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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
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

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £45K: SThree: SThree were established in 1986....

Recruitment Genius: SAGE Bookkeeper & PA to Directors

£18000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity has ari...

Recruitment Genius: Online Sales and Customer Services Executive

£15000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An On-line Sales & Customer Ser...

Recruitment Genius: Accounts Assistant - Fixed Term Contract - 6 Months

£15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the largest hospitality companies...

Day In a Page

Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most
Katy Perry prevented from buying California convent for $14.5m after nuns sell to local businesswoman instead

No grace of God for Katy Perry as sisters act to stop her buying convent

Archdiocese sues nuns who turned down star’s $14.5m because they don’t approve of her
Ajmer: The ancient Indian metropolis chosen to be a 'smart city' where residents would just be happy to have power and running water

Residents just want water and power in a city chosen to be a ‘smart’ metropolis

The Indian Government has launched an ambitious plan to transform 100 of its crumbling cities
Michael Fassbender in 'Macbeth': The Scottish play on film, from Welles to Cheggers

Something wicked?

Films of Macbeth don’t always end well - just ask Orson Welles... and Keith Chegwin
10 best sun creams for body

10 best sun creams for body

Make sure you’re protected from head to toe in the heatwave
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon files

Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games
Women's World Cup 2015: How England's semi-final success could do wonders for both sexes

There is more than a shiny trophy to be won by England’s World Cup women

The success of the decidedly non-famous females wearing the Three Lions could do wonders for a ‘man’s game’ riddled with cynicism and greed
How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

One day to find €1.6bn

Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

Historians map out untold LGBT histories

Public are being asked to help improve the map