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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

British Call on a Little Yankee Ingenuity




LONDON -- As if driven by a looming millennial deadline, Britain has experienced a national burst of achievement over the past month, solving a series of major problems that had festered for years or decades.


In Northern Ireland, a power-sharing government of Protestants and Catholics was created, promising an end to the bitter sectarian conflict that raged for 30 years and killed more than 3,500 people. In London's Covent Garden, the world-famous Royal Opera House reopened with a glittering new theater and a balanced budget after years of locked doors and fiscal turmoil. And London's subway system finally finished its most ambitious line, providing the only regular transit to the nation's new billion dollar exhibition hall, the Millennium Dome.


All three achievements have been described as "miracles" by the euphoric British press. And the breakthroughs have one other thing in common: Each was brought about by Americans, called in after years of frustration under British management.


Those three high-profile success stories reflect a larger pattern in contemporary Britain. The United Kingdom today is a thriving, prosperous society, with education standards that can match any on Earth and a global corporate presence. British imports are among the most popular shows on U.S. television - even "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" was created by Britain's ITV network - and some of America's best-known businesses, including Burger King, Holiday Inn and Brooks Brothers, are owned by British firms.


But when it comes to reviving their own institutions, from freight railways to financial regulatory agencies, from Jaguar to Burberry's, from the BBC Orchestra to the tunnel under the English Channel, the British tend to turn toward pragmatic Americans to get the job done.


The pattern says something about Americans, and something about the British. "Yes, I think there is something about Americans that makes them focus on reaching a result," said George Mitchell, the former Senate majority leader who spent the better part of four years brokering the Northern Ireland peace agreement.


"I don't want to take anything away from the British and the Irish. They are warm and wise and articulate. But sometimes you get the feeling that these guys are so articulate they could go on talking forever. Americans are more likely to say, 'Enough already, let's get the thing done.'"


"I think Britain is a much more conservative society than the U.S.," said Cliff Mumm, a plain-spoken civil engineer from South Dakota who was hired 18 months ago to resuscitate the long-delayed extension to the Jubilee Line, the newest stretch of London's subway system.


"The British take on every project like a game of chess," said Mumm, a veteran trouble shooter for the American engineering firm Bechtel. "They worry endlessly about rules and procedure, you know, doing things the way they've always been done. But when we got this job, we put together an Anglo-American team and said, 'Let's do what it takes.'"


Another useful U.S. trait, Britons and Americans agree, is that the Yanks are far less concerned about class distinction, still a central aspect of life in the stratified nation. In fact, one of the best tools any American manager brings to an assignment in Britain is an accent - or, more precisely, the lack of any British accent.


In Britain, the way you talk speaks volumes about you - your economic status, your school, your ancestry, your career prospects. But American speech, whether it's Mitchell's Down East Maine accent or Mumm's flat Midwestern monotone, conveys nothing to sensitive British ears.


That has proved particularly useful to American arts manager Michael Kaiser, a former member of the Washington (D.C.) Opera's board of trustees. He was called in just over a year ago by Britain's desperate culture secretary to get the Royal Opera House back on its feet. "Because I don't have a British accent, you can't place me in any social class," Kaiser said.


"I'm sure that helped avoid the resentment and condescension."


Another reason for the Americans' achievement is the familiar adage that nothing succeeds like success. As the planet's dominant financial, technical and military power, the United States is accustomed to sending people off on rescue missions around the world. That builds a priceless pool of experience.


While London's transit authority was intimidated by the scope of the Jubilee Line extension, a $5 billion project that crosses the Thames River four times within 16 kilometers, the Americans at Bechtel had built subways all over the world.


"The bigger and more complicated the job, the more fun it is," said Mumm, who had worked on subways in Seoul, South Korea, and San Francisco - not to mention the beltway in Ankara, Turkey - before he came to Britain. "I love these huge projects that have romance and glamour and poetry, and the Jubilee Line had it all."


For the most part, the British have given strong support to the American fix-up artists in their midst. John Hume, a Northern Ireland politician who was a co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, said flatly, "nobody in Britain could have done what George Mitchell did here." The Guardian newspaper has a simple title for Kaiser: "Turnaround King."


But as in most countries, there is ambivalence in Britain toward Americans and their contemporary dominance in global finance, politics and culture. "Of course, we recognize American achievement. How could we not?" said Jonathan Freedland, a prominent commentator and author. "But, of course, we also resent it a little. We have to find the scars on American society and play them up as much as possible."


But the British still seem to feel more admiration for the United States than for any other nation. A recent poll found that 59 percent of Britons consider the United States to be their nation's most reliable ally. Only 16 percent picked continental Europe, and 15 percent chose the British Commonwealth nations.