By Sam Saunders
It’s happened again. Another proclamation from the leaders of the UK and the USA that our two countries share a so-called ‘special relationship’ that somehow infers preferential treatment for either nation. The view that I’ve always held on this idea is that it flies in the face of historical evidence, and depends on the personal and ideological relationship between the two leaders. The main issue I have with the idea of the ‘special relationship’ is that it gives the UK a sense of self-importance, that, in my view, it no longer has. We don’t have an empire anymore, thank God, nor the same diplomatic or military reach as in the first half of the twentieth century. The problem is that continuing to believe in this fanciful idea of parity with the US allows us to deny reality and think that we’re still at the forefront of international politics, when clearly the US, China and Russia are instead.
The relationship was hardly ‘special’ under President Obama, who rightly put the rest of the world before the UK, instead emphasising relations with Europe and other countries. The most recent incarnation of this relationship is the Trump-May axis that has exploded across news websites in the past few days. Some may argue that with Brexit looming and Britain looking to reshape and redefine it’s role within the world, Theresa May is right to get cosy with the new president. However, the PM is clearly trying to force good relations where there is no possibility for them to exist, mostly due to the actions and comments of Donald Trump. Despite May’s efforts, even her best diplomacy can’t suppress the rage that many British people feel about the comments that Trump made before and during the presidential election campaign, which was on display in the protests that took place around the country last week. Another issue that Mrs May seems entirely capable of ignoring is that the political stances of the two leaders are completely at odds with one another. However much you disapproved of the PM’s policies during her time as Home Secretary, I think we can agree that she would never have advocated a shutdown of immigration from seven countries to combat terrorism, unlike the policy put in place by Trump. However, this shouldn’t surprise us, as history tells us that this isn’t an aberration on the special relationship.
The idea has its origins in a 1946 speech by Winston Churchill, who did of course have very good relations with President Roosevelt during World War Two, although even here there was a slight stumbling block in that Dwight Eisenhower was named Supreme Allied Commander, despite the fact that the majority of the operations were taking place on British soil, although the Americans provided almost all of the troops for the invasion of France. The relationship was probably at its best and most famous during the tenures of Reagan and Thatcher, which is the time that most people will remember and that Trump has referred back to, calling May ‘My Maggie’. The difference in this case, as I previously discussed, is that Thatcher and Reagan shared many of the same views on policy, as they were both believers in free market economics. The Cold War and relations with the USSR, also strengthened the ties between the UK and the US. However, even in this case, there was a time when the relationship was strained. When the US invaded Grenada in 1983, there was disapproval from Thatcher about the amount of notice she was given, as although Grenada was no longer a British territory, the countries still had close ties. This period was also a time when the UK was more important in international affaires, as Thatcher’s government acted decisively during 1982 to liberate the Falkland Islands from Argentine occupation. The last time Britain tried something similar, it resulted in the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, events that will continue to haunt the West for years to come.
It took less than a week for May’s Britain and Trump’s America to come to a similar conflict. Sir Mo Farah, one of this country’s greatest Olympians, was unsure if he would be able to visit his family, who currently reside in the US, under Trump’s immigration ban as he grew up in Somalia before moving to Britain. It took several hours for the Foreign Office to confirm that Farah would be able to join his family when he has completed his current training camp, but it was still an embarrassment for the UK government.
The issue at stake is that I wholeheartedly disagree with the PM’s attempts to curry favour with a President who is so clearly opposed to the values that have made Britain a fabulous country, and even to the country that she is trying to turn the UK into after the vote to leave the EU. As Trump’s protectionist rhetoric comes through in actual policies, I for one am struggling to comprehend how Britain is going to actually negotiate a favourable trade deal from this president. But that’s a discussion for another day. The last week has done anything but fill me with confidence for future relations between the US and the UK, and with so many British people in uproar over Trump’s policies, I wonder how the Prime Minister can continue to genuinely claim to have both a workable relationship with America and to represent the views of Britain. As history has taught us, the special relationship only really succeeds when the personal and ideological views of the leaders of the UK and the USA are extremely well-aligned. My fear is that we risk compromising the values that we hold dear in trying to further relations with and not criticise a president that is so opposed to issues that are so important to the UK.