Mitt Romney caused a spot of bother in London when he said of England’s Olympics preparations:
“There are a few things that were disconcerting: the stories about the private security firm not having enough people; the supposed strike of the immigration and customs officials, that obviously is not something which is encouraging. Because at the games, there are three parts that make games accessible: number one of course are the athletes, that’s what overwhelmingly the games are about, number two are the volunteers and they’ll have great volunteers here, but number three are the people of the country, do they come together and celebrate the Olympic moment?—that’s something we only find out once the games begin.” [emphasis added]
The British media understandably bristled at Romney’s petty insult. But one aspect of #Romneyshambles that hasn’t been widely discussed is Romney’s unsubtle implication that labor rights are “disconcerting” and divide “the people of the country.”
This quote is similar to his infamous line,
“I’m in this race because I care about Americans. I’m not concerned about the very poor…”
The implication then that the poor are not Americans reflects his sentiment in England that striking workers divide people. He decided to load his pro-owner/anti-worker platform onto his plane along with his tax-deductible dancing horse.
To put this strike in perspective, it lasted one day and caused no major interruptions to Olympics preparations. The strike was in response to staff cuts and pay freezes. Speaking on behalf of the UK Public & Commercial Services Union, Mark Serwotka said,
“One day of disruption is regrettable but it is better than having 365 days a year where people are coming to this country and queuing for 3 or 4 hours where they can’t get passports and they can’t get a proper service.”
When the powers that be are patting themselves on the back, why would we not expect the underdog to take advantage of that moment to highlight their own cause in a way that harms no one?
Recall the Tibetan and human rights protesters who embarrassed China as the flame made its way to Beijing in 2008. That brief movement exposed the People’s Republic’s Orwellian impulse when it took hideous measures to silence the Tibetans and surrounded the torch with legions of security. The protesters effectively turned Beijing’s Olympics into something of a paradox, a minor PR coup for the long-suffering people of Tibet. The strike in London was obviously on a much smaller scale and did nothing to jeopardize the legitimacy or schedule of the London Olympics.
When I studied abroad in England in 2003, the local bus drivers went on strike. The strike had a scheduled beginning and ending. I recall that it was annoying, to be certain, but I also recall realizing that in England the workers had a weapon in their arsenal to remind people of the importance of the lowliest workers in their day to day lives. I gained respect for the ability of workers to force owners to meet them halfway. I observed that the British will have a whinge about the inconvenience of transport interruptions, but in the end, labor protest is as British as fish and chips, and the people generally support the rights of workers to assert their rights. I also learned that labor, strikes, political protests and socioeconomic movements manifest differently in England than they do in the US because England is a different country with a different history and a different culture. I learned as a 19-year-old in England that I can’t shoehorn a foreign country’s culture into my own paradigm for culture, but must instead seek to understand foreign countries on their own terms. Mitt Romney seems not to understand this and yet seeks to be America’s top diplomat and the most powerful leader in a complex world.
Romney went to England and belittled a culture of labor rights that he clearly doesn’t understand. It is entirely inappropriate for a presidential candidate to question the labor rights, cultivated over a century, of the people of our most important ally while a guest in their country. It is impolitic, unpresidential, and frankly reeks of reinforcing the “ugly American” stereotype that so many of the finest Americans of my generation have worked so hard to reverse. We do not need another ignorant cowboy in the White House shooting from the hip on the world stage. And the British people deserve better from a presumptive presidential candidate.
What is truly “disconcerting” is the punch Romney landed on the nose of the British people, criticizing their culture of labor rights. Romney might want to learn something about the labor rights of Europeans as America slips from its status as the land of opportunity and falls behind Europe in social mobility statistics. I know he won’t because he has said that any criticism of the privileges of wealthy owners is
He has also made it crystal clear what he would do with striking workers:
“I like being able to fire people who provide services to me.”
Americans should take serious heed of England’s abhorrence toward Romney’s conduct in their country. We don’t need a president who can’t help insulting our allies. We also don’t want a president who thinks the rights of workers are a cancer on society.
It is worth noting that diplomacy is very important. It may seem rote and formulaic much of the time. But when push comes to shove, allies are important. After September 11th, British Prime Minister Tony Blair declared to his party, his country and the world,
“Let us unite too, with the vast majority of decent people throughout the world, in sending our condolences to the government and the people of America. They are our friends and allies. We the British are a people that stand by our friends in time of need, trial and tragedy, and we do so without hesitation now.”
Blair went on to call shame on anyone who feels anti-Americanism and celebrated American pluralism.
He stuck his neck out for America and took the British people with him. He put his career and his country’s standing in the world on the line to stand side-by-side with America in our hour of need. But he didn’t have to. He did so because the trans-Atlantic relationship is strong. But, like any relationship, it must be cultivated.
We need a president who knows how to extend a hand of friendship to the world, not one who only knows how to deliver the back of his hand.