The myth of U.K.-U.S. “special” relationship

Hasan Suroor

It has taken British MPs “60-odd years” to realise the myth of Britain's “special” relationship with the U.S.

Perhaps some 60 years too late, as one commentator noted, but at last Westminster has got round to recognising the reality behind the myth of Britain's much-vaunted “special relationship” with America though even now it is not certain that the British government will bite the bullet.

In arguably the most frank assessment of British-U.S. relations to come out of Westminster in a long time, an influential cross-party parliamentary committee has said that there is nothing “special” about this relationship and the government should stop using the term because it doesn't reflect the real state of play between London and Washington and is “potentially misleading.”

In a hard-hitting report, the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, chaired by Labour MP Mike Gape, says that the phrase “special relationship” has come to be identified too closely with British-American invasion of Iraq and conjures up the image of a “subservient” Britain behaving like an American “poodle.”

“The perception that the British government was a subservient ‘poodle' to the U.S. administration leading up to the period of the invasion of Iraq and its aftermath is widespread both among the British public and overseas. This perception, whatever its relation to reality, is deeply damaging to the reputation and interests of the U.K.,” the report points out.

Arguing that the idea of a special relationship, envisaged by Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt in the Second World War, is dead in the waters, the committee says “The use of the phrase ‘special' in its historical sense, to describe the totality of the ever-evolving U.K.-U.S. relationship, is potentially misleading, and we recommend that its use should be avoided. The overuse of the phrase by some politicians and many in the media serves simultaneously to devalue its meaning and to raise unrealistic expectations about the benefits the relationship can deliver to the U.K.”

In a swipe that will particularly embarrass Downing Street, the committee urges the government to be “less deferential and more willing to say ‘no' to the U.S.” where its own interests are at stake. Echoing the widely held view that it is too much of a one-sided affair with Britain doing all the heavy-lifting to please the Americans, it calls for a “more hard-headed political approach” and pointedly refers to instances where Americans have taken unfair advantage of Britain's supine attitude. These include CIA's allegedly clandestine use of British territory for transporting terror suspects to torture cells in third countries — the so-called “extraordinary rendition” of prisoners.

“We recommend that the government should establish a comprehensive review of the current arrangements governing U.S. military use of facilities within the U.K. and in British overseas territories,” it says.

Actually, the report merely confirms what has been common knowledge since Dwight Eisenhower was said to have questioned the idea of a special relationship as far back as the early 1950s calling it a hangover from the past.

Few other “special” relationships have been as unequal as the one between Britain and America. To most Britons, the term reminds them of Tony Blair slavishly taking orders from George W. Bush , and Gordon Brown chasing Barack Obama through the United Nations kitchens last autumn to catch his attention after the U.S. President reportedly turned down no fewer than five requests for a bilateral meeting.

Americans — ever the pragmatists with little time for sentimentality — have never really cared how the relationship is characterised so long as they get the Brits to do their bidding. To keep visiting British prime ministers in good humour, their American hosts go through the motions of referring to the “historic” ties between their two countries and invoking the “spirit” of Churchill-Roosevelt partnership but that is where it ends.

Ewen MacAskill of The Guardian says this “excruciating ritual” has a long history dating back “at least” to the Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. And this is how it went: “... lobby journalists accompanying her on a trip to Washington would ask the President of the day or his officials about the ‘special relationship.' Briefed in advance by the British embassy or U.S. State Department about this peculiar cultural tic, the Americans would happily confirm it was still in place. It did not cost them anything. To this day, any deviation is treated by the British media as a snub.”

Under the Obama administration which is more keen on cultivating China and other emerging powers than collecting brownie points from a has-been colonial power even this pretence at humouring the British has stopped, often causing much anguish in London. Britain is yet to “get it” that times have changed and feels slighted when Washington doesn't give the importance that it believes it is entitled to by virtue of their special relationship. Even small issues like President Obama not holding a full-scale press conference with Mr. Brown, as happened when he visited Washington last year, are blown up and portrayed as a “snub”— forgetting as Mr. MacAskill pointed out that a “visit by Gordon Brown to the White House is no more important than that of, say, the Israeli prime minister” and certainly “it is not as important as a visit by the Chinese president....”

Judging from the Foreign Affairs Committee's report, the penny appears to have dropped finally. And though — as John Charmley, professor of modern history at the University of East Anglia, pointed out in The Times — it has taken British MPs “60-odd years” to realise the myth of Britain's “special” relationship, better late than never.