In the realm of international diplomacy, we have grown used to the scenario of two world leaders emerging from behind closed doors to take up positions behind parallel lecterns, to issue a joint statement to the press corps, and then to take questions. First, Mrs May pauses for a photo-call at the door of No 10 with a prime minister, whose name we can’t quite remember, of an African state whose position on the map we can’t quite delineate. They disappear to discuss a mutually beneficial trade deal, and then do the parallel lectern bit in No 10’s media-briefing room. The press aren’t particularly interested in the trade deal but they are intensely interested in the fractured state of the Cabinet and the latest looming possibility of the resignation of another Big Beast. So they head off into this morass leaving the poor man from central Africa looking bemusedly peripheral to the occasion. It’s the height of bad manners.
It doesn’t happen with the President of the United States. Quite the opposite. All the domestic squabbles merely become part of the terrain the leader of the free world must negotiate. Mr Trump might well be happy to share his views on Britain’s leaving the EU, just as Mr Obama was happy to share his views on Britain remaining within it. I seem to recall that, in terms of a US-UK trade deal, a Britain outside the EU would have to “join the back of the line”. Nowadays, it is a Britain which, in all but name, stays within the EU, which must do the same. It is not long before somebody from the BBC asks the President if “The Special Relationship” still exists. It’s when “Special Relationship” comes up that I wish the press would ignore the POTUS for a bit and bombard Mrs May with questions about Grammar Schools or some other internal matter of which the POTUS will not have heard, and in which he will have no interest.
It’s always the UK that brings up the Special Relationship, never the US. The UK is like an anxious lover, seeking reassurance, sensing a relationship on the rocks. “You still love me, darling, don’t you?” Avoiding eye contact, the US replies, “My dear, you know I do.”
Churchill, whose memory Mr Trump reveres, devoted a lot of blood, toil, tears, and sweat to forging the Special Relationship. But then it was a question of survival. It was like getting blood from a stone. Churchill leased British military bases to the US, initially in the Caribbean, and in return the US lent Britain fifty obsolete destroyers to augment the North Atlantic convoys. This Lend-Lease arrangement expanded into more general aid throughout the war, that was partly reciprocated (“Reverse Lend-Lease”) but by 1945, Britain’s war debt to the US was so enormous that it was only paid off in 2006. Franklin might have been sympathetic to Winston’s plight, but he had a deep distrust of the British Empire, and he had promised the American people that he would keep them out of the war. It was the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour that brought them in. Roosevelt’s chief concern, just as with Trump, was always “America first.” Churchill knew all about this realpolitik. But he had a genius for creating an idea and then stirring the hearts of men and women to make it a reality. He could create a mythology and convince everybody else to see the world as he described it. No doubt Churchill believed in the exalted destiny of the Special Relationship he strove to create. He was, after all, more American than Mr Trump. One thirty-second Iroquois. (Or maybe that, too, is mythology, or fake news.)
At any rate, ever since, the UK has paid court to the US. Mr Blair was very quick to invoke the Special Relationship after 9/11. Remember, “The kaleidoscope has been shaken.” In fact he was so quick to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with George W Bush that Dubya looked even more bemused than usual. Look at the mess that landed us all in. Then when Mr Trump got elected, like a flash Mrs May was across the other side of the Pond, hand in hand, helping the POTUS to negotiate a declination. And last week at Chequers, the POTUS was asked again about the Special Relationship. He called it “the highest level of special”. Perhaps the world press sat there and solemnly recorded for posterity, “highest level of special”.
Personally, I have a Special Relationship with the US. I have a burgeoning extended family of American cousins. We keep in touch. We visit one another. There doesn’t seem to be any requirement, from either side, for fawning obsequiousness. I greatly admired the stance David Lange, the New Zealand prime minister, took in the 1980s when he refused to let nuclear-powered or nuclear-armed US submarines enter NZ territorial waters. The US didn’t like it, but they accepted it. That nuclear-free position became, and remains, an integral part of New Zealand’s character and identity. By contrast, 25 miles from where I am right now, sits the biggest nuclear arsenal – 200 warheads – in Europe. I’m right under the nuclear “umbrella” (or GAMP – Generalised Assured Mutual Pulverisation). It’s called an Independent Nuclear Deterrent but it’s not really independent. It’s arguably an extension of the Roosevelt – Churchill Lend-Lease agreement, all these years ago.
Shortly after Mr Trump trashed Mrs May’s proposed Brexit deal, they did the parallel lectern thing outside Chequers and Mrs May stoically put a brave face on it. I wonder if she has seen the film Love Actually? You may recall the scene in which the PM (Hugh Grant) tears a strip of the POTUS (Billy Bob Thornton) for his overbearing and bullying style of diplomacy. The POTUS eyes the PM with caution, and a new respect. Mrs May might have borrowed the script. She missed a trick there. She might even have started to forge a Special Relationship.