4 Different Ways That Countries View Society and Government

As any British person who’s ever faced a telling-off from a German police officer after trying to cross the road will know, differences between countries can leap out at you from unexpected places.

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The UK and Germany have relatively similar norms about obeying the law, authority figures and warning signs, but nonetheless have very different attitudes to jaywalking. In the UK, it’s entirely legal and police officers will intervene only if you look to be putting yourself in physical danger – and even then, only to tell you not to be so silly and to look where you’re going in future. In Germany, however, crossing an entirely empty road when the lights are on red will have the arm of the law descending on you at some speed.
We’ve noted before that the UK legal system has plenty of peculiarities not seen in many other countries. In this article, we take a look at how government and society differ around the world, including between developed countries that at first glance seem alike.

1. Freedom and statism in the UK and USA

Though current affairs may sometimes suggest otherwise, both the UK and the USA have a long-standing attachment to the principle of personal freedom. Take the British opposition to ID cards, for instance, which seems utterly irrational to most of the rest of Europe. While requiring all adults to have an ID card would probably simplify all sorts of things, from proof of age to opening a bank account, it’s a wildly unpopular idea that contributed a great deal to the Labour Party losing the 2010 election when they were proposing it. The principle of every adult being required to register themselves in any form evokes a visceral reaction in the British psyche, and while this particular debate isn’t currently happening the USA, Americans share many of the same attitudes in this respect.

What about the right to bear sparklers?

What’s interesting is how what’s broadly the same set of attitudes and principles can play out so differently in two different countries. For many Americans, one of the cornerstones of their liberty is the Second Amendment – the right to bear arms. British people, for the most part, are horrified by the idea. There is significant majority support not only for a public who are not allowed to bear arms, but a police force who are also unarmed except in extraordinary circumstances. No mainstream political party has suggested relaxing gun laws in the UK except for UKIP, and even then it is not a policy they have taken much trouble to promote.
Yet anyone over the age of 18 in the UK can buy fireworks; and it’s not usually much trouble for younger teenagers to get hold of them illegally, either. There are campaigns to change this law, but they’re mostly headed up by animal charities who are concerned by the danger posed to animals – both maliciously and accidentally – by private fireworks displays. The idea that teenagers could buy what are essentially explosives at any supermarket (as long as it’s Bonfire Night or New Year’s Eve) sounds bizarre to Americans.
There’s a similar story with the limits of state provision, too. The British are hugely proud of their National Health Service, and any politician who threatens it puts their career at threat too. It was invoked with horror as the next thing to communism by US politicians opposing Obama’s Affordable Care Act, which would have seemed utterly inadequate in the UK. Meanwhile in the USA, no one quibbles about the provision of school buses for everyone, which is a means of helping support access to education that has never existed in the UK; there is funding to help poorer students pay for public transport, but that’s all. While these differences seem quite rational to people within the countries themselves, from the outside they demonstrate how much the inclination to preserve and defend the status quo causes people to adapt their principles to the situation at hand.


2. Nationalism and patriotism in Canada and around the world

At a time of rising nationalism across the world – with Donald Trump winning the US presidency using nationalist rhetoric, and Marine Le Pen leading the polls for the French Presidential election with similar language – it’s notable when countries break away from the trend.
The idea of the nation state is more recent than we might assume. In a world that is full of nation states, it’s hard to imagine what life might be like without them. Broadly speaking, a nation state is one where the political and administrative idea of a state lines up with the cultural idea of a nation. It’s easier to see in the exceptions – think about Wales, which is arguably a nation in the sense of having a distinct culture and a population that see themselves as specifically Welsh in a way that goes beyond the fact that they live in Wales, but is not an independent state. And there are a good few examples of places where one state contains several nations, which hold together on the basis that their inhabitants also identify with the state – for example, the Welsh also (for the most part) identify as British.

Canada is something of an exception to this overall rule. When their Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, said in 2015 that “there is no core identity, no mainstream in Canada” – making the country the world’s “first postnational state” – his remarks were written up with astonishment in the press of countries more attached to their national identities, but passed with minimal comment in Canada. Some writers spilled ink to suggest that Canada might be better off with a core identity, but very few contested the truth of Trudeau’s statement, whether or not they believed it to be a good thing. Nor was Trudeau the first person to make the suggestion; it seems to be generally agreed upon by Canadians that while Canada has its own distinct culture, there’s no need to identify with it in order to be a Canadian. While most countries believe their citizens should identify with both the nation and the state, in Canada, the state is sufficient. You’re Canadian if your passport says so – and even that definition is perhaps a little strict.
It’s fascinating to compare this with almost anywhere else in the world. Think of somewhere like Germany, where strong feelings about German identity and German values are, for obvious reasons, quite uncomfortable. All the same, most Germans would agree that there is some essential Germanness that goes beyond which queue you stand in at Customs. The same could be said for almost any developed country. What remains to be seen is whether the rising tide of nationalism will engulf Canada as well – or whether the coming years will see more postnational countries developing around the world.

3. Secularity in France and Germany

Statistics on religious observance are always hard to capture. If you want to measure – for example – the number of Christians in a country, would you choose the number of people who self-describe as Christian? The number who attend Christian church services every week? The number who have been baptised as Christian? Or the number who agree with the whole of the Nicene Creed? It’s pretty clear that these would produce wildly different outcomes; in the UK, only around 5% of the population goes to church weekly, but 59% of the population identified as Christian in the 2011 census.

Only 5% of Brits attend church services weekly.

Nonetheless, it seems to be the case that France and Germany have roughly similar levels of religious observance, with roughly 65% of the population identifying as Christian and roughly 25% as having no religion, with Muslims, Buddhists and Jews making up the majority of the remainder. Which is interesting given that these two neighbouring countries have such starkly different attitudes to the relationship between the state and religious observance.
At the heart of French society is the principle of laïcité, roughly translated as secularity. Article 1 of the French constitution states that “La France est une République indivisible, laïque, démocratique et sociale”; “France shall be an indivisible, secular, democratic and social Republic” in the words of the official translation – this is a principle so important that it sits alongside the French commitment to democracy. Its practice in daily life is complicated, but it means that France has no faith schools, for instance, and people are not permitted to wear religious symbols when carrying out an official role.
In Germany, by contrast, the state-mandated ‘church tax’ is – though much-criticised – still going strong. This is a tax levelled on Christians as well as other religious communities that provides around 70% of church income in Germany, representing over €9 billion. It’s no small amount, deriving from an income tax of 8 or 9 percent (depending on the part of Germany you live in). And everyone who was baptised Christian – whether Catholic or Protestant – has to pay it unless they formally renounce their church membership (a costly process in itself) regardless of whether they attend church services.
For some Germans, it’s worth it for access to church benefits, such as schools and daycare facilities, but many Germans have renounced their faith – at least officially – in order to avoid paying. Some churches, facing loss of income, have made it clear that services including communion will not be available to those who refuse to pay – an overlap between the state and religious groups that would seem impossible just across the border.  

4. State broadcasters in the UK and around the world

The editor of Private Eye magazine, Ian Hislop – a well-known figure in the UK – was once told “the only things you believe in are initials: the NHS, the BBC, the C of E”. Perhaps excepting the C of E (Church of England), where most British people feel polite indifference, the same could be said of almost everyone in the UK. As discussed above, you criticise the NHS at your peril, and most British people are hugely protective of the BBC. For instance, when it was suggested last year that the BBC would be forced to take down their archive of recipes online, over 200,000 people signed a petition to protest it. That’s significantly more than signed petitions on the Parliamentary petitions website to oppose airstrikes on Syria or require shops to close on Boxing Day.

The BBC continues to inspire a great sense of loyalty.

What does the BBC do to inspire such devotion? It’s not just about providing good recipes. The organisation was founded as a private company in 1922, and became the British Broadcasting Corporation in 1927 – a strictly impartial broadcaster funded by a tax on radio sets, not by advertising. The service it provided was to “inform, educate and entertain”, which has remained its guiding principle ever since, specified in the corporation’s Royal Charter.
There are plenty of other public service broadcasters around the world, many of them modelled on the BBC, particularly in Commonwealth countries. Just as the BBC endeavours to represent the different nations of the UK in all their cultural and ethnic diversity, so too do other public service broadcasters. For instance, New Zealand On Air funds Māori Television, which aims to promote and preserve Māori culture and language, while the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation is required to promote Canadian bilingualism.
One reason why the BBC is so beloved is because it has usually managed to sidestep deference to government. The poet Humbert Wolfe once wrote:

“You cannot hope to bribe or twist,
thank God! the British journalist.
But, seeing what the man will do
unbribed, there’s no occasion to.”

The BBC demonstrates this very well. Until 1997, the corporation used to play the National Anthem – God Save the Queen – at the end of every evening’s programming. The Conservative MP for Romford, Andrew Rosindell, tabled a motion in Parliament for this tradition to be revived. So BBC Newsnight, over the end credits, played God Save the Queen in his honour… only they chose the version by the Sex Pistols. It’s hard to imagine another state broadcaster that would end a show with lyrics like “God Save the Queen/ The fascist regime/ They made you a moron/ Potential H-bomb.” But the BBC did.

Image credits: sparkler; globe; world; church; bbc1 ident