Where you sit often defines how you look at the world around you, and last week I got to spend some brief, albeit quality time in the United Kingdom. While I can’t begin to profess to being an accomplished world traveler, I have been fortunate enough to learn my way around London, able to take in what Her Majesty’s Kingdom has to offer.
Much has been written over the past few years about the decay of the “special relationship” that exists between England and her former American colonies. The ongoing Iraq and Afghan Wars have certainly tested the patience of the respective governments and citizens, but I have to confess that I saw no evidence or experienced any sense of a breach in our relationship with one another. Our nation probably has no better friend in the world than the UK, and vice versa, but that does not mean that we don’t see the world differently, or similarly for that matter.
In meetings with various UK government personnel and businesses, it was interesting to hear their perspective on a range of items. Below are some points that I took away from last week’s visit.
• The euphoria that England and the rest of Europe had for President Obama has very much worn off. The political honeymoon the President enjoyed probably went a lot longer over there than it did here in the States. There are a number of reasons why it probably did, most notably for the groundbreaking presence that is Barack Obama, but that euphoria now seems to have worn off to a questioning attitude of “Is he up to it?” It’s hard to say whether the British media and public are mirroring some of the attitudes of compatriots on this side of the pond, but I detected a very different attitude about him than my previous visits.
• The lingering hatred of President Obama’s predecessor remains at full strength. George W. Bush remains absolutely despised, and the British media seems to go to great lengths to keep those flames of hatred alive. Joining the former-President in this low-held public esteem is former Prime Minister Tony Blair. Both men will be forever linked in history for their post-9/11 decisions on Iraq and Afghanistan, and regardless of the facts or conditions regarding those huge consequential security decisions, there seems to be nothing that will elevate either of them in the eyes of the British public and most certainly its media.
• The tragic shootings in Tucson, AZ of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) and others has also captured the attention span of persons across the pond. What I observed as the most interesting aspect of this sad episode is their view of guns of America’s fascination with guns. Second Amendment rights are not without vigorous debate in this country but to the persons I spoke with in England (and observed in their media) the thought of owning a gun for protection or any other reason seems to be a completely foreign act. They really don’t understand America’s fascination with (or connection to) guns.
• If ever there was an airport that gives you a feel that they really know what they are doing, it is London’s Heathrow. Despite being one of the largest international airports in the world, the personnel operating there – security, shop keepers, informational aides and so forth – make it feel welcoming, efficient and safe. Maybe it’s their training. It’s rare for me to describe any experience in an airport as pleasant, but Heathrow certainly makes it that way.
• Call it an on-going sign of the economic times, but the U.S. dollar is almost worthless. While it’s not quite one British pound to two U.S. dollars, it’s getting there. Changing money is a sure way of finding out your place in the economic world, and I have to say I was unsettled on previous visits. This one really rattled my cage, given the exchange rate.
• The shadow of the Iraq War seems to be much darker and longer in the UK than it is for us in the U.S. The debate over the merits and decision to initiate the Iraq War will go on for generations, and while it is difficult to find much media coverage in the U.S. of the remaining actions that American and coalition forces are doing there, the debate in England over the conflict remains a very big story.
For the past several months, the Iraq Inquiry Commission has been investigating decisions that the then-government of UK Prime Minister Tony Blair made in joining the U.S. effort to invade Iraq and remove Saddam Hussein from power. The fact that there were no weapons of destruction found or recovered as a result of the Coalition invasion created huge political problems for every political leader that prosecuted the war against Iraq. Besides contributing to then-President Bush’s plummeting in the political polls, it cost the Spanish Prime Minister his job and contributed to Tony Blair’s exit from 10 Downing Street as well. I won’t say that the US has moved on from Iraq, given the thousands of U.S. service personnel still in harms way serving there, but in the brief time I was there this past week, Iraq seemed to be the issue that dominated the talk of the media and citizens on the street alike.
• One of the brightest spots I experienced last week was the absolute joy and enthusiasm the UK has for the upcoming wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. London is doing everything it can to spruce up the town, knowing the world will be watching the biggest wedding since Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer nearly 30 years ago. Unlike the U.S., where the marketing of such an event would be plastered on tattoos, blimps and buses, the advertising of the upcoming event seemed to be incredibly sedate.
It would seem Her Majesty the Queen and the British Government have a tight grip on the licensing of the event. The only items I could see about the upcoming April 29 wedding were officially licensed postcards, and a book about the big event, sanctioned by the Royal family. Maybe that will change as things get closer to the bid day, but there is little doubt how pumped people are by William and Kate’s wedding. This is in many ways a dress rehearsal for the city before the 2012 Olympics kick off, and they will certainly be ready for that unique occasion.
• Every major city has its litter problems, but in a city where public garbage cans are few and far between, London is remarkably clean. The reason for why there is a lack of garbage cans is simple – the IRA would use them to hide bombs. While the fight with the IRA is supposedly over, the city and its police forces are not looking to give any lingering IRA sympathizers or other terrorist group any place to hide an explosive that could kill people.
• Another interesting aspect that you see around London is the strategic and aesthetic use of bollards. You can seem them placed outside of government buildings, monuments, major streets and thoroughfares to prevent truck bombs from getting through. As prominent as they may be, they seem to have a style and grace that one would expect in to find England. Compare that to Washington, where with the exception of the areas immediately around the White House and U.S. Capitol Building, the less than aesthetic norm is the unsightly and grotesque Jersey Wall barrier. There are certainly valid reasons for putting these items in place, but after more than a decade, it is well-past time for places like the Jefferson and Lincoln Monuments and other icons to be rid of the Jersey walls and put something just as (and possibly more) effective and a helluva better looking in its place.
• It’s not unusual to see people bicycling to work, but in London the numbers are truly astounding. Under an initiative by the London Mayor’s Office, there are specified bike lanes throughout the London streets, and bike kiosk stands can be found just about everywhere. Interestingly enough, these bikes are not just any ordinary bikes. To prevent theft, they all have GPS locaters embedded in the frame designs, the wheels of the bikes are specially designed to only fit the bikes offered under the city sponsored program, and the bike frames are entirely solid so that explosives can not be packed into them and be used as remote bombs, as has happened in other cities around the world. The entire bike program was designed in partnership with London’s Metropolitan Police, who were involved from the very beginning of the effort. It’s a tremendous success for commuters, cycling enthusiasts, visitors, as well as the city’s public safety agencies. In seeing the various bikes and being briefed by Metropolitan Police, I couldn’t help but think whether DC’s Metropolitan Police had done something similar with the program that they have in place in Washington. Something tells me they weren’t, but I’d like to be pleasantly surprised.
• There are a number of private sector companies in the U.S. that take their security at their facilities and operations very seriously, but in the UK, they truly seem to raise the bar when it comes to doing it right. On a visit to Canary Wharf, the security operations are truly impressive. As home to much of London’s new financial district, visitors, employees and just about any body else can expect to be greeted by not just plenty of surveillance cameras but also plenty of security personnel on foot patrol and keeping a sharp eye on things. The gleaming skyscrapers give it a feel of new sophistication but also safe commerce for all who are there. Owned entirely by the private sector, the 97-acres of property are maintained and operated with the highest of quality by its well trained and proactive personnel. Having experienced an IRA attack years before, they fully understand the target they present to people who don’t like their tenants or the success they achieve. While the IRA bombings of the past may be pieces of history to people who do business there, the current owners and operators take seriously their charge to safeguard all of the people and property in their care.
• Every house of worship, regardless of religion or faith, has a sense of majesty to it. Westminster Abbey is no different. With its high vaulted ceilings, amazing sculpture, gold leaf and other decorations, and an organ that sounds like it is coming from heaven, this British icon is truly an inspirational place to visit, as well as worship. Being in a structure that is older than your country (it was started in 960AD) also helps to put some perspective on things. As an American, I found it ironic to see the names of former British military and government leaders from the U.S. Revolutionary War along the various walls being remembered. It’s times like these that you remember that wars do have two sides, with each side seeing the outcome very differently.
There were a couple of things that moved me in attending a worship service there. The evening service commemorating the one-year anniversary of the devastating Haitian Earthquake was a stark reminder that this tragedy did reach around the world in who it impacted. As an American, we always seem to look at things from the front of the line, particularly when it comes to responding to things, be they disasters, wars or major events. Here I was sitting in an iconic house of worship that took the time to detail all that they had done to respond and were still committed to doing to remedy the ongoing suffering there. I wonder how many U.S. houses of worship took time to do the same? In leaving the service though you couldn’t help but beam with pride as an American leaving under the statuary gaze of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who stands at the very front entrance of the Western door. It would seem his dream has touched more than us.
• I will leave you with a final thought: I don’t think it would ever be a good idea to arm-wrestle any barmaid or bartender who works at a real British pub. After watching them pump (and I mean pump) the beer from the various taps, they must have wrist and arm strength that could snap those of their American counterparts with ease.