Why the UK election isn't exciting Americans

Britain"s Prime Minister Theresa May, US President Donald Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrive to watch an Italian flying squadron during the Summit of the Heads of State and of Government of the G7, the group of most industrialized economies, plus the European Union, on May 26, 2017 Image copyright Getty Images

When it comes to the UK election, Americans have hardly been grabbing the popcorn. Box office it is not. And up against the summer blockbuster of the Trump presidency it looks more like a village hall production - the vicar's daughter playing the lead.

Modern-day movie-goers like franchises, with characters and plotlines that are instantly recognisable; with over-arching themes that comport with a broader narrative. The French presidential election fitted that bill, with Marine Le Pen cast as the female Trump, the face of populist fury.

But May versus Corbyn - it feels like an indie production with a very limited cinema release, a few movie theatres perhaps in Washington, New York and Boston.

Brexit worked on the franchise front. The prequel to Trump's unexpected victory last November, it truly was an epic. But the UK general election doesn't even feature Nigel Farage, one of the few British politicians American viewers are familiar with.

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Image caption Theresa May at a campaign event in Wales

It's not even accurate to call it a forgettable election. Most Americans, I feel confident in saying, aren't aware it's even taking place.

Articles have appeared in the quality press. But they've felt perfunctory, dull but worthy yarns to mark something editors feel is vaguely important but not ones that demand front page attention. Where's the drama? Where are the unexpected twists? To stretch the movie metaphor to breaking point, where is Helen Mirren or Hugh Grant?


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Britain does still command attention here. Last week, obviously, the awfulness of Manchester was the headline story - part of a larger picture.

But the other stories to cut through here in recent months have mostly involved the royal family. Prince Philip's retirement from public duties. The young royals' admirable decision to talk openly about their mental health.

A small digression here. America's longstanding fixation with the royal family is not as historically anomalous as it seems. The American Revolution wasn't a rejection of the British monarchy, it was a rejection of the British parliament.

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Image caption Jeremy Corbyn arrives for a campaign speech

Many of the American revolutionaries, foremost amongst them the voguish Alexander Hamilton, were arch-monarchists. Their gripe with King George was that he exercised too little power rather than too much: they wanted him to use his royal prerogative to overrule parliament over its much-hated tax regime.

America's royal obsession sometimes has the feel of a cargo cult on a small Polynesian island, but it's faithful to the thinking of some of the country's leading founding fathers.

History. That's what continues to fascinate Americans about Britain, not its modern-day politics. That's evidenced by the enormous popularity of the Netflix drama, The Crown.

The heritage theme park view of the UK still persists here, and maybe Brexit reinforces it, because of its nostalgic overtones. It's the period dramas that always do well here rather than gritty social realism. Masterpiece Theatre rather than Mike Leigh.

I'm always intrigued, for example, by the reaction of American politicians to Boris Johnson. Senior Republicans and senior administration officials absolutely love him.

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Image caption An American fan at the royal wedding

But you get the impression this is partly because he seems to have stepped straight from central casting. The English eccentric. The likeable buffoon. The diplomatic vaudeville act. Doubtless they admire his intelligence - one high-ranking Trump official I spoke with was positively giddy - but it's his entertainment value they seem to savour most.

Entertainment. That's become a big part of American electoral politics, with Donald Trump not just blurring the lines between politics and celebrity culture but turning them into the self-same thing.

His campaign became a reality show, with all the exaggerations and absurdities that we've come to associate with the genre. That, in ratings terms, is the problem with the British election. To the few American eyes that have bothered to peer over the Atlantic, it's just boring old reality.

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