The republican virtue of leaving yesterday behind

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AMERICAN inaugurations are a morning glory. I do not just mean that you can get high on them, or that they fade all too rapidly, though both points are true. I mean the 'morning' imagery which always attends them - the discourse of new dawns and springs.

Bill Clinton's inauguration was, in that respect, a beauty. It was held on a bright winter morning. It kicked off with Clinton's own disarming announcement about its symbolism. 'Today, we celebrate the mystery of American renewal. This ceremony is held in the depth of winter. But, by the words we speak and the faces we show the world, we force the spring . . .'

His inaugural address contained at least eight other references to rebirth, sunshine, the planting of crops. Then Maya Angelou read a poem which burst into dawn-imagery and finished:

'Here on the pulse of this new day

You may have the grace to look up

and out

And into your sister's eyes, into

Your brother's face, your country

And say simply

Very simply

With hope

Good morning.'

You might have expected Clinton to go on and sacrifice a goat on the White House lawn, raising a dripping flint blade towards the sun and crying: 'More wheat]' This glad-morning stuff is old hokum and yet it is - to me - a genial sort of hokum. Here was a deeply republican ceremony: cheerful, public, only loosely scripted, its bit-parts played by some ill-rehearsed figures who wore for the day the clothes they damned well felt like wearing.

Our state ceremonies, by contrast, are indoors, dusky, rehearsed to the last flourish of a silver stick, and polished like a boot's black-mirror toecap. More importantly, they are not fertility rites. They are acts of ancestor worship, which is not at all the same.

The essence of republicanism is a confidence that the rights of the present and the living have priority over the rights of the past and the dead. Bill Clinton remarked that 'though we march to the music of our time, our mission is timeless'. This subtly reverses British usage, in which the phrase 'music of time' (not of 'our' time) is a reverent bow to the compelling and continuing influence of the past. Most republics, in Europe or America, are wary of that kind of time-music. It seems to them a sound left over from the unregenerate night before, a discord to compromise the brightness and newness and 'nowness' of morning.

The exception here is Ireland. The 1916 Declaration of Independence began with: 'In the name of God, and of the dead generations from which she receives her old tradition of nationhood, Ireland summons her children to her flag and strikes for freedom . . .' The scalp prickles. The men and women who signed that declaration, many about to die themselves under British bullets, called themselves republicans. And yet isn't there something in that invoking of the ancestors which is almost English, something alien to the Enlightenment spirit from which most European republics sprang?

It is right to debunk the morning glory rhetoric of these Washington inaugurations. The American press adds its own pinches of salt to the catalogue of visions and promises. But some of the British comments about the new President have been merely rancid. The Daily Telegraph, for instance, declared its 'distaste for his predilection for political correctness', and compared Hillary Clinton, inexplicably, to Eva Peron. There is evidently nervousness about what the Clinton presidency may mean for Britain's standing in the world.

The late Francis Hope, the wittiest man I ever knew, once observed: 'When children are grown-up, it is time for parents to stand on their own feet.' This can apply to the Anglo- American relationship. It is no longer a 'special relationship'. For more than 30 years after the war, British politicians talked as if the partnership between Roosevelt and Churchill still led the 'Free World', but that myth is dead now. What survives is a dependence and a buried resentment about that dependence, both still difficult to admit or to discuss. Churchill's feelings about the United States were at once proud and paternal; he fancied he could recognise British features in this promising young giant. But 50 years on, as the middle-aged giant goes its own way, the parent is still finding difficulty standing on its own feet.

The policy of the new administration towards Europe will be a special test of this still unsteady British independence. James Baker, as Secretary of State to George Bush, made it plain that American policy was to support the deepening - not just the widening - of the Community. A European union, whether called federal or not, could cause some problems for the United States, but these would be outweighed by the importance of a coherent and decisive partner, capable of keeping order in its own continent and of defending itself to a greater extent than during the Cold War epoch.

It seems safe to predict that this will also be the policy of the Clinton administration. In fact a President committed to putting domestic policy first, will probably be even keener to see a united Europe prepared to take on responsibilities once left to American leadership. But Baker's words went down badly in London. What sort of reward for loyalty was this: to be pushed into a European federal union and lose the ancient sovereignty of the Mother of Parliaments simply in order to save the State Department time and trouble? Since 1979, Margaret Thatcher and now John Major have trotted obediently behind US foreign policy, remonstrating in private if at all. Britain was repaid once - lavishly - by American support during the Falklands war. But that was 11 years ago. Is Britain not due for a little more appreciation?

To this, President Clinton might put a counter-question: what do I get out of continuing the support in hardware and technology which makes Britain's 'independent' nuclear deterrent possible? The answer, which he will not hear from London, is: nothing whatever. In fact, if it is true that Clinton is at least as interested in European union as his predecessor, then the British and French nuclear forces can only obstruct his plans. Their significance was never deterrent, always and only nationalist: the toy no toddler is prepared to share.

Wednesday's joyous-morning oratory was for home consumption. In the world outside, this is America's late afternoon. The New World Disorder is a condition in which 'superpower' has suddenly lost its meaning: big, medium and tiny nation-states can now devastate international arrangements. The common perception was that during the Cold War there was a balance of terror between two approximately equal superpowers. But it now begins to look as if the Cold War was the period in which the United States ruled the world almost unchallenged, whereas the aftermath - far from enthroning America as the unassailable global policeman - has turned out a period in which the United States began to lose control of the international process.

In short, it is the Americans who could be excused for a fit of nostalgia. But in all the speeches of Inauguration Day, there were few words about the past and certainly no promise to bring back a Golden Age. That spirit, not military power or wealth, is what we should envy. Great republic, have a nice day]