Monday, February 12, 2007

Special Relationship - Dead as a Parrot.

A special relationship?

Not exactly. Britain has always been the battered mistress: badly treated but clinging to the US for protection.
Ian Williams

Latest on Guardian "Comment is Free"
A Special Relationship
February 11, 2007 3:00 PM |

My father's old chums always used to reminisce about trigger-happy Yankee pilots during the second world war. But the Pentagon's denial that it had tapes of the killing of British Corporal Matty Hull by American pilots in Iraq highlights the change in the alleged "special relationship", over the last seven decades.

The special relationship was indeed special and one-sided from the beginning, putting Britain in the role of the battered mistress: frequently screwed and badly treated, but clinging to the protection of the stronger USA. But no matter how humiliating, it could be argued that Britain used to benefit from it. No longer.

There was a rare moment of candour last year by a US State Department official, Kendall Myers. "There never really has been a special relationship or at least not one we've noticed," he said and added: "We typically ignore them and take no notice. We say, 'There are the Brits coming to tell us how to run our empire. Let's park them'. It is a sad business and I don't think it does them justice."

He concluded "I can't think of anything [Blair] got on the asset side of the ledger," out of the Iraq War.

In the second world war even my old man's aggrieved veteran friends were glad the Americans were there, "blue on blue" notwithstanding. It was a war that Britain had worked very hard to drag the US into - and not just for selfish reasons. Knowing that Britain only had the resources to fight the war on its own until 1943, the cabinet in 1940 decided not to cut to a deal with Hitler, which could have left the economy and empire intact, and instead fought on, even though it meant effectively selling the country to the USA. Washington took full advantage of the fire sale.

Even at the height of the struggle against Hitler, once Canadian and American troops began to arrive in Britain, the US Treasury unilaterally cut off lend-lease whenever their spending brought Britain's dollar reserves above $300m.

Britain handed over to the US all its technology, from penicillin and radar to its nuclear bomb research. Washington rewarded it in 1946 with the McMahon Act, which stopped British access to the joint research product of the Manhattan project, and a sudden stop on lend-lease terms as soon as the war was over.

But Britain was in no position to argue. After the war, the Labour government, stiffed several times by the US Treasury, was under no illusions - but now faced the prospect of the Red Army taking over Europe. There was no way a bankrupt Britain could head off the threat on its own.

The Labour foreign minister, Ernest Bevin, invented NATO to "keep the Germans down, the Russians out and the Americans in". But he was under no illusions about American altruism, which is why the British Labour government decided to build its own nuclear bomb. As Bevin put it: "We've got to have it and it's got to have a bloody Union Jack on it."

During the Berlin airlift, Britain accepted US bases, with nuclear weapons. Churchill condemned the Labour party for selling out British sovereignty, but did nothing to expel them when he resumed office in 1951.

The later Conservative prime minister Harold Macmillan accepted an even more explicitly subsidiary role, in an avuncular sort of way, with Jack Kennedy. In an inadvertently appropriate analogy, he saw Britain as Athens to America's Rome, providing wisdom and culture to the stronger military power. Of course, in the real world, Rome conquered Athens and those wise Athenian cultural teachers in Rome were often slaves.

Successive British governments managed to maintain some minimal dignity under the circumstances. For example, despite Lyndon Johnson's arm-twisting, Labour prime minister Harold Wilson managed to ensure that there was no British involvement whatsoever in Vietnam. Even Margaret Thatcher managed to oppose the US's uncritical support of Israel - whether to maintain profitable arms trade with Saudi Arabia or out of concern for the Palestinians.

Until recently, Britain's diplomatic specialty was to bridge the gap between a unilateralist USA and the rest of the world. It also has to be said they did a pretty good job of it, no matter how distasteful most of the time. Like cleaning sewers, someone has to do it.

Being a loyal ally did indeed give them an occasional hand on the steering wheel, as Tony Blair said. But what Blair thought was the steering wheel in a car was usually just the whistle on a runaway locomotive. All he could do was warn that the train was rattling down the tracks and would not stop until it hit Iraq. Subservience without self-interest is now the rule. For example, Britain now regularly abstains at the UN rather than defy Washington on Middle Eastern issues. London will extradite British citizens to the US without a hearing in their own country - but not vice versa.

The gains to the US are clear. It gets a difficult-to-sink aircraft carrier moored off Europe, and a significant diplomatic and military ally to save it from the total isolation that its policies would so often have otherwise condemned it to. And it comes without sending aid or covering for maverick military adventures, as it does with Israel.

A former British foreign secretary once explained to journalists that British policy was the same as it was in the time of Pitt the younger: "To ensure that no combination of powers arises in Europe that can threaten Britain."

That policy has sunk with the wooden battleships of the era. Britain should stop acting as Washington's Trojan Horse in Europe, and join in building a multilateral Europe rather than providing latter-day sepoys for the American empire.

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