A while back we commented on the potential fracturing of the “special relationship” between Britain and the United States. It’s been a one way street for some time now, as writers such as john Le Carre constantly remind us. And it took Tony Blair and the invasion of Iraq to actually bring it to the forefront. And you know what? It seems Britain is deciding it might not be worth it.
On Sunday The Times reported that a special committee of MPS finally released a report determining that, as the Times succinctly puts it,
BRITAIN’S special relationship with the US — forged by Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt in the second world war — no longer exists, says a committee of influential MPs.
Instead, America’s relationship with Britain is no more special than with its other main allies, according to a report by the Commons foreign affairs committee published today.
This will certainly come as something of a surprise to Tony Blair, who justified joining Bush at the hip in the Iraq fiasco onthe basis of this “specialness.” In fact, the news for Blair is even worse, since the Committee also determined that
the perception of the UK after the Iraq war as America’s “subservient poodle” has been highly damaging to Britain’s reputation and interests around the world. The MPs conclude that British prime ministers have to learn to be less deferential to US presidents and be “willing to say no” to America.
This will be interesting. One of the enduring myths that Britain has maintained since the second world war—in addition to the whole war thing itself—has been its closeness to America. In part, as numerous commentators have pointed out this has reflected the passing of Britain’s empire and loss of position in the world, not to speak of the economic shafting the US gave to the UK following the war. We were surprised to discover, when we moved here over a decade ago, that Britain was still paying off war debts to America—what on earth was that all about? Anyway, it now looks as if Britain may be prepared to move beyond this myth.
Actually, this has been coming for a while—a good part of the problem ahs been Britain’s capacity for self-delusion, as historian John Charmely points out in a column in today’s Times:
Only in the UK would it take 60-odd years for MPs to realise that our relationship with the US is no longer particularly special; and even then the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee can’t bring itself to drop the word altogether.
In 1951 the new President, Eisenhower, noted with some sadness in his diary that Churchill seemed to be living in the past with regard to the UK/US relationship. Mesmerised by Harold Macmillan’s epigram that “we are the Greeks in the new Roman Empire”, the British have adopted an attitude of more or less complete subservience to the Americans.
After being dropped straight into the guano at Suez in 1956, Eden wondered in his memoirs whether it would have served Britain better if we had taken a leaf from de Gaulle’s book and treated the Americans mean to keep them keen. Now even this committee of MPs has realised that behaving like a love-struck co-dependent only works when the object of that dependency reciprocates.
To be fair to the Americans, they have long made their attitude clear: the sudden end of lend-lease in 1945; insisting on interest on the loan Britain begged them for in 1946; leaving us and the French dangling at Suez; insisting that we should join the Common Market; and even when the Argentinians invaded British territory in 1982, President Reagan had to be pushed by his Defence Secretary out of neutrality. One might have thought then that an inability to be able to distinguish between a nasty dictatorship and an ally might have given the British Government a clue to the real nature of the Anglo-American relationship.
But no, Mrs Thatcher donned the Churchillian rose-tinted spectacles and continued to gush about “the” special relationship, as did her real heir, Tony Blair.
Well, maybe some folks are getting the picture here. Apparently not New Labour, or even Old Labour, under Gordon Brown, who have managed to increase their commitment to the lost cause in Afghanistan at Obama’s urging. (Really, what is Obama thinking here? Why is he still listening to this bunch of crackpot generals?) So we know that if Labour comes out on top in the next election, we can probably not expect a major change in direction.
But what happens if someone else wins? Well, we know that in the extraordinarily unlikely event that the Liberal Democrats pull out a victory, there will be a decided move towards Europe and away from America. The Lib Dems, remember, were opposed to the Iraq invasion form the outset, and they have been completely vindicated. The interesting question is what happens if the Tories, who are currently ahead in the polls but not by enough to win outright, somehow do manage to eke out a win. Former Tory leader William Hague then becomes Foreign Minister, and that’s when the trouble may start.
Hague is a very bright guy, and, among other things, has written a critically well-received biography of William Pitt. (Imagine Donald Rumsfeld writing a critically well-received biography of anyone.) But he had the unfortunate timing of following John Major as head of the Tories just at the time that Tony Blair enjoyed his maximum popularity and influence. So he didn‘t really have a fair chance as leader—Labour momentum was pretty powerful at that point. Hague supported the Iraq invasion as well, which is a bit of a problem, but he wasn’t the prime mover, and most Tories supported the invasion too. But in theory we all know better now.
The problem may be that Hague genuinely still believes in the ‘special relationship” at a time when most of the UK establishment has finally come to see it as the chimera it really is. He has, on numerous occasions reiterated the mantra that Britain needs to get even closer to the US—although at times he has said the opposite. This is unfortunate. Britain is still trying to decide if it wants to be part of Europe, but geographically, it’s clear that it is. But Hague opposes closer British integration with Europe in part because America may not want it either, among other reasons. On the other hand, Hague has also called for Britain to start pursuing a separate path from America, particularly in the middle East—but it’s hard to know whether or not he means it, given his continued support for a continued commitment to the transatlantic alliance. Then there’s the problem of the Tories’ relationship with a bunch of crazies in the EU parliament, which appears to have been unnoticed in the US media, but which has the potential to complicate Britain’s relationship with both Europe and America at a time when Obama and his administration are trying to re-establish some mutual trust among America, Europe and Britain, blown up so magnificently by Bush and Blair, the enabler. This will certainly not inspire confidence about Hague’s (or Cameron’s) judgment.
The Anglosphere so beloved of Conrad Black and right wing Tories has crashed and burned. And, yet, Britain has an unparalleled network of worldwide relationships through the Commonwealth, it has a thriving social democracy, it’s one of the cultural hearths of the world, London is the leading financial center in the world (and will likely remain so), it remains one of the richest countries in the world, and it brought the world its only universal language. Why not just go with that?