It would be hard to find a better example of the cultural divide between Britain and the US than the serial standing ovations Tony Blair received during his speech yesterday to the joint session of Congress.
The Guardian’s count was 19 standing ovations in a 32-minute speech. I know this is something of a congressional tradition during set piece orations (although I’d be curious whether it dates back very far). In Britain, and in pretty much the rest of Europe, you’d be hard pressed to find an occasion when a speaker received any standing ovations before the end of a speech. And that would only occur in front of the most sympathetic crowd.
What does this propensity to leap to one’s feet signal? It shows boundless enthusiasm, an American trait that is deservedly celebrated. Non-American audiences would be blasé in contrast. Allied to enthusiasm, however, there is a less attractive whiff of self-congratulation to those ovations. The slightest mention of freedom, liberty, brave servicemen and women, etc brings everyone to their feet.
And it’s also, I fear, reminiscent of other scenes of regular standing ovations. Think Soviet presidium, or party congresses in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. I’m not saying Congress is even remotely equivalent to those travesties of representation. But there is a worrying need in these places to be seen to be applauding to excess at every possible moment.
My objections to these displays are not symptoms of world-weary cynicism. I thought there were some very good moments in Blair’s speech (although there were also passages that betrayed a desire to do a global issues tour d’horizon which didn’t work for me). It wasn’t a speech for the ages, by any means, although Blair does speak very well. But I would rather have listened carefully to what he said than face nearly mindless interruptions every time the right buzz phrase was mentioned.
Watching the speech, I think Blair was a bit overwhelmed by the reception. But he was also a bit embarrassed. He will never get that kind of reception in Britain or elsewhere in Europe, but I suspect he’ll find the comparative coolness far more comfortable.