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A Brief History Of Not-Very Special Relationships

April 22, 2017

I was a child of about 13 when I was round a mate's house playing a computer game (Tron, I think), when we had to unplug the console and plug the telly back in because my mate's mother wanted to watch the news. We sighed and did as we were told (we were good lads) and sat and watched the news with her. The news story I remember very clear from that day was Margaret Thatcher state visit to Ronald Reagan's Unites States of America.


Even my young teenage self was clearly capable of cynicism because me and my mate watched in dismay as Thatcher got as pally and as obsequious as it was possible for two leaders to get. I wanted to wash my eyes out after seeing it. The memory is still there, determined to haunt me to an early grave. 

Except of course it always gets worse. Always. The sight of professional handbag carrier and milk denier Thatcher smiling and waving at the media in April 1981 (I checked) with her old film star buddy and neoliberal comrade-in-arms Reagan is indeed a terrible memory, but UK/US love-ins are like Olympic records: someone always comes along to make the old ones look out of date and ridiculous in comparison. 

Ronald Reagan famously never told dear Margaret about the US invasion of Commonwealth island nation Grenada in 1983, which, if anything, demonstrates the old adage that the US doesn't have friends, just interests. (Although it is possible that Ron was still a bit cheesed off about Maggie's diplomacy-free adventure in the South Atlantic the previous year.) But before those two lovers of turbo-charged capitalism became a transatlantic item, the term 'special relationship' had been around to describe the bond between the UK and US since 1946, when Churchill used it in a speech.


Before then, Britain clearly saw the changing of the imperial guard and threw its lot in with the Americans in order to preserve the gutter-laden fag end of empire.  

But other than Harold Wilson's 1964-68 government and its refusal to commit the UK to the jungle-death that was the US's interference in Vietnam, it's difficult to think of examples of the UK telling their bestest best friend where to stick it, although John Major came close (see below).

Thatcher and Reagan were obviously close politically and economically, and perhaps that's where the real rot set in, when deregulation and unfettered market forces were unleashed on the two countries around the same time, leading to greater military ties. Either way, the rot has stayed. Thatcher's chosen successor, the anonymous accountant-like John Major evidently lived in simpler times, because he chucked his not inconsiderable weight behind Bush Snr in 1992, much to Bill Clinton's annoyance; the old thinking being that Tories support Republicans and Labour backs the Democrats.



But when Tony Blair came along in 1997 he really was determined to smash that cosy consensus, first by being Bill's big demin-shirted buddy, and then Bush Jnr's jumpered mate. This led inevitably to the famous/notorious 'shoulder-to-shoulder' comment Blair made as the Twin Towers lay smouldering, thence to Iraq. Alas not to the Hague. This BBF come-what-may thinking has infected everything ever since (we'll gloss over the continuation-of-Blairism-by-other-means interregnum of the brief, almost forgotten Brown years), pushing the 'special relationship' into truly vomit-inducing new realms of embarrassment.


Yes, Cameron had a huffy, public school fit over US president Obama's removal of the Churchill bust from the Whitehouse, but sadly that was just mere tinkering. Obama clearly made the error of thinking the UK was just some far-off third-rate island that mattered only when the US said it did. And even though he was right, he still had to pretend that no, the special relationship was truly a bond never to be broken when US diplomats thought our feelings were being hurt. 

And in 2017 we have no more Cameron or Obama; instead Theresa May and one Donald Trump strut the world stage like orange peacocks, although it May's case she can't strut and it's just her clothing that's tangerine-hued.  But as far as sycophantic fawning is concerned, May has clearly decided to go all out for the record. Whether this is partly in desperation to find some post-Brexit trade deal or whether she is just idiotic remains to be seen.


Personally I'm opting for the latter, and a state visit is already being put in place for the bewigged demagogue, and this is within a couple of weeks of the new president being sworn in. She doesn't mess about as far as slavish ingratiating is concerned.  So May rewrites the history of the special relationship once more, with the kind of uncritical, desperate, needy attitude that only a UK politician could have. And this is despite the criticism her party made of Trump during his election run, and despite most of the UK population and other world leaders seeing Trump for what he is: a lying billionaire opportunist used to getting his own way.

So the love-in continues; the rest of us just want it to end before a UK prime minister literally disappears up the fundament of a US president. Thatcher used steps to reach the presidential rear; Blair employed a tall stepladder to get closer to successive presidents' rectal openings, but May prostrates herself at the feet of the Trump-king, before greasing herself down and going up the crevice via a NASA rocket.


And as for realpolitik, the rest of us can see that the Americans are slightly bemused by the desperate sight of the prime ministerial need to be regarded as an equal, but humour us anyway; after all, the UK will be a useful landing strip when it comes to overseas wars, and we hardly ever spurn a shoulder-to-shoulder opportunity to hang on to the coat-tails of the biggest military power in the world, hoping some of the magic power dust will sprinkle itself on us. My teenage self would be appalled that the toxic one-sided special relationship just gets unimaginably worse with each passing prime minister, and that there's even worse things than Thatcher and Reagan. 



Dave Beamish for Political Provocateur










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