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The myth of the "special relationship"

Only when Britain finally realises that Europe is impotent will it make an effort with America again

By Simon Heffer

We Britons who grew up during the Cold War — or perhaps we should now call it the First Cold War — and whose first flush of adulthood coincided with the Reagan/ Thatcher era tend to have decidedly polarised views about America. Either we understand that rich, heavily armed America ultimately guaranteed freedom and security in Europe during that period, or we believe that American hegemony and imperial pretension prolonged international tensions, created client states — of which Britain, sometimes called the 51st state, was one — and sought in its cultural opposition to socialism to undermine pluralism. Most conservatives were in the former camp, noting that the arguments used against America could be deployed, with far more force and evidence, against the Soviet Union. For most conservatives and a substantial proportion of the centre-left in Britain between 1945 and 1989, the “special relationship” was far more than just a name; it signified the security of their democratic existence. 

There was always, however, a vein of anti-Americanism among conservatives, and those who felt such emotions were not always easily categorised. Within the British Conservative Party of the 1960s and early 1970s, for example, two of its leading men were notoriously polar opposites. One was J. Enoch Powell, a hardline economic liberal and anti-statist whose experience as a senior staff officer in the Second World War had left him as an isolationist with a deep skepticism about America. Powell served in opposition as defence spokesman under the leadership of Edward Heath, with whom he disagreed about almost everything apart from America. Heath’s own skepticism was rooted in his fanatical pro-Europeanism — he was the prime minister who in 1973 took Britain into what is now the European Union. To Heath, Europe was being designed as a nascent superpower, and America would simply be another rival requiring no special treatment. 

Powell had a huge following among centre-right Conservatives throughout the period from the mid-1960s until his death in 1998. Few of them, however, could understand his antipathy to America and many felt embarrassed by or uncomfortable with it. 

It was rooted in various assumptions and historic observations. First, Powell, who was born in 1912, grew up with the notion that it was a foreign policy aim of the Americans to rid Britain of its empire. In his papers after his death I found a yellowed cutting from the Times of India, dating from November 1943, featuring a report of a speech by Congresswoman Clare Boothe Luce in which she had announced that one of the main American war aims was to get the British out of India. Powell, who was a colonel in intelligence in Delhi at the time, annotated the cutting with a single exclamation mark in the margin. Earlier that year he had encountered Americans en masse for the first time, at the Casablanca conference, where he had been assisting Churchill’s delegation. He found their attitude to the war, their resources, and their men utterly alien. And although by 1956 he had entirely abandoned the idea of Britain as an imperial power, he was shocked at America’s behaviour during the Suez crisis, which he and others like him took as final proof of its perfidy. 

Suez knocked the trust in America of many British conservatives, and in any sense of a special relationship — a term first coined by Churchill to describe relations between all English-speaking peoples, but which, after the bond was formed between British prime minister Harold Macmillan and John F. Kennedy, came most potently to be used to describe the Anglo-American relationship. The smell of the perceived betrayal at Suez lingered on through the 1960s, during which time the British came to realise the omnipresent threat from the Soviet Union and noticed ever more keenly the repression in the police states of the Soviet bloc, which ran up to the border with West Germany, just a few hundred miles to the east. 

Despite Heath’s lack of enthusiasm for America during his premiership (1970–74), the bond became steadily stronger as the Soviet Union became more intransigent, notably after the events in Prague in August 1968. When Margaret Thatcher arrived in Downing Street in May 1979, she brought with her the strongest predisposition to act as a loyal ally of America. Jimmy Carter was not a soul mate, but from the moment of Ronald Reagan’s assumption of office in January 1981 the special relationship entered its most special phase yet. 

Even that legendary partnership was not completely unclouded. Enoch Powell and his followers — of whom there were many in the Conservative party during the Thatcher years — castigated America for its laxity over fundraising for the Irish Republican Army, and with good reason. That the flow of money from America to Ireland stopped almost dead after 9/11 made the point eloquently enough: there is nothing romantic about terrorism. It was also assumed that in making concessions to violent Republicans in Northern Ireland during the 1980s the British government was acting under pressure from the State Department, something that was never convincingly denied. 

American intervention was not viewed as entirely constructive during the Falklands War of 1982, when the then–Secretary of State Al Haig seemed attracted to the idea that there might be some room for negotiation about the islands’ sovereignty; the islanders themselves were totally opposed to being handed over to Argentina, something not everyone in the State Department could appreciate. Also, the decision by the Reagan administration to invade Grenada in 1983 deeply upset Margaret Thatcher. Grenada had until recently been a British colony, was part of the Commonwealth, and in what Britain regarded as part of its sphere of influence exempt, in its view, like the rest of its former Caribbean territories, from the Monroe Doctrine. However, relations were rapidly restored. Those years culminated in the Anglo-American triumph of ending the first Cold War, by bringing Mikhail Gorbachev not just to the negotiating table, but almost into the Western family. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the liberation of Eastern Europe was the finest hour of the special relationship. It has, however, been severely tested since, and the debate about its relevance and desirability has become louder. 

Nothing made most Britons feel closer to America than the shocking events of 11 September 2001. Of course, there were some in Britain who said America had somehow asked for it, by seeking to spread its hegemony around the world and, particularly, throughout the Middle East. There were some in Europe, notably in France, who resented the extension of American influence caused by its being the world’s sole superpower after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and this spread to Britain even before the intervention of America and its British allies in Afghanistan and Iraq. 

However, the great strain that has been put on the relationship in the last decade was caused by the determination of Tony Blair, in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, to force the British parliament to endorse his desire to march in step with George W. Bush. Some in Britain today regard Blair as a war criminal, and his unpopularity exceeds that of any other living British politician. That is all because, in seeking to persuade some of his MPs to support him in a crucial vote, he adduced evidence from what has been dubbed “the dodgy dossier” that, if left to his own devices, Saddam Hussein could launch a chemical weapons attack on the West in 45 minutes. That this turned out to be a war conducted by Britain on the basis of a lie was not America’s fault, but Bush suffered in British eyes through his association with Blair, and America came to be seen even by many moderate Britons as a belligerent, warmongering power. The outcomes in both Iraq and Afghanistan have only reinforced that view. Britain, at the moment, is undergoing a period of extended Americo-skepticism, mitigated only by the growing realisation that American television — we have all watched The Sopranos, Mad Men, The Wire, and Breaking Bad — is now just about the finest in the world. 

The Barack Obama experience has only enhanced this feeling. When he was elected in 2008, the liberal establishment in Britain — which, since the end of the Thatcher era, has led the formation of opinion in the country — welcomed him as a saviour, almost as a living God. This was for a number of reasons, some of them common to America. He was not George W Bush. He was not a Republican. He was a black man. He seemed to exude that brand of urban cool that leftists and liberals the world over regard as a pre-requisite to being taken seriously, even though it can have no possible bearing on a politician’s intelligence, competence, or judgment. 

But even the left in Britain now regards Obama as a disappointment. They feel he has done little to advance the international leftist agenda of promoting equality in every imaginable context and engaging in acts of economic redistribution. They lament his lack of vigour in extricating America from what the British left views as imperialist wars, and in closing Guantanamo Bay, which has come to have highly symbolic status in their circles as a representation of all that is evil and wicked about America. But perhaps most interesting of all — in what it tells us about the amour propre of the left — they have worked out that he isn’t really interested in Britain or, indeed, in much of the rest of the world. This was brought home to them when President Obama was first visited by the then–British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Brown was intensely pro-American, choosing to spend his holidays each summer at Cape Cod, and worshipping the economic doctrines of Alan Greenspan. As a gift for Prime Minister Brown the President chose a handful of Hollywood DVDs, the lack of heft of the present being further aggravated by the small fact than none would be compatible with a British DVD player. For good measure, Obama had also had removed from the Oval Office a bust of Winston Churchill. Brown returned wounded and feeling ill-treated, and it was left to David Cameron to try to patch things up after he became Prime Minister in 2010. 

Relations seem perfectly cordial, and there is no sign of hostility — Cameron, notionally a Conservative, is so far to the left of his party that he is probably also to the left of Obama — but there is no sign of any special warmth either. Nothing seems to have happened to improve Obama’s valuation of Britain as anything other than a junior ally in America’s cause in the world, and one in dealing with which the White House does not need to go to the expense of hiring an interpreter. 

What has happened in Ukraine may now change this dynamic. Europe has been scandalously remiss in running down its defences, oblivious to the notion that Russia might one day offer a threat again. The Obama administration’s chronic lack of interest in Europe may partly be explained by that. If Europe can’t be bothered to defend itself, why should Americans worry? 

The answer is simple, of course. If America wants to remain the only superpower, it has to accept responsibilities, even on behalf of feckless allies, to confront those who would challenge that status. 

Perhaps the Ukrainian crisis will work itself out in a way that forces an under-defended Europe to recognise how much it needs America to take charge of enforcing liberal, democratic values where they are threatened. Pending that, or the arrival in January 2017 of an American president who is less offhand in his or her regard for Britain, the special relationship will simply tick over. 

America is now looking to the Pacific. Britain is obsessed with looking at Europe. However, Europe is hopeless at standing up for itself. Only when Britain finally realises that Europe is impotent, and is happier to appease rather than to confront in the name of supposedly cherished common values, will it make an effort with America again. It had better hope that America, whose force of arms remains the greatest in the world, is still interested in defending its common moral heritage with little, fickle old Britain.