If you, like me, are a person with any shred of human decency, then you will have recoiled with revulsion at the sight of Theresa May and Donald Trump hand in hand. What followed was an exercise in national humiliation that British people have become accustomed to over forty years of botched foreign policy. Make no mistake, this isn’t the first time that a ‘special relationship’ love-in has made British people squirm with embarrassment. But this was surely the worst ever. Merely hours later, Theresa May was nervously trying to squeeze her way out of condemning Trump’s racist ban on Muslims (or at least, his country-specific get around). Meanwhile, a UK petition demanding the cancellation of a state visit notched up more than a million signatures in less than 24 hours.
Nothing makes British people groan more than the ‘special relationship’. The clichéd verbal tick of any British leader that wants to play the big man (or woman), it finds its foundations in the free-market love-fest that characterised the Raegan-Thatcher era. For Britain’s right, this was the glory days of recent British history. For the left, it’s a nightmare from which we never recovered. But there is an assumed truth at the core of the ‘special relationship’: no matter how cringe-inducing it is watching British politicians fall at the feet of American presidents, Britain needs America. But frankly, a glance at the history of this unequal alliance shows that this is far from the truth.
It goes without saying that America is the most powerful country in the world, and American support for Britain is power-enhancing. I’m not going to argue some Brexit-fuelled nationalist agenda of British independence. As a fading colonial power, Britain’s continued influence is built on strong relationships with Europe, with America and with our former colonies. But the reality is that America has never supported a British agenda that didn’t align closely with their own. Why would they? They’re huge and powerful and frankly, they don’t need to. If Britain cooled it with Trump, it would be of little consequence to our foreign status. For the next four years, our ideologies are not going to align, and there’s no point pretending otherwise. When the next administration comes along, it’s more likely we’d be able to pick up where we left off if we’d rejected Trump’s poisonous ideology rather that sycophantically appeased it.
American may not have ever supported British policy that did not serve their interests, but the ‘special relationship’ has become a disaster for Britain when it’s pulled us into supporting American foreign policy to which we are not aligned. Nothing lays this out more clearly than the Iraq War. This was the time when the ‘special relationship’ reached its most toxic, when Bush was overheard shouting “yo, Blair” to his British counterpart and the two swapped intimate knowledge of each other’s toothpaste choices with the world’s press. Blair was quickly dubbed Bush’s poodle by Britain’s media. Next thing you knew, Britain had been dragged into the most disastrous foreign policy blunder since the Suez Crisis. Millions died, and the Middle East was plunged into a total chaos from which it has never recovered.
The war sunk Blair. His approval ratings plummeted and he resigned in disgrace. Even now he continues to be a national hate figure, and a toxic political presence. A recent government enquiry was scathing about virtually every aspect of the war: the lack of justification for military action, the way in which Blair had misled parliament about the threat posed by Saddam, the dismal lack of preparedness for the occupation and reconstruction, and the catastrophic loss of life that had ensued.
The war also damaged Britain. Years later, we’re still paying the price for its disastrous consequences, both in the Middle East and with our European neighbours. And yet despite this obvious warning that a Britain blind to America’s failings could have such horrific consequences, maintaining the ‘special relationship’ continues to an obsession of British leaders. David Cameron bent over backwards to accommodate a frequently indifferent Obama administration. But at least that president wasn’t a universally despised authoritarian with a disdain for human rights and a penchant for misogyny and racism.
There is an argument that Britain needs the ‘special relationship’ now, more than ever. Having unceremoniously and hysterically divorced ourselves from the EU, we are in desperate need of friends wherever we can find them. But transatlantic tariffs are low anyway; the trade deal with America Theresa May desperately covets will provide few benefits but some vacuous ‘proof’ that Britain doesn’t need the EU. Worse still, it could also inundate the UK market with products made with inferior environmental and health standards, while carving up Britain’s revered National Health Service to further privatisation against great public opposition. May’s need for this trade deal is a poisoned chalice of her own making. Building post-Brexit bridges with Europe rather than infantile mudslinging and ideological severance would render the need for cosying up to Trump completely redundant.
European leaders, no less in need for an American alliance but less star-struck by its awesome power, struck a much more balanced note on Trump’s Muslim ban. Angela Merkel said she “regrets” the executive action, because the fight against terror “does not justify a general suspicion against people of a certain origin or a certain religion”. Francois Hollande, likewise, said the policy “encourages populism and even extremism”. Nobody threw their toys out of the pram, or cut off all relations. But these dignified leaders know something the British don’t. America will always offer its support for something that is in its interests. But there is nothing to be gained for siding with an authoritarian leader with which you have nothing in common anyway. After Iraq, Europe’s rejection of the war earned them diplomatic dividends, while Britain was left humiliated and isolated. When Trump’s presidency meets an undignified and catastrophic end, these leaders will have kept their humility. Britain, on the other hand, will have gained little, but lost the tiny shred of post-Brexit decency we had left.