WASHINGTON - Fourth of July dawned grey and muggy in the American capital. Like everything else in Washington, the British Embassy was closed. But the veteran UK ambassador, Sir Nigel Sheinwald, was working.
The embassy contains more than a few sacred World War Two relics of the "Special Relationship" between the UK and the US, among them a bust of Winston Churchill that George W. Bush borrowed for the Oval Office, but on the American holiday, Sir Nigel was instead focused on a different Special Relationship: that of Will and Kate, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. The royal couple will visit Los Angeles later this week, a city Sir Nigel knows well, having first visited as a university student in the 1970s, then as political attache for the embassy in the 1980s and now as UK ambassador since 2007.
He has seen to it that Will and Kate touch all the right spots in three days, starting Friday: visits to inner city schools, community service programs, a trade event, dinner with 42 British movie actors, a charity polo match.
The trip will be one of the last headline-grabbing events that Sir Nigel oversees. At 58, he will soon return to London after more than four years as ambassador. With his flight back home scheduled for January, he took time from the royal logistics and other work to speak with The Huffington Post UK on the eve of its launch to talk about his time in America, how he thinks he two countries view each other, and where the Special Relationship stands politically and culturally on the 235th anniversary of America's Declaration of Independence.
Howard Fineman, Editorial Director, The AOL Huffington Post Media Group: How does it feel to be a Briton in America on July 4th?
Sir Nigel: It brings home several things. First of all, there was a lot of British thought in the Declaration of Independence. A lot of the philosophy, a lot of the underpinning came from the British philosophers of that period. But of course what the revolution allowed, what the separation allowed, was the development of an extraordinary relationship over the last couple of centuries. There were of course some problems in the early years.
You are a master of understatement. “The Separation.” And you burned Washington, DC!
I was going to say that we are about to mark the 200th bicentennial of the War of 1812. I’m very conscious as the British Ambassador in Washington of what went on in 1814. [British soldiers burned the White House, the Capitol and the Navy yard.]
How do you commemorate burning the White House?
Well you don’t commemorate the burning of the White House. You observe and celebrate the way the relationship has changed over time and the way it developed in the 20th century into a real alliance for peace and security in the world. And that didn’t come naturally. It started off with a great deal of mutual suspicion. But it matured into an extraordinarily effective alliance and relationship.
And now we have Will and Kate to share. Why do Americans care so much – some say more than Britons do?
I think there is a celebrity element in it. I also think that big national occasions in the UK, like the royal wedding, show us off and show our society off well – our military tradition, the complex layering of our society. They are great visual events. That’s why people like it. There isn’t anything easily comparable in the United States.
So you don’t find it ironic that, on this Fourth of July Weekend, a lot of Americans in California are spending their time preparing for the arrival of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge?
It’s not ironic; it is a strong point of our countries’ relationship.
What would most surprise people in the United States about the UK these days?
Perhaps how international it is. That is the standard picture of the United States: the melting pot. It is perhaps less well known about Britain. Because of our past imperial role there have always been those global links, but they have really expanded and intensified, and anyone who visits London or other British cities will come across a truly international microcosm.
If I could reverse that question, what aspect of life in the United States today that would most surprise the people in the UK?
For those who haven’t been here recently, probably the current mood of self-questioning and concern. And I understand why. We’ve all been through a financial crisis, a recession and two very difficult wars and a period of great challenge to our society.
You said recently that the US has several “special relationships” – with, for example, Canada, Mexico, Ireland and Israel. But isn’t ours unique because we were once one country?
The UK-US-relationship is not only “special” but also – as our Prime Minister Cameron and President Obama said during the president’s state visit to London in May – essential. The reason for that is three-fold. First of all, those deep historical links have led today to the most extraordinary degree of human interaction between countries. There are three million Americans visiting the UK every year; four and a half million Brits come here every year. We are still the top destination for your students going abroad. And there are three-quarters of a million people actually living here. So those human links are very important.
The economic relationship if a bit neglected by the media but it is a real powerhouse. We are still each other’s largest investors.
In the areas of security, defence, foreign policy, there is an intimacy, candour and depth to our relationship that is very unusual. Whenever there is a crisis in the world, we tend to find each other on the same side. We tend to share the same basic values and interests. And we both have a tradition – it is important to say this on the Fourth of July – of being prepared to make sacrifices on behalf of those values.
And it is the candour in the relationship, and informality, that is most important. We don’t always agree on things today, and we didn’t at any stage.
You’ve been in America, a student and diplomat, on and off for more than 35 years, and you were political counsellor here in the Reagan Years. Has the UK-US relationship changed much in that time?
As a preface let’s remember that today, here in London, a new statue of President Reagan is being unveiled in Grosvenor Square, close to the American Embassy, in the presence of our Foreign Secretary, William Hague, who read out a tribute to President Reagan from Lady Thatcher.
But, of course the relationship changes in some respects over time. What the countries faced in the 1980s seemed in some ways to be a more simple set of threats than what we face today. We were very preoccupied in the 1980s by the confrontation with the Soviet Union, and bringing the Cold War to an end without a bullet being fired by President Reagan, Prime Minister Thatcher and others working together.
Am I imaging it or have the roles of British people and voices grown in America in recent years? I’m talking about everyone and everything from Ricky Gervais and Simon Cowell to The Economist, FT, “War Horse” on Broadway and of course Murdoch.
There’s always been a great deal of cultural interplay. British people had a big role in Hollywood from the start. But I agree with you. I think it is very noticeable, very pervasive today. We don’t always play the good guys. In films there is the tradition of the “sinister Brit.” So we take the rough with the smooth.
There is almost a sense, the history of “sinister Brits” aside, of Brit authority right now in America.
It certainly makes me very pleased and proud that some of our news organisations have that international reputation.
You’ve spent more than nine years here, all told, and you will soon be returning to England. Aside from the British Embassy, what are some of your favourite spots in America?
I’m a Londoner, and I love cities. And I have enjoyed getting to know New York and Chicago and getting to understand LA, which I hadn’t done when I first came here as a student in the 1970s. But the thing which most stands out for me – and this is pretty standard for a European – is once you get out and about in the United States. We had a holiday last year in the Southwest, in Utah, New Mexico and Colorado. We were stunned by the natural beauty but also getting to know the native Indian culture.
Again, to turn it around, what have you most missed about London and the UK and what will you be most glad to get back to?
London is a great and maybe unique city. It sets a high standard as a place to live. There are some American cities which are competing to compare with it, but London remains great in every way: in the cultural life, in the business life.
There is a “friendly” soccer match in Washington later this month between Manchester United (which is now owned by an American) and F.C. Barcelona – a repeat of the European Cup. Will you attend and will you root for Man U?
Soccer is a great British export of course. Unlike baseball or American football, soccer is a genuinely global game.
What is your team?
My team, no one objects to: Charlton Athletic, a team from southeast London, where we live. It’s not like supporting one of the great teams, the big teams and it has had better days.
Do they reserve Charlton Athletic for diplomats, so they don’t offend anyone?
Definitely not! I’m a southeast Londoner, and that’s one of our teams.
Thanks so much for making time on the Fourth of July, of all days, Sir Nigel when I know that you are busy preparing to go to Los Angeles for the arrival of Will and Kate. We look forward to speaking to you again when you’re back in London with your family next year.