UK and USA flag combined
The special relationship is dead – long live the special relationship? Photo ©

Nicolas Raymond,, licensed under CC BY 2.0 and adapted from the original.

July 2018

Culture is the driving factor in UK-US ties, according to new British Council research.

Culture and history - not politics

American views of the UK are driven more by cultural factors than political issues, according to new British Council research exploring the future of transatlantic ties, pointing to a crucial role for culture in future relations between the two countries.

The report, which contains new survey data from over 1,000 young British and American people aged 18-34, reveals that culture and history were the two top rated factors contributing to the UK’s attractiveness among American respondents, with 43% identifying ‘cultural and historic attractions’ as a major draw and 42% identifying ‘history’.

The current and past actions of governments were only the 16th most important factor (at 17%) in determining how attractive they found the UK. In the UK, similarly, current and past actions of US governments were also only the 16th most important factor in young people’s views of the US.

69% of Americans surveyed rated the UK as ‘a global power’, placing it above all other G20 countries except China (on 70%). The UK also topped the rankings of G20 countries for education and trade, with 43% of respondents identifying the UK as one of the most attractive places to study and 35% identifying it as a top partner for trade and business. This is important at a time when the US economy still represents about a quarter of entire world GDP, and remains the UK’s biggest and one of its fastest growing trading partners, accounting for a fifth of all British exports.

The UK was rated number one among major countries – China, Russia, India, Japan, Germany – in the eyes of young Americans across a wide range of characteristics, from having world leading arts, sports, and universities, to being ‘a strong example of a democratic society’, and ‘a force for good in the world’.


Still Special. US rankings of UK relative to other major countries. Figure © ©

British Council, with thanks to GfK.

Strong mutual affinity

The research showed a high degree of shared concern about global issues among young people in both countries with poverty, extremism/terrorism, and climate change as the top factors chosen by young people in both the US and UK. Interestingly, more of the young Americans surveyed thought the UK supports important values (56%) than thought their own country does (45%). In this respect, they rated the UK more highly than other leading countries. Respondents also ranked each other’s countries first, as the most attractive in the G20 for making personal contacts and friendships.

Analysis of US internet activity between 2016 and 2018 reveals that 64% of US social media mentions relevant to the UK were concerned with culture (sport, music and television), as compared with 18% for politics. Online discussions of pop star Adele, for example, surpassed those of Brexit on average over the periods analysed, which include the month immediately following the UK’s EU referendum vote.

Leading British Universities (notably Oxford, Cambridge, LSE, Imperial and Edinburgh) were the most prominent British educational institutions in American Google searches over the periods captured – although all were surpassed by searches relating to Hogwarts, again illustrating the allure of British popular culture across the Atlantic.

The research suggests the relationship between the two countries is at root a cultural as much as a political phenomenon, and viewed in those terms it is indeed special

The internet analysis also revealed that the phrase ‘special relationship’, used by commentators to describe the US-UK relationship, does not enjoy wide popular use - particularly in the US. However, the same analysis also supported the survey data findings that there is strong mutual cultural attraction and cultural proximity between the peoples of both countries, and that this is largely unaffected by politics. The research suggests the relationship between the two countries is at root a cultural as much as a political phenomenon, and viewed in those terms it is indeed special and as strong as ever. 

Overall, the research reveals a strong mutual affinity between the two countries, based primarily on deep ties of culture, education, civil society and personal connections. These links should be supported if that affinity is to be further strengthened in the future.

Alasdair Donaldson, Insight Editor, and John Dubber, Head of Policy and External Relations, British Council

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