With two dyed-in-the-wool Tory Brexiteers vying to replace Theresa May as prime minister, Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union now looks inevitable. The hopes of Britons who resented their country being under Brussels’ sway will come to fruition. Freedom from foreign constraints is on the horizon. “Britons never never never shall be slaves”, go the stirring words of the patriotic song Rule Britannia children of my generation sang in school.
That’s the plan. However, the reality could be anything but. While it is the case that the UK and the US have been tied-at-the-hip allies since the mid-20th century when the term “Special Relationship” was coined by Sir Winston Churchill to portray the close military, diplomatic and cultural relations between the two powerful democracies, that relationship has become hopelessly lopsided.
The fact is that London is reliant on Washington in terms of defence capabilities, intelligence sharing, international diplomacy and economic cooperation. The days when Britons ruled the waves are long gone. Budget cuts have halved the Royal Navy’s fleet of ships and submarines since 1990.
Today the White House calls the shots and President Trump makes no bones about that.
A House of Commons Defence Committee Report titled Indispensable allies: US, Nato and UK Defence Relations suggests that Britain is “over-reliant on the US as a military partner” and “the degree of over-reliance could be measured by the UK’s ability to act independently in pursuit of its own national interest, without US support”.
That ability has been called into question over recent decades. Tony Blair who was arguably one of the most successful 21st century incumbents of Number 10 chose to appease President George W. Bush in his rush for war with Iraq disregarding the millions who took to the streets in opposition and was forever branded “Bush’s poodle”.
President Obama was certainly no anglophile. He returned a bust of Churchill that held pride of place in the Oval Office to Gordon Brown and according to Harriet Agerholm writing in The Independent, Obama officials regarded the Special Relationship as a joke. An adviser to the Obama administration’s State Department said the UK-US relationship was never really important to the United States, adding, “It was the kind of relationship we would have with other countries”.
Britain’s usefulness to the US is declining and will diminish further once its role as a conduit between Washington and Brussels comes to an end. Today the White House calls the shots and President Trump makes no bones about that.
With her eye firmly fixed on a coveted, or rather desperately needed, US-UK trade deal now that Britain is poised to leave the EU’s single market and customs union, Prime Minister Theresa May felt obliged to court President Trump at every turn even as he criticised her handling of negotiations with the EU and openly tapped his buddy Boris Johnson as her successor. Nevertheless Trump was rewarded for his blatant interference in Britain’s domestic affairs with a glittering state visit replete with pomp and ceremony.
The latest diplomatic debacle over the content of leaked top secret diplomatic dispatches sent to select members of the British government by Sir Kim Darroch, Britain’s ambassador to Washington, that included unflattering references to President Trump’s character, has exposed the extent to which the UK is glued under America’s heel.
“The wacky Ambassador that the UK foisted upon the United States is not someone we are thrilled with, a very stupid guy. He should speak to his country, and Prime Minister May, about that failed Brexit negotiation, and not be upset with my criticism of how badly it was handed, Trump tweeted. “I told Theresa May how to do that deal, but she went her own foolish way — was unable to get it done. A disaster!” he wrote in a follow-up.
Ambassador Darroch was uninvited to a dinner and ignored. To her credit, May supported him as did cabinet members and parliamentary lawmakers. Yet, he resigned following a televised debate between Boris Johnson and his contender for the top job Jeremy Hunt when Johnson threw him under a bus for which he came under fire, accused of being Trump’s lackey.
Conversely, Hunt characterised Trump’s volley as “disrespectful and wrong to our prime minister and my country” while vowing to retain Darroch in his post until the end of his tenure. However, his chances of securing sufficient votes from the Conservative membership believed to favour his larger-than-life, slightly eccentric rival look dim.
Britain’s sleepwalk into global irrelevance could be further exacerbated if Scotland succeeds in securing a second referendum on Scottish independence, demanded by the SNP on the grounds that Scotland overwhelmingly voted to remain in the EU. Wales that did vote to leave is now clamouring for independence as well. A new poll shows that 47 per cent of the Welsh are open to that idea — and that’s before they start to feel the economic pain, temporary or otherwise, which Brexit portends.
Surely common sense dictates better the Europeans we know than the unknowable US President who changes his mind on a dime. Then again, in this era of populism and nationalism, there is little common about sense.
Linda S. Heard is an award-winning British political columnist and guest television commentator with a focus on the Middle East.