What’s really in it for Britain?


Living in New York, you soon see how easy it is to succumb. “Oh, you’re English?” (Scottish actually, but never mind.) “We just love England.”

I have been here nearly two months now and I have yet to encounter anything that could possibly be described as anti-English feeling. By contrast, anti-French feeling is rampant. In the space of just a few days I have been regaled with Gallophobic jokes by an elevator repairman, several students and an Ivy League professor.

And all because the British Prime Minister has more or less uncritically aligned himself with the American President’s policy towards Iraq, which aims explicitly at “regime change” by military means; whereas his French counterpart has made it clear that he opposes a war to overthrow Saddam and will use his veto on the United Nations Security Council to try to prevent it.

To be British in New York is therefore to feel what the British do not always feel abroad: popular. To be French, by contrast, is to be ridiculed. And that is arguably the principal benefit to us of what Winston Churchill called the “special relationship” between the United States and the United Kingdom. When we go there, they are nice to us.

But what, I have recently found myself wondering, are the other benefits? This is a good question to ask Americans, because they never seem to have thought about it. To them – oddly, even to my many American friends who are critical of President Bush’s policy – it remains an obviously good thing that Britain should be America’s most loyal ally. In an increasingly anti-American world, the benefits to the US are self-evident – not so much our military support, which is dispensable, but our diplomatic utility. Throughout the most recent crisis over Iraq, the close cooperation between Mr Blair and the Bush administration has sent an important signal that the US is not acting alone.

That much is clear. The question that is much harder to answer is what precisely Britain gains. There may of course be a good answer to this. For example: Bush is right, Blair is right to support him and when Saddam has gone and a democratic Iraqi government has been installed the two leaders will bestride the globe, triumphant. But the interesting thing is that no one ever comes up with an answer like that. Nor does anyone ever suggest that, in the wake of such a delightful outcome, there might be any material reward to Mr Blair for his loyalty.

From a narrowly British vantage point – and there is something to be said for occasionally considering the national interest – that is slightly disturbing. The costs of backing Bush are immediately obvious: we get to fight a war and perhaps also help with an occupation that is bound to cost at least some blood and treasure, and we become the Islamic zealots’ third-favourite target (don’t forget Israel). The benefits, by contrast, are intangible. One former diplomat recently assured me that President Bush already pays more attention to Mr Blair than to any other European leader. But what precisely can Mr Blair ask of Mr Bush? And would Mr Bush grant it if Mr Blair could think of something to ask for?

The curious asymmetry of this relationship is nothing novel. For this is simply the latest of many chapters in the history of the Anglo-American relationship – a relationship into which one prime minister after another has been drawn, but out of which little of lasting value to the United Kingdom has emerged. I say this more in sorrow than in anger, as a keen Americanophile. I am hugely enjoying my new job here. In almost every respect, I am better off than I was in Oxford. What’s more, I genuinely like Americans. I am even getting to enjoy bagels for breakfast. In short, I know what I am getting out of my relationship with the United States. The question is: do you?

The special relationship was not quite invented by Winston Churchill, but it was he who made it genuinely special. Before Churchill’s time, Anglo-Americans relations were not much better than cordial and sometimes rather worse than cool. It was not just the memory of the War of Independence and the War of 1812. Authors like Dickens were scornful of the crude vitality of American society. Politicians like Gladstone were tempted to back the aristocratic South in the Civil War. Only with the realisation of America’s vast economic potential did that change. For the great imperial statesmen like Salisbury and Chamberlain it was axiomatic by the end of the 19th century that good relations must be maintained with the United States. Already the country’s influence over all the Americas was too extensive for any British government to contemplate a conflict with it.

That was pragmatic. But Churchill – whose mother was herself American – made the relationship romantic. “Westward, look, the land is bright!” he told BBC listeners in the dark days of 1941; he meant that victory in the second world war would only come if the United States could be induced to join it.

Yet Churchill tended to turn a blind eye to the persistent suspicion many Americans felt towards Britain. Roosevelt feared that Churchill “would take advantage of the help given by America” in order to ensure that “Great Britain would have a bigger Empire”. As late as October 1941, only 17 per cent of American voters favoured declaring war on Germany. It took Pearl Harbour and Hitler’s declaration of war on them to bring the Americans into the war.

From the outset, Americans made a distinction between helping Britain and helping her Empire. In an open letter “to the People of England”, published in October 1942, the editors of Life magazine declared: “One thing we are sure we are not fighting for is to hold the British Empire together. We don’t like to put the matter so bluntly, but we don’t want you to have any illusions.”

The American president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, agreed. As he saw it: “The British would take land anywhere in the world, even if it were only a rock or a sand bar.”

“You have 400 years of acquisitive instinct in your blood,” he complained to Churchill, as if imperialism were a congenital disease.

In 1943 an American draft of the “Declaration on National Independence” went even further: as one British official lamented, “the whole tenor of it is to look forward to the ideal of the dissolution of the British Empire”. Nor did the Americans confine themselves to generalities. On one occasion, Roosevelt pressed Churchill to hand back Hong Kong to China as a gesture of “goodwill”.

Yet no amount of Churchillian bluster in response could alter the fact that Britain now depended on the United States financially; and that gave the Americans leverage. When, in August 1944, Roosevelt heard that Britain was "broke", he expressed ironic surprise. If that was the case, he joked, "I will go over there and make a couple of talks and take over the British Empire."

Representing the UK Treasury in Washington, Keynes came to detest the way the Americans sought to exploit Britain’s financial weakness for political ends. In his own stark metaphor, America was trying to "pick out the eyes of the British Empire". "I always regard a visit [to the US] as in the nature of a serious illness to be followed by convalescence," he told a friend. Nor was Keynes alone in feeling this way. One of his colleagues commented bitterly: "A visitor from Mars might well be pardoned for thinking that we were the representatives of a vanquished people discussing the economic penalties of defeat."

This is not to blame the United States, which had practical as well as sentimental reasons to support the aspirations of colonial peoples to govern themselves. The real question is why successive British Prime Ministers remained so faithful to the Churchillian ideal. For there were many more bitter pills yet to be swallowed after the war’s end.

From the immediate American termination of Lend Lease onwards, Britain was treated less like a close ally and more like a rival. For example, British hopes to have a say over any American use of atomic bombs were swiftly dashed, even when the bombers carrying them were based in England.

Symbolically, in May 1950 Secretary of State Dean Acheson ordered the destruction of all copies of a State Department memorandum about the special relationship. Six years later, when Britain and France intervened to reverse Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal, the relationship itself seemed to be destroyed. Incandescent at not being consulted, and fearful of the domestic and international ramifications of seeming to back old-style colonialism, Eisenhower once again used financial muscle – the offer of a loan to stem the run on sterling – to force the UK to withdraw from Egypt.

When Acheson, now out of office, famously declared that "Great Britain had lost an empire and not yet found a role," Harold Macmillan was scathing in his response. But within a week the US Defence Secretary Robert McNamara had announced that Skybolt – the missile system the Americans had promised to sell Macmillan – was being cancelled, effectively killing off the idea of a truly independent British nuclear deterrent.

And yet one prime minister after another has refused to bury the dream of specialness. Macmillan fantasised about playing the ancient Greek sage to Kennedy’s virile young Roman. Margaret Thatcher saw herself more as Vivien Leigh to Ronald Reagan’s Clark Gable. But frankly, did he give a damn? It’s usually claimed that Mrs Thatcher derived a tangible benefit from that relationship during the Falklands War in the form of naval intelligence and other assistance. But the political price of that help had to be paid at least twice, in the form of humiliation over the American invasion of Grenada and international and domestic indignation over the American bombing of Libya.

The only exceptions to the postwar rule were Edward Heath (who relished telling Richard Nixon that from now on he would have to deal with all nine members of the EEC as one) and his arch-rival Harold Wilson, who wisely resisted all pressure from the Americans to send even a token force to Vietnam. "Be British," pleaded one American official when George Brown went to Washington in January 1968: "How can you betray us?" Dean Rusk would have settled for "just one battalion of the Black Watch". ("When the Russians invade Sussex," Rusk grumbled when this too was denied, "don’t expect us to come and help you.") Tony Blair used sometimes to be compared with Harold Wilson, when he was still seen primarily as a Labour party moderniser and election winner. Maybe he should have stuck to that role model.

Yet even Wilson was not wholly immune to American blandishments. "The ceremonies of welcome went far beyond anything I have had before," he told Barbara Castle, one of his cabinet ministers, after a visit to Washington in 1975. That gives us a clue as to why so many British premiers have stuck to the special relationship, even when its fruits have been so hard to discern. It’s simply more pleasant to visit the White House than the Elysée Palace, much less the German Federal Chancellery. The language is much less of a problem and even misunderstandings are opportunities for transatlantic humour rather than faux pas. And of course American presidents have that most alluring of things: they have power. Given the choice between Brussels and the Beltway, most British politicians (Heath alone excepted) instinctively prefer the latter.

In some ways, it is surprising that this has turned out to be true of Tony Blair too. He was, after all, supposed to be the great Europhile, Tuscan man. Clinton’s magnetism was bound to have some effect; but Bush as Blair’s best buddy? Who would have predicted when Tony Blair was elected that his muted but detectable religiosity would contribute towards his transatlantic reorientation, and thereby, perhaps, to his downfall.

It may turn out otherwise. War and victory may come swiftly. But even if that does happen, we shall still have to ask a question. If the spoils do go, as they traditionally do, to the victor, what share will the victor’s spear-carrier get? It’s highly unlikely – to give just one example – that British oil companies will secure the "level playing field" they have called for in developing the oilfields of a postwar Iraq. And the next time President Bush feels the need to raise a tariff for domestic political reasons, don’t expect British exporters to be exempted.

The only consolation I can offer Mr Blair is this. If, as begins to seem possible, his decision to back Bush ends up costing him his job, there is a country where he will always be guaranteed a warm welcome. ‘Oh, you’re English?’ they’ll say, not recognising him at all. ‘We just love England.’

Niall Ferguson is Herzog Professor of Financial History at Stern School of Business, New York University. His latest book, Empire, will be published this month in the US by Basic Books.

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