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Britain is not America — and the right shouldn’t forget it

When British supermarket giant Tesco withdrew from the US in 2013 just six years after opening its first Fresh & Easy store, it was criticised for failing to appreciate important differences in how Americans and Brits do their grocery shopping.

On the evidence of last week, a similar charge could be levelled at the American National Conservatism movement. Their flagship conference in London, featuring US speakers including Republican senator JD Vance and leading British conservative politicians, was met with more of an irritable eye-roll than a buzz of excitement. Critics included figures on the British centre-right, writing in rightwing publications. How did the organisers misjudge their target market so badly?

Their first mistake was a failure to appreciate quite how radical the US Republican party has become on social issues, and how comparatively moderate Britain’s Conservatives are. From immigration and racial discrimination to whether to defend tradition or embrace change, UK Conservatives actually come out closer to US Democrats than Republicans.

“Britain is a Christian nation, or it is nothing at all,” said one speaker at the conference. That is news to most British Conservatives, only 24 per cent of whom think being Christian is important to being truly British, compared with 25 per cent of US Democrats and 53 per cent of Republicans asked the same question about being American.

Such starkly different social attitudes don’t exist in a vacuum — they have been shaped by very different histories, and are reflected in very different realities. The US fought a civil war over slavery, racial segregation was legal in living memory, and the Ku Klux Klan still exists. Today, America remains far more racially segregated than Britain, which is itself far from perfect on race.

Black Americans earn 22 per cent less an hour than their white counterparts. This compares with a black pay deficit of 6 per cent in Britain. Starker yet, while black Americans live four years fewer than whites, black Britons live longer than their white compatriots.

Another key difference is in media landscapes. The US is highly fragmented, with no single news provider consumed by more than 25 per cent of the population. Fox News and CNN have the widest reach, but each is deeply distrusted by one side of the political divide. In Britain, by contrast, almost 60 per cent of people regularly consume news from the BBC, and both Labour and Conservative supporters generally trust its output. The UK brands that do polarise — tabloid newspapers and rightwing TV channel GB News — have far less reach than the likes of Fox and CNN.

Culture war rhetoric thrives where there is a history of internal conflict, no shared source of truth, and no challenge to radical opinions. The failure of last week’s conference to resonate should send a clear message to transatlantic culture warriors that US and British vulnerabilities are not always the same.

john.burn-murdoch@ft.com, @jburnmurdoch

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