rely on the occupying "Coalition" forces to impose its rule in certain small very limited areas of the country. What democratic future, whether as defined in British English or in Mr Bush’s understanding of such words, Iraq now has is a matter of extreme doubt, and we should all worry about the proliferation of anarchic groups who do not hestitate to use terrorist methods to cause trouble. However unpleasant Mr Saddam Hussein may be, and however nasty his methods, he did at least keep such groups in check.
Few in Europe would wish to adopt Mr Bush’s form of democracy, and it is seen as being totally subject to corruption. We cannot understand why it should be either allowed or necessary for any candidate for high political office to have huge sums of money at his disposition, effectively to buy success at the polls. In most countries which are democratic in the British sense, there are strict limits on election exprenses, with the penalty for breaches being the imposition by the Courts of temporary or permanent ineligibility for office. This lack of limitation on expenses shocks the average European, and appears similar to the kind of free-for-all which many of our countries knew in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
Europeans also treasure freedom, and any attempts to limit this by draconian legislation have raised serious debate, but you still have the infamous Patriot Act, which immediately makes us ask how one defines a patriot. In Britain the leader of the major opposition party has the status (and salary) of a Cabinet Minister and the title of "Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition". This is intended to underline the view that being in opposition to the government of the day is never considered to be, in itself, unpatriotic.
Perhaps the time has come for there to be greater harmonisation of political language and, above all, the meaning of key words, and I (for one) would welcome an explanation of the apparently very startling meanings given by Mr Bush to the words mentioned above, i.e. "democracy" and "freedom". We would also welcome an explanation of his definition of the words "terror", "terrorist" and "terrorism". All these words have a fairly precise meaning for us Europeans, accustomed to British English, but the use of them by Mr Bush horrifies us, as do his (and his backers’) regular claims to divine inspiration. In the main, we are extremely shy of making such extravagant pretences for our views on any matter of current interest.
*Robert Thompson is a columnist on Axis of Logic. His writings can be found in "Letters from France". He is a French citizen, is a retired Avocat (Trial Lawyer) at the Boulogne-sur-Mer Bar, living with his wife in a small village in Northern France. He was born at Leek (North Staffordshire, England) in 1931, and, after reading Jurisprudence at Oxford University, he became an English Solicitor. He later went to work at the International Chamber of Commerce in Paris. There he was Director in charge of the Legal Department and also Secretary General of the Court of Arbitration, the most important international commercial arbitration centre on the world. While there, he became the I.C.C. Director in charge of relations with the Arab states, where he travelled for professional reasons, and he worked towards legal cooperation with the countries then within the Comecon.