Ben Pickering is a Senior Board Member of Conservative Way Forward and a public affairs head-hunter for Hanson Search.
It is not often that I agree with Nick Clegg, but his Chatham House speech this week (as reported in Thursday’s Independent) is spot on.
Like Clegg claims to be, I too am an Atlanticist (significantly more so than he). I believe that when Britain and America can be on the same page we should be, and with our broadly shared world view this is more often than not the case.
But the undermining American response to the latest Falklands crisis – with Hillary Clinton and Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner having a rip-roaring time during Clinton’s recent trip to The Pink House (yes the Presidential Palace really is called that!) in Buenos Aires – makes me feel increasingly uneasy about the future of the so-called “special relationship”. This month’s Newsweek paints the Argentine President as the Iron Lady of this new Falklands War, winning the battle for world opinion against a lame duck British Government with no plausible narrative on this issue.
In the Telegraph earlier this month, Toby Young highlighted President Obama’s ambivalence in approving a US State Department statement claiming:
“We are aware not only of the current situation but also of the history, but our position remains one of neutrality. The US recognises de facto UK administration of the islands but takes no position on the sovereignty claims of either party.”
De facto UK administration!? The Falkland Islands have been British since 1833, and there has been a strong British presence there since the explorer John Byron rocked up in 1765 and claimed Saunders Island, the fourth biggest island, in the name of King George III.
For sure this was a different era, when the sea-faring nations were empire-building and the acceptability of this behaviour was not viewed as unacceptably as it would be today, and we certainly wouldn’t colonise or annex anywhere today.
But the Falklands – just like Gibraltar on the southern tip of Spain – are British to their bones in their people and modern heritage (less than 3% of the population are of Argentine/Spanish descent), and the total lack of historical understanding and respect by the Obama administration of this is indicative of a growing issue with Anglo-US relations.
Ever since lend-lease in World War Two (effectively an asset-stripping of the British Empire by Roosevelt and Truman, for which we thanked them!) through the self-indulgent posturing by Eisenhower over Suez leaving us out on a limb and toppling Eden’s government, to the questionable behaviour of the late Al Haig (Reagan’s Secretary of State) with his “honest broker” shuttle diplomacy between Buenos Aires and London in 1982 during the Falklands War, this “special relationship” has been anything but.
It’s been about slowly but surely eroding British standing in the world, in favour of America.
I don't dispute that Baroness Thatcher had a uniquely strong relationship with Reagan, based on mutual respect and admiration (although both Reagan and Haig were way too arms-length during the 1982 Falklands War, feting the Argentine Ambassador to the US at a reception in Washington while their military junta were invading Port Stanley, and calling for military restraint and talks on moves toward joint sovereignty), but before and since they held office the “special relationship” has been increasingly one-sided, as the US has taken every opportunity to reduce Britain’s influence.
And most irking about this contribution to the ongoing crisis about oil exploration in the shores off the islands is the hypocrisy of it. Switch Argentina for Cuba, and the Falklands for Guantanamo Bay, and American stealth bombers would have been scrambled, dropped their full complement of smart bombs and been back in their bases rearming before anyone at the UN knew anything had happened.
So if we win the election and Obama or his successors asks David Cameron for our UN support to take, say, military action against Iran, or turn a blind eye to their disgraceful “extraordinary renditions”, or to not rescind the one-sided extradition treaty that will send a mentally-handicapped man to prison for the rest of his life for showing he knew more about firewalls than NASA, I think our new Prime Minister should take a lead from Hugh Grant’s fictional new Prime Minister in Love Actually, who describes the state of the “special relationship” far better than I could:
“I love that word “relationship”. Covers all manner of sins, doesn’t it? I fear that this has become a bad relationship; a relationship based on the President taking exactly what he wants and casually ignoring all those things that really matter to Britain. We may be a small country, but we're a great one too. The country of Shakespeare, Churchill, The Beatles, Sean Connery, Harry Potter, David Beckham's right foot. David Beckham's left foot, come to that. And a friend who bullies us is no longer a friend. And since bullies only respond to strength, from now onward I will be prepared to be much stronger. And the President should be prepared for that.”
And a speech saying that would be the first step to restoring Britain’s influence in the world.