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Brexit Will Be The Nail In The Coffin For The Special Relationship

26/04/2017 11:34
Nicola Ferrari via Getty Images

The special relationship between Britain and America has never been a relationship of equals. Beside the bulk of the United States' huge military and economic strength, Britain is puny by comparison -- our GDP is about the size of California's. We comfort ourselves by the fact that though our army may be small, our Special Forces carry sizeable clout. Our Secret Intelligence Service is distinguished and highly regarded. We once had a huge Empire. We remain -- for the next two years at least -- at the centre of the largest trading bloc in the world, the European Union. But the great question about the special relationship remains -- is it little more than a fond figment of the Atlanticist imagination? For what can Britain offer America? Are we destined ever to be more than the United States' favourite poodle?

The success of the special relationship relies in no small part on the personal compatibility of the President and the Prime Minister of the day. In that sense, it is a relationship as volatile and onerous as any other -- one that can collapse in betrayal and reignite in passionate agreement.
The alliance between Britain and America is only ever as good as its last deal. The breakdown in the relationship between Lyndon B. Johnson and Harold Wilson in the sixties was a powerful demonstration of that. Johnson's Defense Secretary Robert McNamara came up with a chilling definition of how the US saw the special relationship: "In the end", said McNamara, "it's about whether the Brits are prepared to pay the blood price." Johnson was incensed by Wilson's simultaneous reluctance to join the mire of the Vietnam War and desire to become the President's best friend. He described the Prime Minister privately as "a little creep camping on my doorstep." But in public, all niceties were observed, with chummy photo-calls and nothing but handsome praise for one another.

Beneath the honeyed sound-bites there always lurks the 'Blood Price' question. Tony Blair recognized this more than any other Prime Minister. When the cheque came in the form of the 9/11 attacks and the ensuing War on Terror, Blair paid up in full, at the expense of countless Iraqi lives.

Blair's rationale was obscured by his staunch commitment to the President: "I'm with you, whatever," he told Bush. Those were fervent years, when the special relationship resembled a moral crusade and Winston Churchill -- who first coined the term -- was invoked at almost every discussion of British involvement in the US invasion of Iraq.

There was a marked coolness in the ensuing Obama-Cameron liaison. After the heady ride-or-die years of Blair and Bush, it was self-consciously measured by comparison. Obama removed the bust of Winston Churchill from his Oval Office, which was seen as a mark of his desire to distance himself from the previous bloodthirsty implications of the special relationship. During a televised meeting with the President of France, Obama threw more cold water on the Anglo-American affair when he said that the US "doesn't have a stronger friend and ally than Nicolas Sarkozy and the French people."

We are now entering a new and uncharted phase of the special relationship. During the 2016 Presidential election campaign, the unexpected success of the Brexiteers in the British EU referendum gave a significant boost to Donald Trump's confidence. The Leave camp's victory was a triumph of right wing populism, which Trump viewed as an appetizer to his entrée into the White House. "This will be Brexit plus, plus, plus!" he told rapt crowds in the run up to the November 8 vote.

In recent months, Britain and the US have embarked on different journeys of self-discovery in parallel with one another, with Trump and May at the respective helms. Britannia parts the waves, casting herself off from Europe to float listlessly on the seas she once commanded. America turns inward, intent on building an epic wall and creating a great fortress out of what was once a sanctuary. Both countries share a crippling, misty-eyed nostalgia for times past. In a bid to end mass immigration and keep jobs away from alien hands, Brexiteers cry "We Want our Country Back!", while Republicans promise to "Make America Great Again", harking back to a mythic era when our countries were all ours, from the Redwood Forest to the Green and Pleasant Land. Similar divides currently exist on both sides of the pond, between young and old; between liberal metropolitan elite and disenfranchised poor; between London and the North; between the coastal cities and the Rust Belt.

Following the turbulent events of 2016, we now have two leaders who, on paper, could scarcely be more different. Clipped, cautious Theresa May ostensibly has nothing in common with the brash, libidinous, billionaire former reality TV star. But the same could have been said for the grocer's daughter who danced with an ex-Hollywood cowboy at a White House ball thirty years ago. "We in Britain think you are a wonderful President", Margaret Thatcher said of Ronald Reagan, and the two quickly found they shared the same fundamental beliefs as fervent anti-Communists, low-taxers and free marketeers. Over the next decade, they together embraced both neoliberalism and a close political partnership that resembled a movie-star romance.

Perhaps a sequel, then, for our two leaders today. Trump and May have both touted themselves as deal-or-no-deal politicians. May insists that "no deal is better than a bad deal" going into the Brexit negotiations. Trump, meanwhile -- the author of The Art of the Deal -- has shown the same attitude with regard to his healthcare reform, abandoning his long-pledged bill when he found he didn't have the votes in Congress.

It comes as something of a reassurance that President Trump is such an instinctive supporter of the UK's withdrawal from the European Union. At the grand opening of his golf course in Scotland, he declared that "Brexit will be very good for Britain". The iconic image of the President and the Prime Minister holding hands at the White House suggests a new and unexpected intimacy to the special relationship. Trump has even restored the Churchill bust to its plinth in the Oval Office.
Britain and America will always share an affinity and a history. We will always be able to riff off the pronunciation of aluminium and argue over whether they're fries or chips. The Anglo-Saxon bond between the people of both countries will never fade -- and our leaders won't deny us the smiles and hand-holding charm of the odd photo call or state visit.

But as Theresa May prepares for a snap general election before entering the negotiating chamber at Brussels, Britain and America's political future together looks rather more bleak. Within two years, Britain will lose its place as a central power within the European Union. The special relationship forms a key part of May's plan for "a truly global Britain" as she seeks out trade deals that will replace those the UK had automatically as part of the EU. But sitting in the White House is the most protectionist President the United States has seen in over a century, who vows above all else to put "America first".

British leaders can no longer pledge -- as they have since we joined the EEC in 1973 -- to act as the proud interlocutor between the EU and the US. One of the key structures of the special relationship will fall away: the "bridge of understanding", as Blair called it, between Europe and America will be broken. US Secretary of State Dean Acheson's view, spoken more than fifty years ago, holds truer than ever: "Britain has lost an Empire and has not yet found a role". Soon, Britain will also lose the European Union, and perhaps Scotland too, shrinking its position in global affairs yet further. A disunited Kingdom, lying alone and forgotten on the edge of the Atlantic, may come to find that the special relationship with our American cousins is not so special after all.

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