By Mark Lawson (THE GUARDIAN, 08/04/06):
Whatever they were speaking about, recent American and British leaders could not have been further apart in how they spoke. Because of America’s vast regional variety and Britain’s history of conferring status through pronunciation, London-Washington summits have generally been a fascinating clash of accents.The counterpoint between Blair (posh Scots roughened by populist glottal stops) and Bush II (exaggerated Texan twang seeking Freudian distance from Yankee drone of Bush I) echoes previous sharply contrasting conversations: Harold Macmillan’s Edwardian drawl, with its undertow of self-deprecation, v John Kennedy’s Massachusetts affectations, with those elongated “a” sounds that make someone saying “car” seem to have slipped on a banana skin. And that vocal bout was followed by Harold Wilson, whose native Yorkshire was softened by Oxford, against Lyndon Johnson, who growled from one side of his mouth the toughest dialect of Texas.
So one advantage of the radio play I’ve written about the Macmillan-Kennedy and Wilson-Johnson meetings of the 60s (to be broadcast next Friday) is that it solves a major problem of sound-only drama: differentiation between speakers. The main motivation, though, was not verbal, but political. A driving belief of the Blair administration has been the importance of British support for US military and diplomatic aims. Tony and George’s story will one day make someone a great play (as, at the level of farce, might Jack and Condoleezza’s tour of Blackburn and Iraq), but it would be hard to write yet because of the lack of first-hand information, the unreliability of testimony from living politicians, and the laws of libel and privacy.
Writing about dead leaders cannot avoid all the problems of faction (events are still manipulated and dialogue partly invented) but at least more of the actual story becomes available through memoirs, diaries, transcripts and the release of government papers. Using these, I wanted to test the Blair doctrine of Anglo-American interdependence against two examples from history.
Macmillan, who had been close to Eisenhower, was openly dismayed about the prospect of communion with a cocky Catholic 23 years his junior. Yet they achieved a connection so intense that the diaries and transcripts sometimes suggest Brokeback Mountain, minus the stuff in the tents. The bond seems to have rested on a recognition of the absurdities of high political office and a realisation that in a nuclear age there was a serious possibility that they might be their countries’ last leaders.
But whatever their ages, Kennedy was politically the senior partner. Documents released last week in Britain show that key decisions during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 (including a possible nuclear strike) were taken without consulting London. Yet the record also reveals that Jack regularly telephoned, once directly asking: “Should I take out Cuba?” Macmillan’s natural military caution, born of his wounds from the great war, and the Suez crisis that brought him to power, may have tempered Kennedy on this occasion.
For much of their time, Macmillan was also a supplicant, relying on Washington to provide a nuclear deterrent called Skybolt which, as it turned out, Kennedy was planning to abandon. This severely tested their friendship, before being resolved – with an offer of Polaris – in a way unlikely between two men less close.
The shock for me from studying the special relationship was the extent to which what we come to know as history depends on whether two men get on. So Britain remained a nuclear power in the 60s because Jack and Mac became chums; but, conversely, no British soldiers died in Vietnam partly, at least, because Johnson and Wilson distrusted each other.
Barbara Castle’s diaries for 1965 note after one summit that “the two men got on like a house on fire”; but more recent documents suggest that, to borrow one of LBJ’s favourite phrases, if the PM had been engulfed by flames, the president wouldn’t have pissed on them. In a recorded phone call to a third party, LBJ refers to “that creep Wilson”. And he once roared down to phone to London: “We won’t tell you how to run Malaysia, and you don’t tell us how to run Vietnam.”
One recurrent factor that surprised me was the significance to Anglo-American relations of our different political systems. Both Kennedy and Johnson, whose hold on power could be removed only by catastrophe, were startled to be dealing with politicians who might not survive the night.
Both Macmillan and Wilson (until 1966) had small majorities and were able to use their vulnerability to win concessions from the Americans. Kennedy softened his position on joint nuclear deterrents when he came to understand that failure to agree might bring down his chum’s government. And Johnson, a legendary Senate dealmaker in his previous career, came to respect Wilson’s legislative brinkmanship. During a key Washington meeting over Vietnam, the PM theatrically informed the president that the Commons was dividing at precisely that moment over a proposal that might bring down the government. Such flourishes gave conviction to Wilson’s claims that it was his party that prevented him from sending forces.
The topical relevance of this is that the size of Blair’s majorities during his first two terms created a situation (paralleled only by Thatcher-Reagan after her 1983 landslide) in which both leaders had a presidential security of tenure and could proceed entirely on instinct.
Wilson is now widely regarded as a paranoid romantic, but the information now available suggests that his wiliness saved British lives in Vietnam. When the White House effectively tried to blackmail London into sending troops to Saigon, by threatening to withdraw support for the plunging pound, Wilson cannily countered by arguing that Britain’s existing military commitments in the Far East (in Hong Kong and Malaysia) contributed to her financial crisis; if he brought home all his troops, sterling might need less dollar backing.
In this context, a paradox of the Blair-Bush II relationship is that, although economic reforms long ago removed the financial dependency on America that hobbled Macmillan and Wilson, the prime minister has keenly committed troops without the need for a bribe.
Because of George Bush’s selection of an aged and ailing running mate and the uncertainty over Blair’s departure date, the occupants of the big chairs at US-UK summits from 2009 remain uncertain to a degree unprecedented in recent history. It might be Brown-Clinton II, or Cameron-Rice, or Miliband-McCain, or Clarke-Warner, or any of numerous potential combinations. If Tony somehow hung on and Jeb followed George, even Blair-Bush III is a remote possibility.
In all these cases, the clash of accents would continue, but the lesson from history for whoever takes the seats at the meetings is that private warmth can have dangerous public consequences, while distance may bring benefits.