4 January 2016

Britain and America no longer share a Special Relationship


Was there ever a Special Relationship between the U.S. and UK, and is there one now?

The answer is yes and no. Yes, there used to be. Now there isn’t. Get over it.

Barack Obama pays us no heed. One of his first acts as President was to remove the bust of Churchill from the Oval Office. His view of the British is predicated on our treatment of the Mau-Mau in Kenya. Donald Trump, who recently engaged in a slanging match with Alex Salmond over planning rights in Scotland, may (absurdly) end up exluded from Britain on the basis of his anti-Muslim rhetoric. Marco Rubio, the Republicans’ “dark horse,” supports UKIP and favours the UK leaving the European Union, which he sees as the weak link in his country’s ongoing conflict with Russia. Fellow Republican contender Ted Cruz, who believes in bombing Iraq “until the sand glows in the dark” and once cooked his breakfast on the barrel of a machine gun, sees a role for the UK alright –  as a U.S. aircrcraft carrier. Hillary Clinton, who is at least sane, prefers the company of Gerry Adams to any British politician other than David Miliband. She thinks David Cameron is an aristocrat.

How do we deal with this? There is a strain of Brit that, deep-down, yearns to be American, or at least to bathe in American approval. Our diplomats relish the Georgetown party circuit and the sensation – rarely justified – that they are insiders in the Great Game. British academics who have gone to America enjoy the big money, the deference and the facilities that are heaped upon them: once given tenure, they almost never return to the UK. Journalists, having spent four years in Washington in the 1980s or ’90s, when they were occasional guests at fashionable dinner parties and got to sit at the back at Presidential press conferences, become convinced that, in the manner of the famous New Yorker cartoon, the White House is the centre of the universe, beyond which there is Capitol Hill, Georgetown, the Beltway and then … nothing.

For such analysts, most of them beneficiaries while in Washington of the misapprehension that they were posh, the idea of Britain as Greece to America’s Rome is as much as Brits should hope for and more than we deserve. They would kill to get on to a Senator’s Christmas card list. To be greeted by name by a Presidential adviser is very heaven. They adore the movies and American television; they follow American sports; they are in awe of the American military and the power of Wall Street. Most of all, they are hypnotised by the notion that they have seen the future and that someday, if all goes well, everyone will live like this.

Well, that’s as maybe – though tell that to the 50 million or so Americans who live below the poverty line orstill cannot afford healthcare. But what about the reality of the Anglo-American relationship? Here are some thoughts garnered from nearly 15 years of living in New York:

1. Americans only ever refer to the Special Relationship when the Queen or British Prime Minister is in town. They do the same for the French, the Mexicans and the Canadians – even the Japanese. When they refer to us as limeys, it is not a term of affection.

2. They think our armed forces (which they once found useful) are tin soldiers, more at home in a Busby than a bayonet charge.

3. They resent the continued assertiveness of the City of London – which they use to assume was run by Captain Mainwaring, wearing a bowler hat – and will do everything in their power to bring it to heel.

4. They only like British television if it’s Doctor Who, Doc Martin or costume drama. They can’t understand British regional accents and require subtitles for anyone north of Watford.

5. They laugh at our teeth and our warm beer.

6. They think we’re either toffs, criminals or perverts.

7. They think the UK is made up of London, Downton Abbey and Scotland.

8. They think we’re too clever by half. They marvel at the charm and fluency of David Cameron and Tony Blair, but don’t consider them real, unlike Hugh Grant, who they think is adorable.

9. They denounce Royalty, but slobber over the Queen and her family.

10. They have been shocked to learn that most Hollywood actors are in fact British. They find this un-American. In fact, they find Britain un-American.

It was George Bernard Shaw who observed that Britain and America were two countries separated by a common language. He was right. What is also true is that Brits who wish to make it big in America quickly take on American traits. Adele sings in American; so, after gradually casting off his Sheffield roots, does Alex Turner of the Arctic Monkeys. By way of recompense, Madonna, when she lived in England, affected the lifestyle of a Dowager Countess, while London-based Gillian Anderson – Scully of the X-Files – now sounds like Celia Johnson in Brief Encounters.

According to the most recent figures, just under 200,000 Americans (out of a population of 320 million) live in the UK. But nearly 800,000 Brits (out of 64 million) have moved to the U.S. A majority of Americans in Britain have been posted there by their employers and will eventually return home; most Brits in America are immigrants, who can’t get their U.S. passports quick enough. They won’t be back.

So what? you might say. And fair enough. But do not be deluded into thinking that, just because we both watch Homeland and House of Cards, our two peoples are blood brothers. Politically, the chasm between us is as wide as the Grand Canyon and infinitely wider than the Cheddar Gorge. If you imagine British politics on a sliding scale from 0 to 100, Jeremy Corbyn and the Stop the War crowd would come in at, say, 20; Old Labour (i.e. New Labour) at 45; David Cameron at 55; Old-School Tories at 60; and Nigel Farage at 65. In America, the scale would start at 40 (Senator Bernie Sanders), before moving swiftly though the high-fifties (Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton) to typical Democrats gathered around the 65-mark; mainstream Republicans on 75; and the Religious Right at 80; ending with Donald Trump on a magnificent 90. To put it simply, most Democrats would be right-wing Conservatives in the UK, and almost all Republicans would be to the right of UKIP. Except for Sanders (age 74) and environmentalist Ralph Nader (81) there is no American Left.

You, dear reader, may applaud this fact if you are a dyed-in-the-wool Tory. But the Left is an indelible feature of British political life. Without it, the dial would move relentlessly towards the Right. Correctives are important in politics. In present-day America they have virtually ceased to exist. There are checks, but no balances.

Some quick reminders. Americans love guns. We don’t. Nearly 36,000 Americans died last year from gunshot wounds, yet there has been hardly any support politically for a reform of gun laws. They elect judges, many of them ideologically driven. We don’t. They allow the Super Rich to spend billions on buying elections. We don’t. We have race issues; they have an epidemic of homicides in which race is the prevalent feature. We work 40 hours a week and take six weeks annual holiday; in the U.S. 48 hours is the norm, with just two weeks vacation. Americans even work on Boxing Day/St Stephen’s Day –  a holiday they do not recognise.

Americans regard welfare as a mark of shame; we regard it as a basic right, like the NHS, which Republicans despise as “Socialist”. Americans think tax should be squeezed out of the system wherever possible; we accept it as a necessary evil. Some of us even want to bleed the rich. They separate Church and State, but have more churches per square mile than Las Vegas has casinos. They even invoke God on their currency. The Queen may be head of the Church of England, but most Brits regard church-attendance as something that only happens in The Archers.

America is a great country, and a natural ally. I have both friends and family there. But it is not ourcountry.The truth is that we in the UK are far more European than we are prepared to admit. We may not have any idea what the French and the Germans are saying (joined as we are in our ignorance of any language other than our own). But we know what they mean. If they just gave us control of our borders, our enmity would melt away.

Finally, consider this. In 50 years time, more Americans will speak Spanish than English. How will we react to that, do you suppose? Will it be Cheers! or adios amigos?

Walter Ellis a writer based in France.