Life Choices: US vs. UK

My letter to the Financial Times was printed on January 6th, 2023, in response to the December 23rd Obituary of Lord David Ivor Young.

Financial Times, Dec 17, 2022 (click to enlarge)

Over the next few days, a spirited debate arose in response to my letter on the FT website. I did not join in the discussion online, but I can clarify my intent and the background of my letter by responding to each section of the online debate.

Boston 1974

My main reason for writing (which none of the subsequent comments addressed) was the surprise I felt at the swiftness of the decision Lord (or as he was then, Mr) Young made to return to the UK after one day in Boston. And since this was precisely the time and place of my first introduction to the States, I remember the era well. I’d arrived in Boston in September to do a master’s in sociology at Tufts. Nixon had resigned that summer. Gerald Ford was president. Vietnam was winding down. The long hot summers of love and hate were well and truly over. King and the Kennedys were buried. Kent State was safe from the National Guard.

America was exhausted from the turmoil of the 1960s. Except in Boston.

There, the South Boston Irish-American community was in an uproar over the ‘forced busing’ of black kids into their schools. Southern Whites, who had become tired of being labeled racists, expressed some schadenfreude that the home state of Ted and Bobby was in racially motivated turmoil:

From September 1974 through the fall of 1976, at least 40 riots occurred in the city….On February 12, 1975, interracial fighting broke out at Hyde Park High that would last for three days with police making 14 arrests…On January 21, 1976, 1,300 black and white students fought each other at Hyde Park High, and at South Boston High on February 15, anti-busing activists organized marches under a parade permit from the Andrew Square and Broadway MBTA Red Line stations which would meet and end at South Boston High. After confusion between the marchers and the police about the parade route led marchers to attempt to walk through a police line, the marchers began throwing projectiles at the police, the marchers regrouped, and migrated to South Boston High where approximately 1,000 demonstrators engaged with police in a full riot that required the police to employ tear gas. 80 police were injured and 13 rioters were arrested…There were a number of protest incidents that turned severely violent, even resulting in deaths. In one case, attorney Theodore Landsmark was attacked and bloodied by a group of white teenagers as he exited Boston City Hall…

Extracted from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boston_desegregation_busing_crisis

I was not unaware of this, but living in Somerville, walking to Harvard Square, and catching the bus to Medford, I saw none of it. However, I foolishly persuaded some of my friends to come along to a George Wallace rally – purely out of curiosity to see American electioneering. Since we were long-haired students and clearly not from Southie, we were set on by a mob of angry white youths as we left the downtown hotel (perhaps the very hotel the Young’s stayed at). I was lucky to escape unharmed. Some of my friends were bloodied and bruised. None seriously. I remember running across to a line of police to report the attack and being met with utter indifference. It’s no surprise American visitors to Britain would remark “Aren’t your policemen wonderful!”

However, as I wrote in the letter, cross the Charles River on the Red Line to Harvard Square, and it was as peaceful as could be. As was the rest of the country, mostly.

Snap decision

So, to return to the comment in the obit that most surprised me. Having, presumably, gone to considerable lengths to secure the necessary visas to be able to emigrate to the US and paid for the flight over and the hotel, the family did not even leave the city to explore any of the nearby (peaceful) suburbs or sample the delights of Western Mass (where the turnpike might well have been covered with snow “from Stockbridge to Boston. Lord, the Berkshires seemed dream-like on account of that frostin’” as James Taylor sang). Instead, they returned to Logan Airport and flew back to London.

I can only speculate as to how that decision was arrived at. But I can well imagine his wife, Lita, seeing the mob outside the hotel window, clutching her pearls, becoming unsettled enough to demand they immediately leave.

This would not be a decision most potential immigrants to the States would take lightly. For centuries, immigration was very much a one-way ticket. Irish immigrant ancestors of the residents of South Boston would hold American wakes to acknowledge the “death” of those crossing the Atlantic. In my own case I was on a two-year student visa. When I returned to settle here permanently, I chose (as I’ve written before in this blog) to live underground as an illegal immigrant for a number of years. One can only assume the future Lord had legal immigrant status.

While it was a hasty decision, it was, as one person notes, to have one advantage:

Second Amendment Rights

As Foxy Par notes, America has a gun problem. This was the case in the time frame I’m addressing of the mid-1970s when the Young family caught the next plane back to London. But it has become tragically, seemingly insolubly, worse since then. The daily drumbeat of school shootings, massacres, and random acts of violence grows.

On a personal level, what is most shocking is meeting well-adjusted Americans of all political persuasions who believe the “only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” They’re all good guys until they’re not. I’ve worked with a senior executive I respected until he let slip that he “keeps 40 guns in the house” and was a member of the NRA. People have told me, in all seriousness, that it’s safer to live in States like Arizona, which allow “concealed carry” permits (which California does not) since the potential mugger does not know if you are “packing heat” and so leaves you alone.

John Wayne movies are seen as a script to live by.

However, in my almost 50 years here, I’ve never once seen or heard gunfire. It’s a big country of over 300 million and despite the tragic loss of life, the odds are small that any one person will be affected.

Race riots

Much of the remainder of the debate was between a couple of chaps (“dudes”?) who disagreed about the racial component of civil unrest in the UK.

The Thatcher Years

The point that these commentators overlooked, and my primary response to the potential tragedy of Young’s return to Britain, is that in September 1984, he became a member of the Thatcher government.

The Brighton Hotel Tory Party Conference IRA bombing occurred the next month. Was he present when that carnage struck?

Indeed, the same year he decided that “life in Britain would be better for them,” these events happened:

On June 17th 1974, a Provisional IRA bomb exploded in Westminster Hall in the Houses of Parliament, rupturing a gas pipe and starting a fire. An IRA volunteer telephoned through a warning six minutes before the bomb exploded, allowing the area to be cleared. The warning meant that nobody was killed, though 11 people were seriously injured.

Exactly one month later, the IRA detonated two bombs in London. The first exploded near a government building in Balham shortly before dawn; there was considerable property damage but nobody was injured. Later in the day, a bomb exploded at the Tower of London in an exhibition room filled with tourists. One person was killed and 40 others were injured, some losing limbs.

These bombings led to increased security and surveillance at London landmarks, as well as an overhaul of police, emergency and bomb disposal protocols. The Provisional IRA continued to hit high profile targets in 1975, bombing Oxford Street (August 28th, seven injured), the London Hilton (September 5th, two killed and 63 injured) and Connaught Square (November 3rd, three injured).

Source: https://alphahistory.com/northernireland/ira-mainland-campaign/#The_London_bombings

In March 1979 (five years after he spent 24 hours watching youths misbehave in the streets of Boston), Conservative MP Airey Neave was blown up leaving the Houses of Parliament.

What did his family think of these events? Did they make life “better,” or did the very real risks that he and others in public life run in that era give them pause?

Later, the miners’ strike of 1984–1985 was a significant industrial action within the British coal industry in an attempt to prevent colliery closures that led to pitched street battles.

The strike was the most violent industrial dispute in Britain of the 20th century…Prime Minister Thatcher expected Scargill to force a confrontation, and in response she set up a defence in depth…She appointed hardliners to key positions…

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/UK_miners’strike(1984–85)

9/11

Of course, on September 11, 2001, the risk equation between life in the US and UK changed radically. 67 British citizens were killed that day. Had Lord Young stayed in the States and worked in finance on the East Coast, he could have been one of them.

January 6

I closed my letter to the FT with the comment that life in the US was mostly uneventful “until recently”. I was referring, of course, to the Trump years, the events of January 6, 2001, and the polarization of political debate that was mirrored, perhaps to a lesser extent, in the debate over Brexit. It remains to be seen if we are seeing the rise of American fascism or, as happened prior to my arrival in 1974, a passing phase that will be followed by less harrowing times.

Nature

There’s also no doubt that, in terms of the potential risks from natural disasters, life is indeed riskier in the USA than the UK. I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, and it’s a case of when, not if, the Hayward Fault fractures in a major earthquake. Climate change has brought deadly torrential rains to California. We will inevitably have more wildfires. Elsewhere in the country, they deal with tornadoes and hurricanes.

Population Density

The 67 million residents of the UK are crammed into an area the size of Oregon. Since they “took back control” and separated from the EU, they are restricted to spending no more than 90 days in the Schengen Area. On a fine summer day, Cornwall and the Lake District gets somewhat crowded.

Meanwhile, 332 million residents of the US can find wide open spaces if they so desire. And while it’s not always easy to get out of the City on the weekend, there are are beautiful wilderness areas in Marin, a short drive from San Francisco.

Family

I married and raised a family in the States. I clearly remember the Fall of 1974. I was enchanted by the beauty of the foliage, enraptured by the people, and intrigued by the possibilities that lay to the West where, having read Kerouac, I longed to get On the Road.

Neither the US nor the UK has a monopoly on the good life. There are pluses and minuses to both. As a predecessor who left the north-west of England and stayed on these shores wrote:

“America is a country in which I see the most persistent idealism and the blandest of cynicism and the race is on between its vitality and its decadence.”

― Alistair Cooke

We all make life decisions that affect our futures. I’d just recommend staying for more than a day before coming to one.

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