13 October 2012

Straight off the overnight plane from a work trip to Miami I head for Paddy Power in Camberwell. I think I know what the result of the American election is going to be. Luckily for me (or perhaps for them) they are still closed so I wheel my suitcase home and the moment passes. My plan had been to lay a tenner on Romney winning and Biden remaining vice president. A 269/269 split in the electoral college is a real possibility (Romney takes Florida, Ohio, North Carolina and Nevada but Obama holds some of the smaller states, plus Virginia, and gets to the tie) and, in theory at least, an election settled in the House of Representatives, which would vote, in state blocs, for the Republican presidential candidate; and the Senate, which would choose the vice president, probably electing the Democrat. Of course, in the modern world the pressure on the members of the electoral college to change their allegiance and back the man who won the popular vote would be intense, so it might never get to congress. But my Romney-Biden ticket is still technically possible. I might discreetly manufacture some badges.

Mitt Romney owes me money. I say this with no bitterness — it is quite right that those with the broadest shoulders etc, etc — but for the record I think the sum is $2.70: it was the cost of a couple of sandwiches at the Republican Ladies’ stall at their Iowa annual meeting somewhere near Des Moines in spring 2007. Romney and his wife were there but they had rather large-denomination dollar bills so to avoid embarrassment I stumped up and we ate our sandwiches together with a man from the local paper and a single security guard. The Romneys were both extremely pleasant, if a little overdressed. It reminded me of the moment when Bush senior was taken round a supermarket in his 1992 re-election campaign and, finding himself at the checkout, did not know what to do.

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I am still buzzing with the sheer un-American hedonism of Florida’s finest city. The really good thing about Miami, they say, is how close it is to the USA. Quite right: it is close but separate. It is more than ever the capital of Latin America, home to a Spanish-language media market that extends — carelessly skipping over political borders and anti-immigration fences — through Mexico and Honduras and Nicaragua, down as far as Colombia and Venezuela. And of course a media market brings with it a sense of fellow-feeling: folks watch the same TV and advertisements and talk about them on social networks and on the phone. E pluribus Unum. But what is the Unum? It encompasses many who cannot physically get to the United States and many whose parents made the journey but who might one day go back. All speaking a language that is not English. It’s as if early 20th-century New York had been attached to a giant Sicily in the same time zone.

At dinner a few days after getting back, the topic of conversation is the changing culture of the UK. The headmaster of one of the nation’s top prep schools tells me the following story: he had been in his office one day when there was a knock at the door and his son, a strapping chap in his twenties, dropped in for a surprise visit. Delighted, and proud of his son, the headmaster decided to show him round. Under a tree near the playground sat a group of the younger boys. The head bounded up to them with his son in tow. ‘Now boys, I have someone very special to introduce to you. Can any of you guess who he is?’ The boys looked up and the brightest of them replied, with no hint of insolence or irony: ‘Your partner, sir?’

Six years ago my mother died and that change came to me that comes to us all when the parents are gone; we are grown up, fully, whether we like it or not, or are ready to cope with it or not. My mother’s birthday was this month and I have rather shamefully failed — yet again — to gather her remaining friends and relations together for some kind of memorial event. But it occurs to me that she, as a socialist, pacifist Quaker, with an admiration for punitive income taxes and Chinese communism, would still have appreciated a birthday mention in the pages of The Spectator. She had a sense of humour, you see: so Happy Birthday, Mum. And although history has yet to smile on all your political programmes, I note, as a dutiful son, that a crisis of capitalism has indeed occurred and that admiration for China, or at least a desire to fly there, animates Conservatives as much as it did you.

Justin Webb presents Today on BBC Radio Four. His Notes on Them and Us, about Britain and America, is published by Short Books.

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