There is a scene, towards the end of the first episode of Channel 4’s series Inside the American Embassy, which encapsulates our current relationship with the Americans and offers a troubling glimpse into the future.
Various members of the British Cabinet schmooze with the new Ambassador at the opening of the new embassy building (the ceremony is conspicuously president-free). Chris Grayling, embodying ‘sensible’ Conservatism, attempts to look tall and dignified but his eyes dart nervously around the room as he asks, “where’s Boris?”
Gavin Williamson, already on the brand-enhancing mission which led to last week’s leaks to the press, tries desperately to wrangle himself an invitation to a private meeting. Liam Fox mouths vague platitudes about trade deals in a manner to which he must by now be well accustomed.
The lucky target of their affections is the current American ambassador, “Woody” Johnson, a man who exhibits a failure to grasp American bureaucratic procedure, and a tendency to invoke the fallacy of ‘running politics like business’ which would make his boss proud were he ever to watch something in which he did not feature.
He says just enough to seem interested in what Her Majesty’s Secretaries of State have to say, but throughout it is clear that he is just being polite: these men, and what they represent, mean far less to him than he does to them. In other words, our relationship with the US is not what it once was. This is not a problem in itself; the problem arises when we assume that it is unchanged, and act accordingly.
Brexit, of course, will have a great impact on how we deal with the rest of the world (and the impact will be great, no matter what Jacob Rees-Mogg blithely asserts), but the spectacle of senior members of the British Cabinet queuing up to offer their platitudes at an event with no American Cabinet representation is symptomatic of the deeper urge to preserve what opinion-piece writers still insist on calling the ‘special relationship.’ Brexit may have exacerbated this urge, but it is not to blame.
The imminent visit of the President, glorified golf trip though it may be, makes clear where we stand in the current Administrations’ eyes. Trump is a President who, more than most, uses the official visit as a sort of an endorsement of the state he visits. This is because he applies the same logic to international relations as he did in real estate: association with his name is a good thing, and those who get it should be grateful. Thus, those on whom he holds out bestowing such an honour are unimportant: ‘sad!’ and ‘failing!’ in the President’s parlance. Or, as may be the case with Britain, simply taken for granted.
The visit, constantly held out as an incentive, is a symbol of elite American attitudes to Britain. Trump is acting, as is his wont, in a way that embodies the American id, and makes subtext text. Previous administrations admonished Harold Wilson for failure to help in the Vietnam catastrophe; isolationists were reluctant to lift a finger in either World War until their hands were effectively forced; and one doubts the cold warriors were thrilled by news of the constant leak of defectors from Cambridge to Moscow, via Whitehall.
Of course, there have been times when the nations have worked together, and there will be again. The American-led rebuilding of Europe with the Marshall Plan, and the loans Attlee’s government received, is a prime example of genuine co-operation, as of course was the preceding war and the carving-up of the world at Yalta. And whether one approved of the interventions of the 2000s or not, one cannot deny that they were the product of a close, effective transatlantic partnership.
The variety of these examples should make clear that our relationship with the US has never been as straightforward as we like to think. It is, like much of our national self-image, overly nostalgic and skewed towards the war. We ought to seize the opportunity a historically unpopular president inadvertently offered us to take a more sensible, hard-hearted look at our relationship.
But this is not, either, the time to indulge the liberal wish of announcing that Trump is bad and refusing to deal with him at all, à la Hugh Grant in Love Actually. Like it or not (and believe me, I don’t), the man is still, for time being, the President. It is only prudent to insure against being pulled down with them if the Americans happen to elect a bully to the bully pulpit.
There is no reason why the Americans cannot be allies, and indeed they ought to be. But no longer should we follow them around the room hanging on their every word and hoping they will pay attention to us. Replacing unthinking devotion with a more measured approach and offering qualified criticism would help any leader, at home and internationally.
As that scene at the Embassy fades out, the voiceover at the end promises a focus in the next episode on the ‘human’ side of things. Perhaps it is time for our government to consider that side of things more, too. It will be far easier to speak up against a President’s actions when we feel compelled to do so if we are not holding his hand at the time.