22 April 2016

Back of the queue? With respect, Barack Obama can get stuffed


Throughout Barack Obama’s trip to the UK I’ve been saying that Brexiteers should just take 24 hours off. Forget what you think of his healthcare policy or inept handling of the middle east; the guy looks great and he’s here being nice to the Queen in the week of her 90th birthday. Most people will just see footage of him and his wife looking cool and talking to the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, which will be followed by footage of a red-faced Brexit man shouting that the highly popular US President (he is in Britain) should get lost. A clear win for Remain, with the proviso that most people are not paying attention.

My position held until the disgraceful press conference that Obama and David Cameron gave late afternoon on Friday. It was a British humiliation. It was cringeworthy. That a Prime Minister should draft in a US President to stand next to him and deliver threats that help him in his referendum struggle was shaming.

The British, said Obama, could get to the “back of the queue” if they want a trade deal post-referendum having dared to vote Leave. There are a number of ironies here, beyond the curiously British form of words that was employed. Queue? Americans say line, surely? And the EU doesn’t have such an agreement with the US anyway. But even if one is finalised, there will be no US interest in a similar deal with the UK, says the President. Lovely. Charming.

Perhaps part of the aim was to wind up Brexiteers, and plenty of Remainers thought the Obama remark was hilarious. How they whooped at British humiliation. Back in your box Britain. Although, there I can tell them that I thought George Osborne in 2014 ruling out a currency union with an independent Scotland was hilarious. I wasn’t laughing a few months later, when it was clear it had only helped enrage undecided voters. Wiser counsel in Scotland warned me that day that was the case. Ah ken noo, as they say, with Labour wiped out and Nicola Sturgeon heading for a thumping victory in the Scottish elections.

In that vein, Jonathan Freedland of the Guardian says this is the moment the referendum shifted decisively for Remain, which only goes to show that in a referendum campaign even smart people tend to see what they want. The Freedland position sounds rather like an example of confirmation bias to me. I’m not so sure it will help Remain; although it is unclear. It is an open question what people will make of the Obama comment. Most people will not notice but I’ll be surprised if quite a few people watching the news tonight don’t see that arrogant remark and not like being told to get to the back of the queue. Generally, it’s not a nice thing to say in Britain. “Get to the back of the queue,” implies you’ve done something wrong. It’s what the officious pillock running a canteen says to the poor customer, trying to control someone who has dared wander around looking at the food they are about to choose and pay for. If the US President is deluded enough to think that the UK voting to align its governing system with the US – own laws, control of own borders – counts as doing something wrong, then he can, and I mean this constructively, get stuffed.

Here’s what Obama said:

“My understanding is that some of the folks on the other side have been ascribing to the United States certain actions we’ll take if the UK does leave the EU. So they say, for example, that ‘well, we’ll just cut our own trade deals with the United States’. So they’re voicing an opinion about what the United States is going to do and I figured you might want to hear from the President of the United States what I think the United States is going to do. And on that matter, for example, I think it’s fair to say that maybe some point down the line there might be a UK-US trade agreement, but it’s not going to happen any time soon because our focus is in negotiating with a big bloc—the European Union—to get a trade agreement done. And the UK is going to be in the back of the queue. Not because we don’t have a special relationship but because, given the heavy lift on any trade agreement, us having access to a big market with a lot of countries, rather than trying to do piecemeal trade agreements, is hugely inefficient.”

Once again, Obama shows what he thinks of Britain. He clearly does not hate it. As a Grade A celebrity he can recognise a Jedi master in that art, the Queen, and he is good at hanging out with her team of trainee Jedi (William and Harry) but he’s very clearly got no feel for the complexity of the historical relationship. The Brits were appallingly stitched up by the US after the Second World on the debt front, because the drive was to destroy the British Empire and what was left of our clout, but we’ll usually overlook that if discussions are conducted with a certain respect. I don’t mean the use of the bogus phrase Special Relationship. We know that’s a fraud. It’s just a US State Department standard talking point that is done to death. Other than on intelligence, the US relationship with Germany is actually much closer and has been for some time. The Brits are charmingly realistic about it behind the scenes. Just don’t humiliate us. Don’t come here, swaggering around telling us to get to the back of the queue when our countries and the Commonwealth spilled so much blood together in Normandy and beyond defending freedom and liberating Western Europe so that the French could be perpetually rude about us.

Get to the back of the queue? Get to…

Iain Martin is the Editor of CapX.