EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is the second half of a two-part miniseries on British and American perspectives of the “special relationship” between those two countries.
By Guest Writer, I.V. Williams
“British diplomats and Anglo-American types in Washington have a near-superstitious prohibition on uttering the words ‘Special Relationship’ to describe relations between Britain and America, lest the specialness itself vanish like a phantom at cock-crow.”
– Christopher Hitchens, Anglo-American author
You know that song that gets played ad nauseam during graduation ceremonies? Yeah, that song has lyrics, stirring bombastic lyrics “Land of Hope and Glory/Mother of the Free/ How shall we extol thee, who are born of thee?/Wider still and wider shall thy bounds be set/ God, who made thee mighty, make thee mightier yet” That’s pretty much all you need to hear to know that Britain is a proud and stubborn nation. Our island home has been a bastion of independence for nearly a thousand years now and we have certainly left our mark in history and on the rest of the world. This mindset and these characteristics have led to a somewhat mixed opinion of the “special relationship” on the my side of the pond, leading to quite an obvious disconnect between the government and the people on this subject.
At the end of World War Two, Britannia no longer ruled the waves and this reality was difficult for the British to accept. For better or for (way too often) worse, the Empire had shaped the entire view of ourselves as a people and as a nation. Furthermore, as a consequence of the fighting, the treasury was empty, the country had been bombed out, and there was rationing, homelessness, and a health crisis. After centuries of dominance on the world stage Britain was forced to cede this role to the peculiarly upstart and hyper-confident Americans. Just like today, when certain swathes of American society find the idea of China overtaking America as a leader on the world stage to be an unsavory prospect, the British of 1945 also felt anxiety and irritation at being overtaken by their American cousins. This was coupled with the influx of crass American mass culture into the reserved and suspicious Sceptered Isle. “What is this rock n roll? What are these teenagers? Oh good heavens, these Hollywood films are so distasteful. This strange coca-cola will never be as popular as tea….” (I am 90% certain my beloved and staunchly patriotic Granny and Grandpa thought or uttered these phrases during the 1950’s)
So as confusion reigned among the people as to why you would ever need a Ford car when there was a perfectly good bus service in town and Fred the driver was such a friendly chap, the Government pursued its own agenda through the “special relationship.” If this was the how the new world order was going to be, the Government wanted Britain at the front of the (very orderly and polite) queue for American economic benefits of post-war loans, defense protections through NATO and the pretense that somehow Britain was still a main player on the world stage. I would argue that the minutiae of trade deals and Cold War era defense treaties was lost on most average citizens. For them, America was to be treated like a self-interested global entity who did not have the best interests of the British people at heart. National pride and dignity was at stake here – that’s serious.
Moving forward in time, I want to focus on the “special relationship” of the 21st century. The start of the new century was undoubtedly marked by the events of 9/11. The British were obviously shocked and horrified by the attacks, just like everyone was. I can remember two specific events in the immediate aftermath which I think are important symbols of the friendship between Britain and the Unites States. Two days after the attacks, the Star-Spangled Banner was played during the Changing of the Guard ceremony. This is a tradition that goes back well into the seventeenth century and never before had a foreign anthem been played. The next day there was a memorial service held in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. The Star-Spangled Banner was played and a cathedral full of Brits sang along, including Her Majesty. This was and still is completely unprecedented. The Queen has never before or since sung the national anthem of another country, she has never sung her own national anthem (admittedly “God Save Me” would be really weird). I can still remember being eight years old and seeing a photo of the Queen at the service with tears in her eyes on the front page of the newspaper. Even at that young age I understood that this behavior was hugely significant.
The post 9/11 actions of Bush administration and Congress are well known and do not really need to be discussed within the scope article. What Americans may not be so familiar with is how these actions affected the British. The image that Prime Minister Tony Blair and the Labour Government tried to project to the world at the time was that of the loyal and brave United Kingdom refusing to abandon her American ally during its time of need. However, you mention the Iraq War to me, and no doubt countless other Brits, in a fun game of word association will return with “poodle.” That was THE insult of 2002-3. It was everywhere. The implication being that the British Prime minister was being a lapdog, subservient to the whims of the United States and frankly that was a bit embarrassing for the country. There were some who rather desperately clung to the idea that Britain had some kind of influence over her partner because Tony Blair was able to persuade Bush to go through the UN instead of unilaterally acting against Iraq (yeah, that sure went well.) However, for much of the public these explanations were not good enough. The sad and untimely death of former Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy in 2015 once again brought into the spotlight his role in voicing opposition to the Iraq War. He made a series of excellent speeches during protests across the country. The British people were just not convinced that their Government was acting independently from the American Government and with enough transparency and consideration. Another aspect of the Iraq War which I think is unknown to the American audience has to do with geography. Britain is much closer to Iraq than America is. Why does this matter? Well, we were in the supposed firing range of the supposed “weapons of mass destruction.” I remember being ten years old in March 2003 and my BBC kids’ show being cancelled the night Iraq was invaded, it was a real bummer. Instead, I spent the evening with my parents watching Baghdad being bombed, which quite frankly was even more of a bummer. The next day at school the invasion was all we talked about and a specific concern that freaked us out was how apparently Iraq had weapons that could reach us in 45 minutes. Of course, it turns out that with at least a decade of hindsight, the sketchy death of a Government weapons inspector, and several official inquiries, this was not actually the case. But at the time the British, along with the Americans, believed it, and that was not a particularly fun thought to have on your mind. Who wants to go to war with a country who could potentially retaliate against us like that? No thank you. Unsurprisingly, according to a YouGov poll, when President Bush visited Britain in November 2003, only 21% of the British public welcomed the visit. Those are brutal numbers and it did not really get much better for many years.
However, as we know, presidents do not stick around forever. Obama was fairly popular; the polls show that on the eve of his 2011 visit to the UK 72% of Brits had confidence in him. There will always be the murmur that the British are trying too hard to be all buddies with America. I remember people giggling at Prime Minister David Cameron coming off as trying way too hard to impress Obama by playing table tennis (I mean ping pong) with him and hosting a barbeque at Number 10. Brits will grumble, it’s in our nature, but this kind of grumbling is much less serious than the kind previously mentioned. The Obama period is an interesting time because in direct contrast to the Bush years, here the President was fairly popular but the American people were not particularly highly thought of. In fact, they were really confusing. I know, I was one of those very confused Brits. I’m talking about the Tea Party and their crusade against the Affordable Care Act. Until that time I had no idea that America did not have a universal healthcare system and I’m sure I wasn’t alone in that belief. We Brits love our National Health Service. I could ramble on and on about how the NHS is the greatest thing ever, but I won’t. The point is, the vast majority of British people cannot comprehend why on earth anyone would ever think otherwise and in fact we find it a little weird and suspicious that there are people in the world who do not support single payer healthcare. Unfortunately, British polls aren’t really in the habit of asking people’s opinions on American health care policy. I wish they did, I’m sure the results would be fascinating. However, I was there. I remember the disbelief and confusion British people felt at the scenes they saw on the news from across the Pond. The British just didn’t get it and it did not really help the British opinion of Americans. Why is this relevant? Well, moderate Americans don’t make the news. Extreme Americans, who tell lies about the beloved and saintly NHS, do make the British news. The average Brit is left with the impression that their partners in the “special relationship” are…well kinda crazy. Yes it’s a generalization, but the entire way in which these two countries perceive each other has always been through generalizations and impressions so these things make an impact.
Which brings me very neatly onto the present. Britain went through a very turbulent referendum (A MEMBER OF PARLIAMENT LITERALLY GOT MURDERED ON THE STREET WHAT THE HECK) which ended up narrowly supporting Brexit, temporarily tanking the economy, and bringing down a lot of the government. Yikes. Inevitably a period of introspection followed the results and there was a feeling that this battle had been somewhat “dirty” and numerous parallels were drawn between the perceived seediness of the campaign and the norms of American electoral politics. Essentially, a “we don’t want to be like them” kind of attitude. A belief that British campaigns are a more polite and dignified affair than American campaigns. Of course, there were those who embraced this new style as “not politically correct” and “the voice of the people” and a multitude of other uncomfortable dog whistle terms. A few months later America elected Donald Trump as president and the fallout felt very similar. Thus the next stage of the “special relationship” begins. It has certainly been an action packed first few weeks for Mr. Trump. The Prime Minister T(h)eresa May (seriously, the White House couldn’t spell her name right?) was the first foreign leader to meet with him and right on cue the “special relationship” rhetoric was out in full force. Whether we like it or not, with Britain leaving the EU it does make sense that the country needs to strengthen ties outside of Europe. Plus we were also greeted with the triumphant news that Winston Churchill’s bust was back in the Oval Office (well thank heavens for that, Boris Johnson can sleep well at night once again) Popular opinion is not quite so hunky dory as Mrs May perhaps would like. Recent polling suggests that 19% of the British public has “very” or “somewhat” favorable view of Donald Trump. That’s worse than Bush during the Iraq War. Good grief. Even UKIP voters only have a 46% favorable view of him. This does not look great. There is a State visit planned for President Trump later this year. A State visit tends to include a nice dinner with the Queen at Buckingham Palace and a speech in Parliament. So far there have been numerous protests against Trump’s visit and a petition signed by some 1.7 million people to keep him out, with a debate in Parliament already planned. The polls are saying that only 49% of Brits believe the State visit should go ahead. Perhaps what is most telling is that just last week the Speaker John Bercow (FYI Speaker is not the same political role in America as it is in Britain) said that addressing the Houses of Parliament was not an automatic right of a leader coming to the United Kingdom on a State visit. There is talk of moving the date of the visit so it is while Parliament is in recess and any awkwardness can be avoided. There is also talk of the “biggest ever” British protest being planned during his visit. Once again there seems to be quite the divide between the feelings of the people and the agenda of the government.
Happy Valentine’s Day America, we are feeling quite conflicted right now, but we guess we will stick with it for at least a little while longer.
If you missed it, you can read the first (and less interesting) half of this miniseries here.
I.V. Williams is a British expatriate and current American resident. She is a History Major at the greatest college in southern St. Mary’s county, Maryland, and when not guest writing for the Finest Bagels Blog, she enjoys dry wit, fine tea, and trying hard not to be too extreme a British stereotype.