A new prime minister will be making their first visit to Washington, or a new president their first to London, and an editor will require instant analysis – what was it, does it still exist, what are its fortunes with these new leaders at the helm?
So you hem and haw, dig out Winston Churchill’s original quotation, waffle a bit about shared transatlantic values, find some data about trade and security cooperation, and agree that while it may not be what it was once, it’s still special enough. Kind of.
This week, Donald Trump posted a tweet that called into question the viability of the arrangement. In doing so he presented Britain with a glorious opportunity to finally withdraw itself from this toxic, ruinous relationship, ditch its dangerous, post-colonial mindset and reassess with transparency, its true place in the world.
First, the Churchill bit. In 1946, having beaten, with the game-changing help of the US and Russia, the forces of Nazi Germany but having lost the election to Clement Attlee’s Labour Party, Churchill was in the US on a lecture tour. Speaking at Westminster College, in Fulton, Missouri, he for the first time used the phrase “special relationship” to speak of the strength of feeling that existed between the two nations.
Even then, broken by the war effort, with large parts of its empire demanding independence and not in a position to end food rationing at home for another eight years, Britain was always the junior partner.
Desperate to try to retain influence in the changing, post-war landscape and justify its seat on the UN Security Council, Britain clung to the US like a limpet. In 1953, it became the third country to develop a nuclear weapon.
Some say the relationship has benefited Britain. Today, the US is Britain’s second largest trading partner and the countries enjoy an intelligence and security relationship that has few rivals.
It was such that in 1990, as the US and UK pondered how to respond to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, Margaret Thatcher felt able to tell a reportedly cautious George HW Bush: “This is no time to go wobbly”.
Whatever the truth about the nature of the relationship – the US has, in different ways, equally important relationships with Canada, Israel and China – it has poisoned Britain’s thinking. Desperate to please Washington, Britain has repeatedly rolled over and done America’s bidding at crucial points over the last 70 years.
The most outrageous recent example of this was Tony Blair’s decision to support George HW Bush’s son, when he decided to finish off his father’s work and invade Iraq in 2003. Blair knew the intelligence that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction was at best shaky, but he committed British lives and money to the invasion nonetheless. (“I will be with you, whatever,” Blair told him.)
A total of 179 British and 4,424 US troops lost their lives; the number of Iraqis who died as a result of the invasion is probably in the millions. Last year, following the publication of the scathing report by Sir John Chilcot, Blair defended his actions a decade earlier. “I believe we made the right decision and the world is better and safer.”
It is this excess of hubris that has led Britain’s relationship with the US since the Second World War. It is the same myopia that led opportunists such as Boris Johnson to fantasise of a second Elizabethan age. It’s what leads people such as Piers Morgan to pine for a British empire that was in truth responsible for wholesale slaughter, plunder and theft.
Curiously, Donald Trump has given us a neat way out of this. This week, he retweeted three videos purporting to show Muslim attacks on non-Muslims that had originally been posted by the far-right organisation Britain First.
Theresa May was as mild as a field of wheat in her response. Her office issued a statement saying the real estate tycoon was “wrong” to have retweeted the videos.
Even that was enough to upset Trump. “Don’t focus on me, focus on the destructive radical Islamic terrorism that is taking place within the United Kingdom,” Trump tweeted. “We are doing just fine!”
This is where May needs to show some fire. She should condemn in the strongest terms, the bigoted Trump’s tweeting of this bigoted organisation. She should tell him he is not welcome to visit Britain’s multicultural nation until he learns some manners and makes an effort to appreciate that his own family of German origin travelled to make their fortune in a nation that is made up almost entirely of immigrants.
If that upsets him, all the better. It would provide the opening for her to tell him Britain has had enough of his special relationship nonsense, that we’re not going to support any more illegal invasions or waterboarding of prisoners or tolerate and look away from his inflammatory behaviour. She should tell him the US needs to get its bombers out of Diego Garcia, so that Britain can give it back to the Chagossians.
If she needs a cue, she might look to Hugh Grant’s prime minister in the movie Love Actually. “I fear that this has become a bad relationship,” he tells the Americans. “A relationship based on the president taking exactly what he wants and casually ignoring all those things that really matter to, erm, Britain.”
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