The end of a beautiful friendship?

Robin Cook and Madeleine Albright meet to avert trade meltdown, as Britain is caught between the EU and US

THE Anglo-American "special relationship" was again on display yesterday as the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, and his US counterpart, Madeleine Albright, sought to head off the transatlantic trade war over bananas.

With the World Trade Organisation and the European Commission due to meet in emergency session tomorrow, the two committed themselves to looking for "compatibility" rather than confrontation.

At the end of the Second World War, Winston Churchill saw Britain's future in the intersection of three circles: the Commonwealth, Europe and the Atlantic community. Who would have thought that this grand vision would be shattered by the banana?

The present trade crisis may seem risible to those unaffected by the sanctions imposed in Washington last week. But it is possible to see in it every dilemma of post-war British foreign policy in miniature.

Britain is intertwined with the Commonwealth through history, with America through strategic choice and with Europe by virtue of geography and political ambition. When these regions are moving in different directions, as they are, Britain finds itself in a painful position, with hundreds of British workers in factories making cashmere sweaters facing unemployment. Britain wants to help the Caribbean banana growers; but can it do that at the expense of other British interests?

Churchill's neat formula was designed to maintain British prestige and power: each allegiance was designed to counter-balance the other.

Every post-war prime minister has discovered, usually to their cost, that it was simply impossible to maintain a balance. Eden chose Empire and France over America in 1956 when he invaded Egypt to seize the Suez Canal, and lost his job. Since then, the order of preference has usually found America at the top and the Commonwealth at the bottom, with Europe placed uncomfortably in the middle.

Tony Blair had looked like the model Prime Minister. He had warm and sunny relations with Washington, had improved Britain's ties to Europe no end, and, unlike Margaret Thatcher, is a firm supporter of the Commonwealth, remodelled as a genuinely independent block outside British control.

Now a bunch of fruits of the genus musa (family Musaceae) look set to overturn everything. The banana regime exists because member states in Europe - especially Britain and France - want to help their former (and in some cases existing) colonies. Both allow their bananas preferential access, so more are imported than would be under truly free trade.

The objection stems from American companies that grow bananas in Central and South America which have enough influence in Washington to get their way. Britain is caught in the middle.

British diplomats in Washington spend a lot of time trying to ensure such conflicts do not occur. But they do, and many involve the remains of Empire.

On nearly every issue Britain and the US are closer than any two countries, but America has little interest in Britain's remaining post-colonial pretensions at the best of times, as it showed over Suez. The US invaded Grenada apparently without a thought to the fact that the island was part of the Commonwealth, with the Queen as head of state. That was one of the few points of friction between Mrs Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. And many in his administration thought America should have backed Argentina in its fight against Britain over the Falklands.

But when transatlantic crises involve Europe, Britain usually aligns tacitly with the US. In nearly every other dispute - especially those concerning agriculture - we are seen as the enemy within, sympathising with Washington and its desire to crack EU protectionism. Britain shares a preference for trade, over continental Europe's more mercantilist tendencies. But things may be changing.

To see bananas as the motor force of history, dividing London and Washington, seems ridiculous, and it is. But there are at least two other disputes where divisions are clear: a complex row over aircraft noise that could see Concorde banned; and Iran, where British, French and Italian oil companies are defying American sanctions. In both cases, British and EU interests are congruent. As the single market becomes a reality and corporate tie- ups proliferate across the Channel, that may be increasingly the case. And American support for free trade may become less easy to guarantee as its trade deficit soars.

But there are other reasons why Britain feels it should back the European line on bananas. The central one is that the problems of the Caribbean producers are largely its fault. The island states would not exist in their present form were it not for the rivalries of the 18th century, which pitted Britain against Spain and France. That is how Britain came to rule over places called Anguilla, Antigua and Dominica.

When the French Wars ended in 1815, Britain effectively ditched the oldest part of the Empire. It dealt a body blow to the region's economy when it chose free trade in the 1840s, getting rid of the measures which had protected Caribbean exports to the homeland. It wanted to encourage trade with the new United States of America, not the moribund monocultures of the West Indies.

Ironically, this turn towards free trade helped to boost British textiles, turning the north of England into the workshop of the world. Little remains of that now, apart from the cashmere sweater producers of the Borders. Caribbean economies, in near-terminal decline, had to turn to alternative products, such as bananas.

Britain then largely ignored the Caribbean until the late 1940s, when it belatedly realised there was growing political dissent and dire poverty. It started to develop their economies - such as boosting banana production, and encouraging exports to Britain.

The argument is rich with historical ironies; unfortunately, neither the Caribbean nor the Borders are rich in anything much, apart from cashmere sweaters and bananas.

Now the banana dispute is real and something is going to have to give way. This time, the weak link may be the apparently unbreakable one between London and Washington.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Sport
Ray Whelan was arrested earlier this week
Arts and Entertainment
In a minor key: Keira Knightley in the lightweight 'Begin Again'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Celebrated children’s author Allan Ahlberg, best known for Each Peach Pear Plum
books
News
peopleIndian actress known as the 'Grand Old Lady of Bollywood' was 102
News
Wayne’s estate faces a claim for alleged copyright breaches
peopleJohn Wayne's heirs duke it out with university over use of the late film star's nickname
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Business Systems Analyst (Retail)

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Up to 20% bonus: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: An...

Technical BA - Banking - Bristol - £400pd

£400 per hour: Orgtel: Technical Business Analyst - Banking - Bristol - £400pd...

Head of Digital Marketing,London

To £58k Contract 12 months: Charter Selection: Major household name charity se...

Lead Hand - QC

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Lead Hand - QCProgressive are recruiting...

Day In a Page

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice