Only in the UK would it take 60-odd years for MPs to realise that our relationship with the US is no longer particularly special; and even then the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee can’t bring itself to drop the word altogether.
In 1951 the new President, Eisenhower, noted with some sadness in his diary that Churchill seemed to be living in the past with regard to the UK/US relationship. Mesmerised by Harold Macmillan’s epigram that “we are the Greeks in the new Roman Empire”, the British have adopted an attitude of more or less complete subservience to the Americans.
After being dropped straight into the guano at Suez in 1956, Eden wondered in his memoirs whether it would have served Britain better if we had taken a leaf from de Gaulle’s book and treated the Americans mean to keep them keen. Now even this committee of MPs has realised that behaving like a love-struck co-dependent only works when the object of that dependency reciprocates.
To be fair to the Americans, they have long made their attitude clear: the sudden end of lend-lease in 1945; insisting on interest on the loan Britain begged them for in 1946; leaving us and the French dangling at Suez; insisting that we should join the Common Market; and even when the Argentinians invaded British territory in 1982, President Reagan had to be pushed by his Defence Secretary out of neutrality. One might have thought then that an inability to be able to distinguish between a nasty dictatorship and an ally might have given the British Government a clue to the real nature of the Anglo-American relationship.
But no, Mrs Thatcher donned the Churchillian rose-tinted spectacles and continued to gush about “the” special relationship, as did her real heir, Tony Blair.
Of course Britain benefits, we are told, from sharing intelligence with the US; we’ll have to take that on trust as the rest of us can’t see how. But to be associated, as we have been, with American “extraordinary rendition” (aka kidnapping for torture) through the British base of Diego Garcia, and to put our soldiers’ lives on the line for the ill-thought through adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan suggests that the time has come for a revision of attitudes.
Fifty years after Eden wondered whether the Gaullist way might be better, the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee has had the same epiphany. We should, they suggest, be “less deferential”; well, better late than never.
John Charmley, Professor of Modern History at the University of East Anglia.