Which is more dysfunctional – the US or the UK? I’ve created a Global Embarrassment Index to figure it out

·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Patrick Semansky/AP</span>
Photograph: Patrick Semansky/AP

Living in the US, I have always seized every opportunity to insist things are better in Blighty. But now both countries look ludicrous


For years now I have been living with a chronic condition that I’ve finally been able to diagnose as Privileged Immigrant Derangement Syndrome (PIDS). Let me explain: more than a decade ago I left my native Britain to go and work in New York. I wasn’t fleeing persecution, poverty, or life in a failed state; I just wanted to live in the US. There were more opportunities, I didn’t have to navigate the suffocating class system, and, most importantly, my English accent gave me a competitive edge. Women swooned at my vowel sounds (I’m not making that up: they swooned … OK, I promise at least one woman swooned) and everyone assumed I was on tea-drinking terms with the Queen.

Anyway, that’s the PI bit of PIDS. The D bit is this: when you spend extended time away from your home country, it’s easy to build up a romanticised version of it in your head. I became a cheerleader for all things British; I even bought a pair of union jack wellies, and wore them with pride whenever it rained. As my long-suffering American wife can attest, I seized every opportunity to say how much better things were in Blighty than Stateside. We had a superior healthcare system; we weren’t gun-nuts?; our infrastructure was better; our political system wasn’t as drenched with money, and was less corrupt. Even our rain was better. On and on I went about how the UK was infinitely superior to the US.

Then Brexit happened. Suddenly the US media (and the rest of the world) started looking at the UK with more sceptical eyes. Britain’s global reputation started to plummet, as did the value of my accent. Still, it wasn’t as if the US could feel superior for long: shortly after Brexit, it elected a reality TV star president. Since then both countries have been engaged in a race to the bottom. Even with an acute case of PIDS, it’s hard to deny Britain is an out-of-control dumpster fire; every time I think things can’t get more ludicrous, they do. The other day there were reports that Boris Johnson had concocted a strategy called Operation Save Big Dog to protect him from the fallout from “partygate”. GB News just announced it will – dictatorship style – start broadcasting the national anthem daily at the beginning of its live programming. Today, I read a headline about Prince Andrew allegedly verbally abusing his maids for rearranging his teddy bears. How on earth are these real headlines from a real country? Then again, it’s not as if things are better Stateside: it’s been just more than a year, after all, since they had an attempted insurrection.

Back in 2017, reeling from Brexit and Donald Trump, I conducted a very scientific study in this column, looking at whether the UK or the US was more dysfunctional. The US narrowly won that round. Five years and infinite scandals on, it’s worth revisiting that question. I’m afraid that, due to word limit constraints, I can’t dwell on the ins and outs of my highly methodological Global Embarrassment Index™. If you want all the details, you’ll have to wait until it passes peer review (AKA my wife takes a look). For now, we’ll just skip to the conclusion. Which – drum roll, please – is that both sides of the Atlantic are equally dysfunctional. Johnson is undoubtedly more of a buffoon than Joe Biden but, at the end of the day, it’s not gaffes, hypocrisy, and bad hair that matter: it’s the fact that both countries are moving perilously quickly towards authoritarianism. In the UK, Johnson’s government is pushing oppressive measures to criminalise protest, and arbitrarily deprive people of citizenship. In the US, certain states are busy banning books, and Biden’s government is proving ineffectual in the fight to protect voting rights. What is happening on either side of the Atlantic may often be beyond parody but, believe me, the dissolution of democracy is no laughing matter.

  • Arwa Mahdawi is a Guardian columnist

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