Tuesday, March 03, 2009

The Special Relationship

Well, Mr.Brown is off to see President Obama, perhaps the most glamorous politician in the world.

There will doubtless be much talk of "The Special Relationship" between the United Kingdom and the United States. There will be no end of smugness at Number 10 that Gordon Brown, rather than Angela Merkel or Nicolas Sarkozy, was the first across the threshold of the Obama Oval Office.

It seems then perhaps churlish to ask what precisely is the benefit that Britain receives from this Special Relationship with the hyper-power? To do so is question the very basis of current British foreign policy.

Macmillan, whose premiership matched that of Tony Blair for gesture and rhetoric, once suggested that Britain was wise old Greece to America's warlike Rome. The Americans had a clearer view, as Dean Acheson, Trueman's Secretary of State famously once said: "Great Britain has lost an Empire and still not found a role".

It is still true today.

Talking to Ministers in several Central and Eastern European states there is profound frustration with the failure of the UK to engage with the European Union. These countries are- if anything- even more pro-American than Britain, and yet they are not afraid to express this within a European context. The point that Europhobic Conservatives miss repeatedly -and David Cameron spectacularly when he was in Washington- is that British membership of the European Union is now central to how the Americans see the UK: and a major point in our favour.

Nevertheless there remains a significant minority amongst the Conservatives who can see nothing positive whatsoever in the European Union and advocate our immediate withdrawal. Frankly this is such nonsense that even the Conservative leadership rejects it totally. Despite this, the headbanging Tory Europhobes, such as Daniel Hannam or Ambrose Evans Pritchard, continue to write journalism that has more to do with wish fulfilment than the objective truth.

Yet the even the fairly clear position of the Conservative leadership is not one without its ambiguities. Instead of saying that our membership of the EU is a given but that we should now try to shape it to our own policy ends- which would be greeted with delight in many other EU states. They continue to hint that withdrawal could still be an early option- even though privately they actually firmly reject getting out.

There remain fantasists who truly believe that the Commonwealth could be an alternative pole for British foreign policy- despite the obvious fact that Canada, Australia and New Zealand, never mind India or the African states now have only incidental and occasional contact with the UK, outside of the military sphere.

The economic prosperity of Britain does not rest on our sentimental alliances with the Old Commonwealth, nor even the more immediate NATO alliance which includes the United States. It rests upon our position as members of the European Union; it is the central pillar in the way that both the US and the Old Commonwealth interact with the UK, even when many of our leaders appear equivocal or partial in support of our membership. A British foreign policy that ignores this central fact is absurd.

Yet, of course absurd is what Gordon Brown does so well. His obvious competition with the leaders of the other EU majors: Germany and France to see Obama first had more than the air of a West End farce. A further irony being that the Brown government has tried to get a series of stitch-ups agreed with Berlin and Paris- to a chorus of outraged protests from the smaller member states. Whereas the pro-American East of Europe once looked to London to offset the arrogance of France and the indifference of Germany, there is now a wearied recognition that Brown is, if anything, a worse option. Britain, it is said from Ljubljana to Tallinn, will not engage and not deliver. the determination to be "more Royalist than the King" with regard to the Americans has quite often worked to the disadvantage both of the US and the UK- and contrary to the expressed policy positions of the White House. The "I'm with stupid" foreign policy of the Bush-Blair era served neither country well- even if Bush awarded Blair America's highest decoration.

The time has come for a grown up reappraisal of Britain's place in the world. In my lifetime the way people talked about Britain was that we could still do something: we could still send a task force in 1982, for example. Nothing could better reflect the mindset of decline. The time has come to speak of the future with more confidence and to stop neurotically using the Special Relationship as some all purpose security blanket. We need to focus on certain key realities. we are, and are likely to remain members of the European Union: we should focus on democratic reform within the institution. Before some defeatist Conservative says that this is bound to fail, I would simply point out that the Cockfield project to create the Single Market was very much a British initiative and was more or less the only time that the UK has been fully engaged with the EU. It has been a startling success. I believe that if the UK engages with the European Union on the side of reform, then there is a majority amongst the member states that will support reform.

Of course Britain is a unique country: a state of nations rather than a nation state. It is also the root of the English language and with it perhaps the richest and certainly the oldest vernacular literature in Europe. Our multi-faceted cultural identity makes us tolerant and welcoming to strangers. Even today a mixed race man like President Obama is an extreme rarity in America, which is perhaps why he self-identifies as African-American. Yet in the UK more than a quarter of West Indians marry outside their community and there are tens of thousands of mixed relationships. Whatever Martin Luther King may have thought, it really is a whole lot easier to regard a black man as your brother if he is also your brother-in-law. That openness and diversity reflect the strength of our primordial roots. The English laws that can be traced to Magna Carta or even to Egbert of Wessex and Edmund Ironside; the learning passed down by the Scottish mystics of Iona and Whithorn; the laws of Hywel Dda, continue to inform our identity even today.

The time has come to evaluate our place in the world with more confidence and certainty than we have been able to muster since the end of our Imperial pipe dreams. We are a unique state, but we exist within a European, NATO and global context. We have a practical and emotional alliance with the United States, but we are also linked by the same bounds as Germany and France. We have supported the freedom of our eastern neighbours through the cold war and we should redouble our efforts to reinforce economic security there. We also have some moral obligations to the Wretched of the Earth, perhaps because -not least- we used to rule so many of them.

A Special Relationship- well yes.

But not the only relationship.

3 comments:

coldcomfort said...

The 'Special Relationship', if it ever existed at all, died for the first time when, immediately after the end of WWII the US demanded repayment of its' war loans from a bankrupt Britain. It died for the second time when the US (rightly) refused to support the Suez adventure. It died again when Harold Wilson (rightly) refused to send troops to Vietnam and so on. It really is high time we buried it.

Newmania said...

The economic prosperity of Britain does not rest on our sentimental alliances with the Old Commonwealth, nor even the more immediate NATO alliance which includes the United States. It rests upon our position as members of the European Union;
80% of our trade is internal and , we were not a protectionist country in the first place. The "rest of the world" against whom you wish to erect protectionist barriers is gropwing by comparison to the EU every yeaar.
This is like claiming the prosperity 0f London depends on the GLA and if Germany wishes to stop wselling us BMW I will

a Faint
b Live with it

The EU contrinbutes a big zip to our security and cannot even sort out its back yard. The arguement for membership has always been one that seeks to pretend this is a small and insignificant country and you continue this long tradition

What we need is a Common Market. We do not need to be ruled by foreigners.
I am at aloss as to why you should be so keen on thids elitist betrayal of the Nation and I can only explain it by some residula loathing of England and the greater England that was Britain.

Cicero said...

As usual Newmania you engaage your "gut feelings" without actually engaging your brain. *0% of trade is internal? What total baloney. Trade, by definition is external- I think you may mean that 80% of economic activity is domestic, but that is simply meaningless. We are talking about Trade and if you can not tell the difference then perhaps you might want to learn a bit more before you come and try to share your ignorance with the big boys.