Magazine article The Spectator

Sorry: There Is No Such Thing as the Special Relationship

Magazine article The Spectator

Sorry: There Is No Such Thing as the Special Relationship

Article excerpt

We've got enough pollution around here already without Harold coming over with his fly open . . .

peeing all over me. Lyndon Baines Johnson, 1965 The words 'special' and 'relationship' contain within them an endless multiplicity of meaning, all the more so, paradoxically, when they are deployed in combination. You may describe your relationship with another person as most definitely 'special' if you lavish love and affection upon them, and in return they break your glasses and spit on your shoes. In this case, the word 'special' would mean out of the ordinary, unusual in its lack of reciprocity; not the sort of relationship one might expect. A relationship so one-sided that it might have been drawn from the works of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch could quite accurately be defined as 'special', especially if the submissive party wished to dignify the affair and delude itself.

Great Britain has a 'special relationship' with the United States of America, or so we repeatedly tell ourselves and are assured of such by American politicians. This week an ICM poll for the Guardian suggested that 63 per cent of the population here think that Tony Blair has 'tied' Great Britain too closely to the US, a belief held by some 68 per cent of Conservative voters. They may well be right. Blair is an extraordinarily astute politician, well attuned to the shifting sands of public opinion -- if not actually governed by them. And yet he has afforded unflinching support these last six years to an American administration which is not merely unpopular in Britain, but actually derided. Why has he done this? I've asked some of his more hostile Labour colleagues -- the usual suspects -- the question on many occasions and they always reply 'hubris': he is seduced by the illusion of power by association.

And yet it is a hubris which has afflicted every British prime minister since Churchill.

The quotation at the start of this article is a typically salty aside from LBJ to an aide shortly before the then British premier, Harold Wilson, was due to land in Washington for an official visit. It marked the low point of Anglo-US relations since the end of the second world war. At this time, 1965, the US was prosecuting a catastrophic and costly war against the North Vietnamese -- a war which was hugely unpopular in Europe. The British position was not to get directly involved, but to 'give moral support to our major ally', which is what, publicly, we did. But this support, almost unique at the time, was not enough for LBJ; he wanted our proper commitment, and our troops.

Nine years earlier John Foster Dulles told the United Nations that, 'with a heavy heart', the US government could not possibly support Britain's and France's assault upon Port Said in an attempt to regain control of the Suez Canal.

With hindsight, there is probably a slightly better case to be made for the war against the supposedly communist North Vietnam than Eden's obsessive and wicked machinations against President Nasser, although there is not much in it. But my point is this: in two parallel situations, the US behaved as it always does -- with pragmatism and selfinterest -- and Britain behaved with moral cowardice and against our self-interest, in order to preserve that 'special relationship'. It is a relationship entirely bereft of reciprocity. …

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