Politics Explained

Why Boris Johnson is right to want to ditch the term ‘special relationship’

The link between the US and the UK can be close and productive, and has been one of the more enduring in international relations. But, argues Sean O’Grady, there is nothing permanent about it, and frankly, it really isn’t that special anymore

Monday 07 June 2021 22:18 BST
Brexit overshadows Johnson and Biden’s relationship
Brexit overshadows Johnson and Biden’s relationship (AFP/Getty)

During his gripping recent testimony to a Commons committee, Dominic Cummings shed a little light on the relationship between Britain and America. In a day of chaos when lockdown, the American bombing of Syria and a press story about the prime minister’s “girlfriend” and their dog vied for the attention of Boris Johnson, one outcome was that the British declined the US invitation to join in the air assault. In the past, during say the Thatcher or Blair premierships, joining in with such a limited but powerful symbolic action would have been almost automatic. But times are changing.

Special relationship” is, arguably, one of the most vexed and least useful expressions in the British political vocabulary. According to well-informed reports in The Atlantic, it seems that Boris Johnson is sceptical about its usage, and dislikes it because it makes Britain seem “needy and weak”, and pushed back on it when President Biden used it, no doubt thoughtfully, in an inaugural phone call to Downing Street in January. It might just be a sign that Johnson is attempting to make the best of what will never be a particularly warm friendship with the Biden administration, given the president’s public aversion to Brexit and devotion to the Good Friday Agreement. For the prime minister, it might also be simply a recognition that the “special relationship” has been, mostly, fetishised by a succession of British diplomats and politicians, but largely neglected or ignored in Washington. Sadly, that has largely been due to the long-term decline in Britain’s power and influence since the Second World War.

Whether Brexit enhances or weakens the UK’s international status remains to be seen. It is, though, apparent that a UK-US free trade deal is as remote as ever. Despite his affinity with Brexit, Nigel Farage and Johnson, aka “Britain Trump”, Donald Trump’s trade policy was strictly America First and protectionist, and so is Joe Biden’s. When Barack Obama warned Britain it would be at the back of the queue for a trade deal if it voted for Brexit, he was merely stating the reality of the imbalance in the “special relationship”. Trade policy towards the UK has been more or less constant across the Obama, Trump and Biden administrations, and owes little to sentiment.

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