The US did not like then-British prime minister Clement Attlee’s socialism, a recurring source of mutual dismay embodied in distaste for each other’s healthcare systems. Former British prime minister Harold Wilson’s Labour MPs ensured he did not succumb to then-US president Lyndon Johnson’s blandishments to send troops (“just the Black Watch would do”) to Vietnam.
Britain’s secret collusion with France and Israel to invade Suez in 1956 — aborted when prime minister Anthony Eden’s wartime colleague, then-US president Dwight Eisenhower, authorized a run on sterling — had ensured that it would never again defy Washington with independent military adventures.
However, the Tory right, heirs both to imperial nostalgia and Eurosceptic-style Little England-ism, shared the left’s dislike of US muscle abroad: unsubtle Romans to our sophisticated Greeks, as former British prime minister Harold Macmillan once remarked.
Edward Heath, the least pro-US postwar PM despite wartime military service, tried in between 1970 and 1974 to rebalance the relationship: less US, more Europe. It created a tension between globalists and Europeans that has never been resolved, not even by former British prime ministers Margaret Thatcher or Blair; both were ardent pro-US globalists, admired there as only Churchill had been before, but both were stuffed when necessity dictated an unsentimental US attitude toward steel imports (former US president George W. Bush) or the invasion of the Commonwealth’s “communist” Grenada (former US president Ronald Reagan).
It remains a cliche that Anglo-American relations are like a family’s, feuding but strong. However, more successful members of families sometimes couple kindness with cheerful self-interest. So it is with countries.
Michael White is assistant editor of the Guardian.