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World Politics

Witnessed on the White House lawn, the ups and downs of the special relationship

Winston Churchill and Franklin D Roosevelt 1941

Until 1940, it did not matter much what the British prime minister and the US president thought of each other. But war made Winston Churchill's uneasy friendship with Franklin D Roosevelt the world's most important political partnership. In December 1941, five days after the attack on Pearl Harbour, Churchill set out by battleship, across an ocean patrolled by German submarines, to be the first British prime minister to spend the night in the White House. Eight storm-tossed days later, he was paid a compliment Gordon Brown would die for. President Roosevelt – who was disabled – was waiting to greet him at the quayside. During his month-long stay Churchill got the Americans to agree that defeating Nazi Germany should be top priority, ahead of the war with Japan. But the relationship was to be fraught with tension. When Roosevelt died in 1945, Churchill did not trouble himself to go to the funeral.

Harold Macmillan and John F Kennedy 1961

It really looked like the old world meeting the new when Harold Macmillan and John F Kennedy stood side by side outside the White House in April 1961. One was the 67-year-old son-in-law of the Duke of Devonshire, the other the 43-year-old son of a self-made millionaire. Actually, despite the differences in age and background, they hit it off remarkably well. Like Winston Churchill before him, Macmillan badly needed the US president's help with a big problem in Europe: Britain wanted to join the Common Market, but France's President Charles de Gaulle was blocking the way. Kennedy agreed to help because he thought that the British were more reliable in world affairs than France or Germany. Later, when writing to Kennedy, Macmillan always began "Dear Friend".

Edward Heath and Richard Nixon 1970

Edward Heath was a curious exception to the rule that British prime ministers feel the need to be seen standing shoulder to shoulder with the United States President. "He dealt with us with an unsentimentality totally at variance with the 'special relationship'," Henry Kissinger recalled. Richard Nixon, being paranoid and thin-skinned, took this personally, and his attitude was "like that of a jilted lover", Nixon's secretary of state added.

The Americans were by now seriously worried that if the UK joined the Common Market it would become a major economic competitor but Heath did not let their reservations influence him. In addition to the rows about trade and currency fluctuations, Heath thought the Americans were unnecessarily hostile to India. But at least, on that first official visit, in December 1970, Nixon was relieved to learn that Heath supported his ambition to get out of Vietnam.

Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan 1981

Whatever Edward Heath did, Margaret Thatcher could usually be counted on to do the opposite. She did not attempt to hide how badly she wanted Ronald Reagan to win in 1980, sent him gushing congratulations and was thrilled to be told that Reagan wanted her to be the first foreign leader to meet him in the White House. Arriving in February 1981, she was shocked to learn that the US media was not impressed by Britain's strikes, inflation and unemployment, and that senior Republicans were attacking her for not being right-wing enough. Reagan himself was not among her detractors. They found they largely agreed on the main issue: whether they could trust the Russians. It was the start of the closest relationship there had ever been between a UK prime minister and a US president.

Neil Kinnock and Ronald Reagan 1987

Neil Kinnock never did become prime minister. But he knew that to achieve office he had to show that he could build a relationship with America's president. During his first visit to the US in 1986 the press noted that he did not meet Ronald Reagan. So Mr Kinnock insisted on another visit and set off in March 1987, just before a general election, for the worst White House experience any British political leader has ever had. Mr Kinnock and the shadow foreign secretary, Denis Healey, were allotted less than half an hour with Reagan – long enough, though, for Reagan to mistake Mr Healey for the British ambassador.

John Major and Bill Clinton 1992

No Prime minister ever got off to a worse start with a new president than John Major did with Bill Clinton. Tories prefer Republicans, just as Labour prefers a Democrat, but in 1992 some boys at Central Office became involved in George Bush Snr's re-election campaign. When Mr Major visited Washington, he had to make do with a 20-minute telephone conversation with President-elect Clinton, much of it taken up by an apology. The next year, though, Mr Clinton forged a relationship with a politician that was almost as close as Reagan's was with Thatcher. That politician was the opposition leader, Tony Blair.