05/16/2013 10:42 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

While Cameron's Away, an Uprising of Clichés


It's not personal, or indeed political. But just as David Cameron, my country-of-origin's current prime minister, has crossed the Atlantic and come to my adopted hometown of New York, I have bolted in the opposite direction, over to the UK.

It's in fact just a coincidence. But it has enabled me to reflect a bit -- not just on Anglo-American relations broadly (which most of the British media are now extensively and thoroughly examining, while no mass American media are the slightest bit interested) but also on the specific kinds of British idiosyncrasies that can get enshrined as media stereotypes.

Immediately staring me in the face, and noisily preoccupying the heavier-weight end of the media spectrum here, is the backyard political rebellion that currently bedevils Cameron. He's not escaping it by hopping to America, but he's at least avoiding for now any confrontation with it in person.

The rebellion is about Europe -- which of course brings out many of the stock caricatures of English people. The classic Middle-Englander (sometimes known as the "Little Englander," probably not too unfairly, since the term well captures a certain small-minded isolationism) is the kind of man or woman who stereotypically reads the tabloid-ish, but not quite totally tabloid Daily Mail. He or she is not just Euro-skeptic, to use the now-widespread political label, but is out-and-out opposed to all things European.

Such attitudes have deep roots. British journalists of my generation quote with relish a (probably apocryphal, but highly illustrative) front-page headline from the Mail in the 1950s. The story was about freakishly bad weather -- and the headline? "THICK FOG IN ENGLISH CHANNEL - CONTINENT ISOLATED."

Though it was a Conservative leader, Edward Heath, who took Britain into Europe in the first place in 1973 (the kind of Conservative leader, managerial and non-ideological, that Margaret Thatcher was out to destroy) there's been a constant strain of anti-Europeanism among Conservatives that is reaching some kind of apogee now, in this current (and for loyal party grandees, deeply distressing) assault on their present-day leader.

2013-05-16-ObCamGettytoHuffPo.jpgCameron himself has tried to bob and weave in reaction to the insurrection, prompting editorial writers at The Times of London -- at one time always, and still today quite often -- the voice of the Conservative Party establishment -- to complain that his handling of the issue "has been a disaster. It has made him look weak." And looking weak is not good when his U.S. trip included a tete-a-tete with Barack Obama.

And the mishandled issue is what, exactly?

Well ... it's complicated. And additionally, all the huffing and puffing, and all the toil and trouble seem very un-Conservative, since Conservative characteristically prefer their politics very simple; in this case it's all about tactics, some of them rather abstruse.

Essentially, though, anti-Europeans want a referendum on whether Britain should remain a member of the European Union. (Actually, what they want is just to get out of Europe... but the referendum is their chosen tool, since in their own minds they are confident they'll get a majority of the British public agreeing with them.)

Cameron appeared to offer a referendum as he campaigned during the last elections of 2010 (and sort of won, at least by forming a coalition with the Liberal Party).

And now that he's into his fourth year, he's still holding it up as a promise... but for the hardline anti-Europeans that's not enough. They require a law on the statute-book, enshrining the referendum as a constitutional fact -- and Cameron has published no such legislation for the House of Commons to vote on. For all the world, Conservatives are behaving as if... wait for it... they don't believe what their leader is telling them!

Anyway, in the relative safety of some American pomp and circumstance, Cameron has been making concessions, and thus displeasing those who feel he's looking weak, and still not satisfying those who want him to fully enact what he promised them to get their votes. Meanwhile, of course, other rather more appreciable pressure has been applied. Obama has told Cameron that he doesn't any British sidling toward the EU exit-sign, that the U.S. "values a strong UK in a strong European Union."

From the perspective of the White House, after all, aren't those guys across the Atlantic Ocean all Europeans?

* * * *

Read more of David Tereshchuk's media industry insights at his regular column, The Media Beat, with accompanying video and audio. Listen also to The Media Beat podcasts on demand from Connecticut's NPR station WHDD, and at iTunes.