Steve Richards: Let's not kid ourselves: Britain is not part of the United States

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The Independent Online

The words seem to come from a distant epoch. Minutes after the second plane hit the World Trade Centre Tony Blair was due to make a speech which included a section full of warm words on Europe and the euro. Under different circumstances the speech would have made waves for days. The Sun would have had a nervous breakdown and pale Europhiles would have emerged from the darkness to declare that their moment had come. As it was, Mr Blair never made the speech.

Quite possibly Mr Blair was only planning to talk up the euro in order to divert attention from other domestic rows that were raging at the time. After all, the euro is one of those subjects that this Government talks up and down almost simultaneously. But such a Machiavellian manoeuvre does not conflict with the possibility that Mr Blair actually does hold positive views on Europe and the euro, that he believed what he said or, in this case, did not say. Anyone who reads the second volume of Paddy Ashdown's diaries will encounter Mr Blair's passion for Europe (only surpassed by his enigmatic passion for Mr Ashdown who he seemed to see most days of the week in the early days of his premiership).

Another book published last week has taken up where Mr Blair was supposed to have left off in his speech. A leading light from Britain in Europe makes "The Patriotic Case for Europe", a book that is Gaullist in tone, explaining why it is in Britain's interests to be part of the European Union and by implication the euro. Before Armageddon struck, the Blair speech and the book were to be part of a co-ordinated campaign linking patriotism with Europe and the euro. The campaign was being co-ordinated by Mr Blair.

I revive these themes from the previous era only because they have some bearing on the current situation. They cannot be tucked away as if they no longer exist. A key objective of Mr Blair's foreign policy has been to end what he has described as "Britain's ambiguous relationship with Europe". Yet since the declaration of the "war on terrorism" British attitudes to Europe look more ambiguous than ever. What looks quite unambiguous is Britain's relationship with the United States.

The reaction in Britain to the attacks in New York and Washington has been uniquely intense, as if the terrorists had struck in London. The BBC has sent most of its staff to New York, while the newspaper coverage has been far greater than in America. In the New York Times or the Washington Post you will look in vain for special supplements or an increase in pages. This is partly because Britain has a more vibrant newspaper culture than the United States, but it is more than that. Britain, or an influential part of Britain, has become more American than America itself.

In particular the fundamentalists at the Telegraph, Times, Mail and The Sun brook no dissent. Anyone who questions Britain's wholehearted commitment to whatever military action the US undertakes is a naive fool. These newspapers – echoing the hypocrisy of Conservative Eurosceptics – scream furiously if they detect any pooling of sovereignty with Britain's colleagues in Europe. But if anyone questions the pooling of sovereignty with the mighty US they are outraged.

Underlying the reaction to the atrocities in New York and Washington is the ongoing question about the type of country that Britain really is – an adjunct of the United States or a European partner? So even though other EU countries have not "wobbled" in their steely response of recent days there have been several reports about their hopeless unreliability. That is why Iain Duncan Smith backs the US come what may. Probably like John Redwood, who has written a book on the subject, he would be much happier if Britain pulled out of the European Union and joined the North Atlantic Free Trade Association.

In spite of these Thatcher-induced fantasies Britain is not part of the United States, nor an equal partner. There is something pathetic about the self-centred jingoism that afflicts some of the reporting and the posturing in Britain. In reality this small island is a confused European country that always fires its missiles on time, but can never run a train on time. We lecture Europeans on how to run an economy and "take the lead" in military adventures, but plead with Europeans to use their hospitals because we cannot run a proper health service. Nor can we run an efficient agriculture industry to the extent that the US takes special precautions against anyone arriving from Britain. I was briefly arrested in New York last August for inadvertently carrying some apples into the airport: "Apples from Britain? Come this way".

In the current jingoistic atmosphere it is worth remembering that during the summer the American media was full of informed articles by Anglophiles lamenting the decline of a country they once admired. Let us not get carried away by a prime ministerial standing ovation from Congress in Washington because Britain is always ready with its bombs.

Mr Blair sees few tensions in being a good European and America's best friend. He has resolved the scope for internal contradictions and tensions by suggesting that Britain can be the "bridgehead" between Europe and the US. In the early days of the new era there has been something of the tenacious bridge-builder about his role, although President Jacques Chirac of France was perfectly capable of going to Washington on his own to have discussions with President Bush. Presumably Chancellor Schroeder is also mature enough to reach his own conclusions about the terrorist threat without being told what to think by Messrs Bush and Blair.

But it is quite possible that in the months and years to come (when does a "war on terrorism" end?) some EU countries will genuinely wobble. Perhaps they will have good cause to do so. At this stage unity has been achieved, but this is the relatively easy bit. Anti-European fundamentalists in Britain – the Conservative Party, the newspapers – are looking for any excuse to undermine Europe and enmesh Britain ever closer to the US. Mr Blair must not let them succeed.

At some point he should return to the speech he never made. He must take steps to ensure that events over the next few months will not prevent him from making it, on the grounds that Britain seems further away from Europe than ever before. Britain is part of Europe, not just a friend of the United States ready with its bombs, but arrested for bringing in its rotten apple.