That special something

So now there’s talk among the higher reaches of the Labour government to put together some sort of commission, or study group, to look into whether the Special Relationship has been damaged by the Libyan prisoner fiasco. Given that the government, and the Labour party, have acted dishonourably throughout this whole affair, this takes more than a little cheek, but it’s what we expect from a government and party led by Gordon Brown, who, if anything, is proving to be a duplicitous and mendacious as his predecessor—but whose sights are set considerably lower. Blair wanted to run the world (and, indeed, still does)—Brown just wants to stop the weekly explosions that have characterized his government since he became Prime Minister two years ago.

But it’s the Special Relationship that’s of interest here. We were, I admit, somewhat surprised to learn, when we arrived on these shores eleven years ago, that this was still a major concern. We thought this was something that Churchill and Roosevelt had during that last good war, but had died a slow death from attrition. Certainly we weren’t giving it a lot of thought when we moved here. But it was surprising, still, to discover that it’s taken very seriously here.

Recently this has been crystallized by the release in Scotland of convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi from prison on compasionate grounds—he’s dying of cancer. But the affair is shrouded in enough mystery to keep tongues wagging. The following, from The Telegraph (so consider the source) is fairly representative of some of the reaction to this move:

But the growing transatlantic fall-out is likely to worry Downing Street more.

The New York Daily News, an influential newspaper, told readers that Mr Brown’s behaviour during the Megrahi affair had ruined relations between London and Washington.

In a stinging editorial it stated: “It was Winston Churchill who asked in the aftermath of Pearl Harbour, ‘What kind of people do they think we are?’,” the newspaper said. “And it is Gordon Brown who has given grounds to believe that today’s British are a cowardly, unprincipled, amoral and duplicitous lot. Because he is all of those.

“As for the “special relationship” between the US and Britain, the storied alliance built on the resolve of World War II and carried on through Thatcher and Blair, through Iraq and Afghanistan: It is, in a word, gone.”

In the same edition, Michael Rubin, from the right-wing American Enterprise Institute think-tank, wrote that as well as enraging the US government, Mr Brown had also failed to gain anything from Libya in return.

He said: “Not only did Libyan celebrations destroy the goodwill which Prime Minister Gordon Brown hoped would jump-start Anglo-Libyan relations, but his clumsy and transparent attempt to substitute an oil contract for justice has shredded the seven-decade U.S.-U.K. Special Relationship beyond repair.”

The Wall Street Journal, the influential international newspaper, also sharply criticised Mr Brown’s handling of the affair in its editorial column.

It said that the release of the documents had cast yet more doubt on ministers’ insistence that the release had been a matter only for Scottish administration.
The newspaper said: “The more we learn about the British Government’s negotiations over the release of Lockerbie bomber Abdel Baset Megrahi, the more it appears we aren’t getting the whole story from Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his Cabinet.”
Larry Korb, a senior fellow at the left-leaning Center for American Progress think-tank, said the fall-out was serious.

He said: “The feeling in the US is disappointment that our oldest ally and one we rely on would be a party to this.”

Well, boo-hoo. Only The Telegraph, by the way, would tell us that The New York Daily News is an influential newspaper, as opposed to The Wall Street Journal, which is an influential international newspaper. Leaving aside the fact that the US does not have anything like “release on compassinate grounds” in its legal system, while a number of European countries do, there are a whole lot of other issues here as well. First, the broader point to keep in mind is that the Scottish government, in releasing Megrahi on comassionate grounds, was entirely within its legal rights. It was not bound by any side deal Blair may have cut with Washington to keep Megrahi in prison—if Blair made any such deal in the first place. Second, it’s not as clear-cut as is supposed in the US that Megrahi is in fact guilty. There are any number of people, including the head of the victims’ families group here in the UK and others, who remain convinced that Megrahi was railroaded into this. We don’t imagine that this story was widely broadcast in the US media, but it’s s pretty widespread feeling here. (Although there are an equally large number of people who are convinced of Megrahi’s guilt. We’re agnostic—we don’t know enough one way or the other to say.) But here’s a convenient summary, from Marcel Berlins in The Guardian:

Megrahi’s return to Libya seemed conveniently to have sidelined another potentially embarrassing question: was he the victim of a miscarriage of justice? Was the decision to free him at least partly based on the Scottish desire to avoid having that question answered? Of course, no one connected with the decision, whether in Scotland, Whitehall or Downing Street, could admit, or even hint, that guilt or innocence was a factor. Officially, he was a properly convicted prisoner, no question.

It is not just Megrahi himself insisting on his innocence. For many years, the case has induced unease in the Scottish legal world. Evidence has emerged that appears to cast some doubt on the verdict. No one is saying the material absolutely proves Megrahi’s innocence, but it has been enough to raise the possibility of wrongful conviction.

Jim Swire, the father of one of the Lockerbie victims, who led the campaign of bereaved British relatives to discover the truth about the tragedy, now believes that an injustice occurred – so do many families of British victims (though this doubt is not shared by families on the American side).

Robert Black QC, one of Scotland’s most eminent advocates, who has studied the case, is of the same view. More importantly, in 2007, the independent Scottish criminal cases review commission (SCCRC) referred the Megrahi case to the Scottish appeal court, finding sufficient grounds to suggest a miscarriage. The court would not have been obliged to grant the appeal, but it has usually done so on previous SCCRC referrals. The court was due to hear the appeal later this year, but Megrahi formally withdrew it during the flurry of activity leading to his release.

His lawyer has made it clear that he did so because it was felt that continuing the appeal – which would have gone on after his death – might have prejudiced his chances of being sent home. In the last few days Megrahi himself has reiterated his claim to innocence.

My understanding is that the Scottish appeal court was to rule shortly. A finding that Megrahi was not fairly convicted would not have helped matters between the various nations here—Scotland, Britain (because their interests here are not necessarily aligned) and the US. I also imagine that the fact the this case could possibly have been found faulty by the Scottish judiciary was not widely covered in the US either. Now, there’s quite enough surrounding this case, and Megrahi’s release, to occupy a book, and I imagine there will be one (or more) at some point, all concerned with the machinations of the various governments, and what their various objectives were. The US, clearly, needed a guilty party, and Megrahi may or may not have been the one. The Labour government, between Blair and Brown, wanted the US off their backs, and Libyan oil. The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats want to make Labour look foolish and duplicitous, which is not at all hard. Scotland wanted—well, it’s not clear what. Scotland wanted to let Megrahi go before he died, perhaps, as has been suggested about Brown as well, so that Megrahi would not die in a Scottish prison. So there are lots of balls in the air here, and most of them haven’t come down yet.

There’s a more general issue here, though, that relates to the whole Special Relationship thing that has fascinated me. If you read the quotes in the Telegraph article (go ahead—re-read them now), you almost pick up a threatening tone in some of the US comments. How dare these governments not do what we want, is the implication. The petulance here is staggering. This isn’t new, of course. But it does go to remind everyone of how short memories are. It just seems only yesterday that Tony Blair was lying through his teeth (with Gordon sitting by, silently) to declare Saddam Hussein a menace, whose weapons of mass destruction could reach Britain within 45 minutes, in solidarity with the US in its time of needing to exorcise its grief by invading a country that had nothing to do with 9/11, that was known to have no WMD, and that had never attacked the United States. That was about oil too.

Blair was the great enabler. Without his support, Bush in all likelihood could not have gone it alone, and the Coalition of the Willing would have been considerably smaller, if it had existed at all. And this is largely what the Special Relationship entails—the UK blindly supporting US policy, whatever it is. Once the US started pressuring the EU to lift the bans on GMOs, Blair thought that was pretty neat idea too. In fact, Blair and Brown’s slavishness toward anything American has been breathtaking. In spite of the recent hoo-hah over some Tory MEP’s negative comments about the NHS (which made quite a big splash in the US), it’s been the Labour government that has been privatizing portions of the NHS over the past decade, while denying it. Maybe part of the Special Relationship is lying with comparable equanimity.

It’s not that the Special Relationship was been such a great deal for Britain, either. It seems to run one way, in fact. Keynes was convinced that the post-war financing agreements were designed to prevent Britain from recovering economically, and it was his fighting these agreements that probably killed him. And history does sort of bear this out. We were astonished after moving here to discover that Britain was still paying off its WWII war debt to the US—and, in fact, was the only country doing so. These loans were finally paid off in 2006. Let’s see, what else? There’s Diego Garcia, the island in the Indian Ocean that the UK stripped of its inhabitants so it could turn it over to the US for an airbase. There’s lots more, in fact. About the only time Britain took a major, principled stand against the US was when Harold Wilson refused to send troops to Vietnam.

There have been significant and very public doubters. John Le Carre has build part of his fictional world on openly questioning the wisdom of the UK government, including its intelligence services, lending themselves like Rent-a-Cops to the US. One would have thought that Iraq would have proved his point, but we still see the types of anxieties expressed by right-wing oafs like Alistair Horne in the following passage:

It may be the sign of a romantic, but I still believe in the mystique of the special relationship. Pragmatically it received a boost at the time of the Falklands when the naval commander of the task force, Admiral Sandy Woodward, declared to me that in no way could the risky operation have succeeded without US commitment. This was founded upon long years of joint Nato experience, of speaking the same language, not only philologically but in terms of military-speak.

After Megrahi, can the special relationship be restored? We romantics, and optimists, believe that it can; it happened, after all, following 1973. But almost certainly it will not happen under this disastrous and terminally sick government. One can only hope that David Cameron can pull something out of the locker, to build upon that great residue of respect for British institutions, and enterprise, that continues to exist in the United States.

This is delusional thinking at its highest. Even yesterday Tony Blair was out there defending the Special Relationship to David Letterman, of all people.

But I suspect these are starting to be minority voices. When we first moved here, everyone loved America. After 9/11, we got calls of sympathy from people we barely knew. People would stop us on the street to express their sympathies. It’s all gone now, shredded in the tailwinds of Iraq. Now, or at least before Obama got elected and gave everyone a bit of hope, I would hear random conversations on the underground about going to pubs to beat up American students. Someone I worked with—a good lad, solid Tory, likes his pints, generally a pretty good guy—came back from a trip to Las Vegas and Florida two years ago with the comment, “You know, I don’t think I like your country very much.” And this is someone who thought Thatcher was the greatest Prime Minister ever. So the country is changing a bit. And with Brown continuing to fail to convince the public (and an increasingly vocal subset of Parliament across all parties) over the logic of remaining in Afghanistan, there are a fair number of people in the UK now who are starting to think that the Special Relationship isn’t so special after all.

The stamp above was issued in 1976 by the Royal Mail in honor of the US Bicentennial.

8 replies »

  1. As an American, I just take it for granted that we have that special relationship with England. I don’t take England itself for granted, but I bet a lot of people do. However, I can’t even begin to imagine a world dynamic where the U.S. and England weren’t on cozy terms. It’s too bad that the Bush legacy, in all respects, will include that disastrous tendency to bully everyone, friends and foes alike. It has cost us SO much.

    • Yeah, Chris, but I do take a little bit of satisfaction in knowing that Blair’s legacy will always be “Bush’s lap dog.” People who ought to know better deserve whatever they inflict on themselves. I just hope that future international leaders will be bright enough to learn something from Blair’s experience.

  2. Actually, lots of people can imagine that dynamic now, which is something of a problem, yes. OTOH, less cozy terms would have prevented Iraq. That’s a trade-off that many would be happy to make. The US and Britain will always be on good terms, and even if there are times when those terms are less than good, things muddle along. Remember when everyone was pouring their French wine down the sink and people were eating Freedom Fries? Looks kind of silly now. And if we have to put up with a year or two of Freedom Whiskey, we’ll get through that too.