Crispin Black: A one-sided relationship isn't that special

The Foreign Secretary's suppression of evidence of alleged torture was typical of Britain's 'intelligence cringe' towards the USA

Related Topics

Why is it that a British Foreign Secretary invokes "national security" to suppress details of the alleged torture of a British resident by American intelligence officers – at which British intelligence officers may have been present – in defiance of common sense and what normal people would understand as the rule of law? Apparently, because to reveal the details would "damage intelligence co-operation with our US allies". This is just the latest symptom to erupt in that embarrassing and humiliating disorder suffered by most British politicians and senior officials – the special relationship syndrome (SRS).

The physical symptoms keep coming thick and fast – allowing the CIA to conduct so-called "rendition" flights through UK airspace. Probably allowing the CIA to run a prison on UK territory (Diego Garcia). Not to mention extraditing British subjects to the US on the nod or despatching British troops to two American-led wars just because they wanted us to. The physical symptoms derive from the way the syndrome works in the brain, attacking the parts which deal with the sense of sovereignty. In effect it becomes impossible for British ministers to work out where the UK national interest lies in our dealings with the US. To be fair to David Miliband, he is confronted with a set of circumstances not of his own making. His predecessor but one, Jack Straw, suffered from the most virulent form of the disorder and Miliband is merely uneasily mopping up some of the less pleasant results. Although his gushing behaviour in Washington with Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, and his refusal on the floor of the House of Commons to take the matter up with President Obama suggest that at the very least he is already in early-stage SRS.

The syndrome does not come into being out of nothing. It has its roots in the way that the UK's central decision-making structures on national security and intelligence are configured. The Joint Intelligence Committee, the military, the intelligence services, the mechanisms that control our "independent" nuclear deterrent are all heavily "penetrated" by American influence. It is almost impossible for a British minister to make a decision on a range of national security and foreign policy subjects without the US being involved at every level. The UK's national security infrastructure runs on US software which we have happily installed.

To underline how one-sided the UK's relationship with the US is, compare and contrast how the two countries organise their most serious national security decision-making. Imagine a scene in the West Wing of the White House: the President's top security and intelligence officials are in a secret conclave; the heads of the CIA, NSA, military intelligence, the President's national security adviser, and members of his personal staff, discussing the most secret aspects of the US's security and intelligence policy, hammering out the precise wording of a paper to be presented urgently to the President himself. In the Rose Garden outside, the Obama daughters are playing with their new puppy.

The President himself is waiting impatiently in the Oval Office a few hundred feet away for the result on which he may have to base a decision that will send young servicemen to their deaths. The chairman of the meeting goes round the table one final time. Each official is asked to give his or her last comments. It's a tense moment at the beating heart of the American republic... and the person asked to speak last is a Brit – the head of MI6's station in Washington.

It's an absurd picture, of course. The Americans would never permit a British subject to sit at the heart of their security establishment. All the US's important meetings and documents are classified NOFORN – which means what it says – NO FOREIGNERS. But guess what? We allow the Americans to sit at the beating heart of the UK's system. Make a few changes: the Brown sons playing in the Downing Street garden (not sure if they have a dog). The Prime Minister sitting in his study, biting his nails impatiently. The Joint Intelligence Committee (the exact equivalent to the meeting in Washington described above) in urgent session in its rooms behind Downing Street. And the person asked to speak last really is an American – the head of the CIA's London station.

You have to visualise it to understand how extraordinary it is. It is hard to think of another country that allows this. The French would rather die. The irony for us is that it is exactly how we used to control nominally independent faraway countries. And it is one of the mechanisms by which the US ensures that we do their bidding.

There seems to be little sensible discussion at the moment of the so-called "special relationship". It is invariably considered in almost infantile terms – how much everyone despises George Bush or who will get the first phone call or first meeting with President Obama. There is little cost/benefit analysis of our relationship with the Americans. And absolutely none about the intelligence relationship, either in public or behind closed doors. We persist in a kind of "intelligence cringe" – the Americans know more, the Americans know better. Well, they did not know what was going on in Iraq. Even their much vaunted (and envied) satellites misidentified Portaloos as biological warfare installations. Quite why we should think they understand what is going on anywhere else better than we do remains a mystery.

It's not that Blair was President Bush's "poodle". Excessive American influence over and interference in British affairs is institutionalised. The personalities involved merely exaggerate the very one-sided arrangements that are already there.

We must all be encouraged by President Obama's internationalist public-spiritedness, and hope he sticks with it. The worry is that British politicians will be readier than ever to subordinate British interests to a charismatic President, should he revert to type and single-mindedly pursue the national interests of the US.

Crispin Black, a former government intelligence analyst, is writing a book on the 'special relationship'

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist / Physio / Osteopath

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for o...

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager / Sales Executive - Contract Hire

£35000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This industry leader provides c...

Recruitment Genius: Project Coordinator

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Project Coordinator is requir...

Recruitment Genius: Area Sales Manager - Midlands

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Don’t pity me for eating alone, just give me a better table

Rosie Millard
Aerial view of planned third runway at Heathrow  

Heathrow expansion: This final 'conclusion' has simply fanned the airport flames

Chris Blackhurst
John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy
UK heatwave: Temperature reaches 39.8 degrees on Central Line - the sweatiest place in London

39.8 degrees recorded on Tube

There's hot (London) and too damn hot (the Underground). Simon Usborne braved the Central line to discover what its passengers suffer
Kitchens go hi-tech: From robot chefs to recipe-shopping apps, computerised cooking is coming

Computerised cooking is coming

From apps that automatically make shopping lists from your recipe books to smart ovens and robot chefs, Kevin Maney rounds up innovations to make your mouth water
Jessie Cave interview: The Harry Potter star has published a feminist collection of cartoons

Jessie Cave's feminist cartoons

The Harry Potter star tells Alice Jones how a one-night stand changed her life
Football Beyond Borders: Even the most distruptive pupils score at homework club

Education: Football Beyond Borders

Add football to an after-school homework club, and even the naughtiest boys can score
10 best barbecue books

Fire up the barbie: 10 best barbecue books

We've got Bibles to get you grilling and smoking like a true south American pro
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power
Ron Dennis exclusive: ‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

Ron Dennis shrugs off a poor start to the season in an exclusive interview, and says the glory days will come back
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