Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Our 'special relationship' with the US could be all to the good - if only we took the best

Fierce opposition to many US policies has never diminished my deep admiration for so much else
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The Independent Online

Kendal Myers, a US State Department analyst, has dismissed Britain's loyalty to his country as ineffectual and unrequited. How humiliating for Blair's government, which looked more pathetic still when it rushed out a plaintive denial, pronouncing the relationship still "indeed a special one".

Myers spun away from spin and spoke the truth, for which he is to be admired. But as a symbol of American brashness and vanity, he must have further irritated many Britons (including me) who have come to believe that the special bond must be loosened or even severed if Britain is to gain respect in the world. We must seek independence from the nation that wrested independence from us in 1783.

Since the end of the Second World War, our elected representatives have submitted to the will of the USA, covering up abject submission with fine words and faux bombast. GB has been the footstool, not the grand bridge of common metaphor. Ernest Bevin, when Foreign Secretary, returned from a US trip to say: "I never wish to be spoken to like that again by an American." Churchill grumbled often about the same.

In 1988, I attended a conference in St Louis. The Thatcher/Reagan axis seemed to be perfectly in tune and balance. State Department delegates laughed when I suggested there was equivalence between these leaders. Mrs T just gave a better impression of power parity, they said. She could never intimidate any US politician the way she did her own Cabinet or the long- suffering European power brokers. Blair, the small-time bully, hangs out with the tough neo-con gang who let him stick around but only if he shuts the hell up and does their bidding.

Blair needed to dissociate this nation publicly from the pre-cooked case for war on Iraq. He didn't have the guts. I don't imagine any other previous prime minister would have had that kind of independent courage either. With the volatile geopolitical landscape now upon us, the next British PM has got to summon the strength, and will be required to redefine who we are and where we stand with the US. Both nations will eventually benefit from a more robust, critical friendship. An ex-colonial power like Britain has had to learn invaluable lessons about the will of subjugated people and could stop further imperial fiascos by its burly mate.

China, Brazil and India will demand proper partnerships as they grow in economic might. Ugly Anglo-Americans will get short shrift unless they step down from their high horses into the real world. Britain also has an embedded social welfare culture which even Thatcher couldn't overturn. We have been embarrassed instead of proudly holding up the achievement when in the presence of Americans, who have a more Darwinian model.

I have been accused by detractors of being instinctively "anti-American" because I am critical, and have always been, of many hyper-power foreign interventions. Much irreversible damage in fledgling nations was and is caused by Americans whose only god abroad is self interest. This happened under the Kennedys too, and Bill Clinton, and will again under Mrs Clinton, should she ever return to the White House.

Extreme US Zionism, immensely influential, carries on arming Israel and ignoring human rights violations by that nuclear nation. Iraq is left sliced, bleeding and ripped while American companies make fortunes from rebuilding contracts and the oil. The record is appalling. What's more, the country has repeatedly betrayed fundamental legal and human rights principles enshrined as inviolable in its noble constitution. Guantanamo Bay is the latest.

But fierce opposition to many US policies has never diminished my deep admiration for so much else in that vast country. As a visceral hatred of America spreads fast through the UK, I find myself rising to defend the country I often attack.

This ambivalence is felt by many others. A revealing Newsnight report by Mark Easton on American Muslims found them similarly positioned - feeling furious with foreign policy and yet positively committed to the finest traditions of the country.

Even though I am a faithful European, it is the US that blazes ahead when it comes to equality and civil rights. I was reminded of this last week when in Basel, Switzerland, for a meeting on equality in the workplace. Two African-American men and one Hawaiian woman spoke powerfully about inclusion and diversity at the top table. They were not apologetic, nor anxiously persuasive.

I told them of the vociferous opposition of many indigenous Brits to Mr Blair's public recognition of British involvement in the evil of slavery. I found that uproar utterly depressing. Protesters against the PM's "apology" want us to honour the abolitionists but not remember the dishonour of slavery.

The black Americans were shocked to hear of this revolt against a graceful national gesture. They are no longer in the business of having to beg for such symbols. Their civil rights movement inspired our race laws, and yet today UK anti-racism has been left behind, crawling and grovelling. George Washington understood the dangers of "tolerance", a favourite claim Brits make about themselves. "We speak no more of toleration as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their natural rights."

It is the same story for feminism too. Most fearsome and fiery advocates for female equality were American. We owe them, and should take lessons on how not to be beaten back by new forms of opposition to progressive politics.

I save best till last. What I admire most about the US is its idea of a secular state, forever emblazoned in the First Amendment. When various nonconformist Christian immigrants fled to the US to escape persecution, they sought there to set up theocratic states. The great minds making the new country decided wisely to uphold rights and freedoms for all and to ensure in statute that there was never any excessive entanglement of government with religion.

In 1773 Isaac Backus, a New England Baptist minister, said when "church and state are separate, the effects are happy, and they do not interfere with each other: but where they have been confounded together, no tongue nor pen can describe the mischiefs that have ensued." Even with Christian fundamentalism on the march, that pillar has not been destabilised. There are no state-funded faith schools in the US, no established church and no bishops and mullahs instructing national politicians the way they do here.

We could emulate the best of the US instead of endorsing its worst instincts. Under the existing relationship of master and servant neither is possible.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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