UK Prime Ministers, of whatever colour, bang on about ‘the special relationship’ with the US. In fairness, all US Presidents refer, in return, to ‘a special relationship’ with the UK. The difference between the two positions is small; so small that some don’t even notice the difference when people speak, but the use of the indefinite article highlights a huge gulf in what the phrase means.
For the US, the relationship with the UK is one of a number of ‘special relationships’; it’s not unique. The degree of ‘specialness’, as well as the number of such relationships varies over time, depending on the perceived interests of the US at any given point. That difference was highlighted by the fact that the UK Prime Minister was apparently around eighth on the list to receive a call from the President-elect. For the UK, there is one and only one such relationship. That alone underlines that this is not as reciprocal as it is generally painted. It also tells us something about the attitude of successive UK governments; whilst they are always extremely keen to avoid upsetting the US, it doesn’t work the same way in the other direction.
The question which interests me is why UK governments are so keen on this particular relationship that they are prepared to prostrate themselves before whoever the US citizens elect to lead their country. There’s surely more to it than the parody in ‘Yes, Minister’ when Hacker gets so excited about the photos of him on the White House lawn appearing in the UK press.
It may stem partly from the linguistic connection. Churchill described the US and UK as “two countries divided by a common language”, but we shouldn’t underestimate the impact of direct communication unmediated by translation in the way people relate to each other. That language issue in turn isn’t unrelated to the imperial past; one of the glories of empire is, apparently, bequeathing the English language to the world, even if that language is increasingly, and with considerable justification, being referred to as American.
And that imperial past is relevant in another way as well: there are those who seem still to regard the US as some sort of wayward child, for which the ‘mother country’ still has a fond (if not always entirely deserved) regard. It’s yet another example of the way in which the UK establishment appear to be so attached to the past that they are determined to continue living there.
But, tempting as it is to regard all this as touching, not to say a little touched, it has at least two major problems for the citizens at large. In the first place, it means that much of what passes for UK foreign policy is decided in Washington rather than in London (it’s called ‘getting our country back’, apparently), even if those who benefit from that policy are also on the other side of the Atlantic; and the second is that it has been part of the reason, for decades, that the UK has failed to engage properly or enthusiastically with our more natural partners in Europe.
One of the reasons for de Gaulle’s vetoes on UK membership of the EEC was that he feared a US Trojan horse in the top councils of Europe. And I suspect that, on the one issue where a popular referendum has gone against the US’s wishes (for the UK to stay in the EU), the US policy was driven by exactly that which de Gaulle feared – a desire to have a tame voice in those councils.Even with a Trump government for which trade deals are about the US getting what it wants at everyone else’s expense, the siren voices of the US puppets are still telling us that the wayward child will make an exception for us, because we’re so ‘special’, despite all the hard evidence to the contrary. Just what will it take for the UK to wake up to reality and accept that it’s a middling size state in a global economy rather than a superpower ruling the waves in a two-country alliance? I suspect that the only thing that will achieve that is the end of the UK as a single state. And given where they’re now taking us, that can’t come soon enough.