A pub quiz question: Who was the first Briton ever to address the US Congress?
Winston Churchill? Well, that would be a reasonable guess. Harry S. Truman described him as “a real Limey. He made a very good speech, and then we all walked around and shook his hand.” In his address, the person in question expressed the belief that the future of civilisation lay principally in the hands of the English-speaking peoples. Now that was one of Winston’s themes. He took great pains to forge a trans-Atlantic alliance. If anybody, it was he who invented the “Special Relationship”. Only this week, President Trump described the Special Relationship as “the greatest alliance the world has ever known.” Of course Winston, half American himself, knew that there was an element of humbug in all this. Lend-Lease, the relinquishment of imperial naval bases in return for a fleet of obsolete destroyers, was like getting blood out of a stone. In the film Darkest Hour there is a recreation of a trans-Atlantic telephone call between Churchill and Roosevelt, in which the President, hobbled by a suspicious and isolationist Congress, gives the PM the bad news that he can’t supply the UK with matériel. “But we’ve paid for it!” protested the PM, “with the money we borrowed from you…”
It looks like the UK is making that transatlantic call again, cap in hand. It’s going to be a great deal. Fantastic deal, believe me. Everything is on the table. Including the NHS. And a lot more besides. But President Trump is the world’s greatest ad-libber. He just makes it up as he goes along. Somebody whispered in his ear that the NHS was not on the table, so five minutes later, it came off again. Inconsistency never appears to trouble the President. He used to be critical of the MMR vaccine, and then when measles returned to the US with a vengeance, he told all the moms to make sure their children got the shots. I could imagine Andrew Marr playing him a whole reel of film in which he expressed dubious opinions he subsequently reneged on. Mr Marr did something like this with Nigel Farage. It tends to lead to an unseemly playground spat. “But you said…” “No I didn’t.” “Did.” “Didn’t.” Mr Trump would look Mr Marr in the eye and tell him it was all fake news.
But is it really appropriate to compare a putative 2020 UK-US trade deal to a Lend-Lease agreement in 1940? Surely we were in a much greater pickle 80 years ago. And it was a completely different world. We have grown blasé about the prosperity and the creature comforts we now enjoy. The first Briton to address Congress also anticipated the modern world with uncanny prescience:
Broad highways crowded with automobiles threaded the remotest lands, and overhead great air-liners carried week-end tourists to the wilds of Africa and Asia… The globe… was full of pleasure-cities where people could escape the rigour of their own climate and enjoy perpetual holiday.
In such a world everyone would have leisure… Everybody would be comfortable, but since there could be no great demand for intellectual exertion everybody would be also slightly idiotic.
Incidentally, I thought Mr Trump spoke very well in Portsmouth. He read President Roosevelt’s prayer on the eve of D-Day most eloquently. And Mrs May was even more impressive. She read a love letter from a soldier to his wife. You might not associate prayer with the President, just as you might not associate the expression of strong emotion with the PM. Maybe they were both able to convey something powerful precisely because the emotion was not theirs, but belonged to somebody else.
I thought it strange that the Russians were not invited to the D-Day commemorations. Mr Lavrov evidently thought so too, although Mr Putin said he was busy enough, and not at all put out. Considering the appalling price Russia paid on the Eastern Front, and considering also that the principal powers of the Grand Alliance were Britain, the USA, and Russia, it does seem a strange omission. Of course it can’t be accidental, and must have everything to do with the current strained relationship between east and west. Who knows what is going on in the higher diplomatic echelons? But is it not better to seek détente and reconciliation when you have the chance? Is it not, in fact, better to jaw-jaw than to war-war?
That first Brit to address Congress evidently thought so. Himself ostensibly apolitical (that rules Winston out), he moved in the highest political circles in the 1930s. He had the ear, and the confidence, of both Stanley Baldwin and Ramsay MacDonald on one side of the Pond, and on the other, of President Roosevelt. He could see that Europe was heading for catastrophe and he looked for a way out. He brokered with President Roosevelt the idea of a summit, involving the United States and the great European powers, including the Fascist dictators. President Roosevelt would chair the summit, which could be held in some neutral venue such as Geneva. President Roosevelt was key. He was really the One Big Man in the Show.
That’s the sort of rather archaic description Richard Hannay gives to Constantine Karolides, the Greek Premier in The Thirty-Nine Steps. Which rather gives the game away. The first Briton to address Congress was John Buchan, when, as Lord Tweedsmuir, he was Governor-General of Canada. I learned this from the new biography by his granddaughter, Ursula Buchan, Beyond the Thirty-Nine Steps (Bloomsbury, 2019). The summit never happened. As described in Janet Adam Smith’s earlier biography (Rupert Hart-Davis, 1965), John Buchan suggested it to the then British PM, Nevil Chamberlain, but Chamberlain dismissed the idea without even telling his foreign secretary, Anthony Eden, and instead went off to Berchtesgaden to deal directly with Herr Hitler himself.
On the 6th February 1940, John Buchan suffered an intracranial event from which he did not recover. He died on 11th February. If he had survived, his Canadian term of office would have come to an end in September of that year. The Canadians had wanted him to stay on, but his granddaughter thinks he might have had his eye on the post of ambassador to the US. He was not to know that in May 1940 Chamberlain would be succeeded by Churchill, and that the man he might have considered likely to become PM, Lord Halifax, would eventually become the ambassador in Washington. Buchan seems to have been rather wary of Winston, as a close friend of Baldwin might well have been, but he was certainly not alone in that. He was not to know that in 1940 Winston would have his finest hour, far less that that they were both presiding, unwittingly, over the dissolution of the British Empire.
I much enjoyed Ursula Buchan’s book, and its evocation of a world I recognised, but which no longer exists. I wonder who the next Briton to address Congress will be. Boris? Andrea? What will they say? I don’t think they should echo Buchan’s remark about the civilising pre-eminence of the English-speaking peoples. It would be good, on the other hand, if they followed Buchan’s footsteps, headed ‘Down North’, and addressed the Québécois in French. Yesterday, after all, was Pentecost. Crack cocaine aside, who is surrounded by a mighty wind, touched with tongues of flame? Who, in fact, is the One Big Man (or Woman) in the Show?
It’s not looking good.