Britain and the US: Is It Really a 'Special Relationship'?

11/05/2016 12:04 | Updated 11 May 2016

For decades, Britain and the United States have formed a loyal alliance: the Anglo-American Alliance, the Anglo-American Partnership, call it what you will... What it isn't, however, is a 'Special Relationship'. In a recent trip to Washington D.C. last month I discovered that Britain actually mattered far more to America back in the late sixties/early seventies than it does today. Apparently, many Americans wouldn't even know the name of our prime minister, let alone the leader of the opposition. This isn't surprising. Take a look at any US newspaper and flick through to see if Britain gets a mention - it's highly unlikely you'll find much more than a side-columned memo. Nevertheless, the British press are currently obsessed with the US presidential election, eagerly anticipating the next move made by Donald Trump in his quest to rule the White House.

Despite the rumours, President Obama's comments on Brexit last month weren't staged by Downing Street. In stating that Britain would go 'to the back of the queue' in a trade deal if we were to leave the EU, Obama was intervening specifically because it was in America's interest to do so. He owes Cameron no favours. In many ways it's just a coincidence that both leaders are on the same page over Brexit; if Obama felt differently, he would say so. In light of the fact that many well-known Conservatives are backing Vote Leave, and articulating their message through the charisma of Boris Johnson, Obama's message undoubtedly helped the Remain campaign to stay afloat in what will be an incredibly tight vote on June 23rd. For Americans though, it's the state of the world economy that heightens their fears over Brexit and there is no doubt that, when it comes to foreign affairs, their nation comes first.

If the Anglo-American alliance was stronger back in the 1970s, it's hard to see how much closer we really were. In early 1975, Henry Kissinger commented to President Gerald Ford: 'Britain is a tragedy - it has sunk to begging, borrowing, stealing... That Britain has become such a scrounger is a disgrace'.* Later that decade, a CIA report issued to President Jimmy Carter in October 1979, stated: 'The "Special Relationship" between Britain and the US and the UK, finally, has lost much of its meaning. The US is no longer significantly closer to Britain than to its other major allies'.* Hardly encouraging words for the newly elected Margaret Thatcher to hear in her quest to repair the relationship that had deteriorated under the pro-European sentiment of her predecessor, Edward Heath.

There were, however, big gains to be had in allying close to America throughout the latter part of the twentieth century. During Thatcher's premiership her highly skilled first Foreign Secretary, Peter Carrington, took charge to work with the US in negotiating a peace settlement in Rhodesia, a task that Thatcher swiftly left in the more experienced hands of the Foreign Office, keen to distance herself from the male-dominated hierarchy of the Tory party. Both nations also worked closely in securing Détente following the Second World War. Additionally, Thatcher's relationship with President Ronald Regan was undoubtedly a huge help to both their administrations during their premiership. Without their ideological partnership it would have been far harder for the Conservatives to remain in power for so long under her watch.

There is no doubt that despite their different political stances, Cameron and Obama have successfully formed a formidable alliance in many areas concerning foreign affairs during their time in power. Both recognise the importance of working together to combat terrorism, the need to stabilize the escalating political scenes continuing in the Middle East, and both appear to get along (in front of the cameras, at least). So, there is still an Anglo-American alliance, a partnership that one hopes will continue for decades to come. It is, however, an alliance first and foremost, which is very different from a 'Special Relationship'.

* "Kissinger conversation with President Ford," Margaret Thatcher Foundation, 8 January 1975,

* "Cold War: CIA Assessment of US relations with Western Allies," Margaret Thatcher Foundation, 22 October 1979,