Historical tensions shape the special UK-US relationship

By Michael White  /  The Guardian, LONDON

Mon, Sep 02, 2013 - Page 9

When British Prime Minister David Cameron made his pitch to MPs for British participation in yet another US-led intervention in the Middle East on Thursday, he made strikingly few references to “our good friends and allies” the Americans, let alone to the “special relationship” that British prime ministers have usually cherished during imperial decline.

An oversight or a tactical calculation designed to deflect attention from uneasy parallels with former British prime minister Tony Blair’s Commons speech on the eve of the 2003 Iraq war?

Perhaps, but though the bonds of sentiment and shared interests remain powerful, there have also been mutual distancing and disenchantment since the US embraced a virtual state of emergency after Sept. 11, 2001.

US President Barack Obama’s heroic status is not what it was in Britain. Europe, and Britain’s role in it, have disappointed the US, as has our military performance in Iraq and elsewhere. Guantanamo Bay remains open and civil liberties curtailed; the US banking system has let us all down. The president, grandson of a victim of British torture during the Mau Mau rebellion, has no emotional ties.


Tactless it may be to point out, but exactly 200 years ago Britain and the US were engaged in their second and (as it turned out) last war. Silly and pointless, it ended in mutual embarrassment and the status quo. Lingering ill-feeling, stoked by Irish immigration from the potato famine and oppression, lasted into the 1890s when the Britons — but not Europe — supported the US’ imperial grab for Spanish Cuba and the Philippines in 1898, a war immortalized by Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane.

Though the Monroe Doctrine of 1823 warning Europe to stay out of the Americas was upheld by the mighty British Royal Navy, the century was marked by US-UK border skirmishes from Oregon to Venezuela and high tension — the near risk of war — over then-US president Abraham Lincoln’s naval blockade of the Confederacy’s cotton exports to Lancashire and warship purchases.

The High Victorian John Bright had said the rise of America would be as inevitable as the rising sun (as China’s is today?), but it took World War I to make most Britons realize what the novels of Henry James had not managed.

Motor cars, aircraft and the soft power of Hollywood were one thing, but British condescension remained strong and, even when the talkies came, many movie heroes still had British accents — in contrast to the present, when they are often villains.


It was far from clear after 1914 that Washington would be angrier over German submarine warfare or the latest British blockade. Facing defeat if it could not starve Britain, Berlin risked unrestricted submarine war, banking on victory before enough US troops arrived in 1917 and 1918 to tip the balance. The gamble failed, but the war revived isolationist feelings and kept the US out of the new League of Nations.

With hindsight the Anglo-American partnership that emerged from then-British prime minister Winston Churchill’s strategic decision in 1940 and 1941 to throw Britain’s lot in with the US (his mother was American, but he did not have much choice) looks inevitable. It did not look so then. Many Americans — including then-US president Franklin Roosevelt’s London ambassador, Joe Kennedy — thought Britain would lose. The 1940 lend-lease deal — rackety US destroyers in return for a string of bases — was as hard-nosed as US financial policy before, during and after the war.


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.