For critics of May’s first appointment with America’s 45th commander-in-chief, the trip was nothing short of a political embarrassment. With the UK’s decision to quit the European Union dominating domestic politics, many baulked at the sight of Britain’s premier eagerly accepting an early invitation from a controversial Trump administration because of a British need to establish a future UK-US trade deal in the country’s post-Brexit era.
For May’s supporters, however, the Conservative Party leader’s journey to Washington was the start of Britain’s brave new world. This, they said, not only held out the possibility of the UK being handed preferential treatment in any forthcoming transatlantic trade arrangement – helpfully aided by Trump’s much-vaunted British heritage via his late Scottish mother – but also offered a vital opportunity to reaffirm the so-called “special relationship”.
The term was first coined by the UK’s wartime prime minister Winston Churchill during a lecture tour of the United States in 1946 to describe the depth of Anglo-American friendship following World War II. Churchill, whose mother was American, may have then been speaking as a private citizen on account of him losing power at the general election the previous year, but the “special relationship” has been a mainstay of British political discourse – and UK media coverage – ever since.
“[The term] is trying to explain that the UK has a privileged place in American strategic calculation,” Jacob Parakilas, assistant head of the US and the Americas programme at London’s Chatham House, told Al Jazeera. “That the UK can rely on American support and will always be consulted by the Americans when they make big decisions.”
From a UK perspective, May’s visit was incessantly couched within the context of the “special relationship”. And just as the brash billionaire and reality TV star turned US head of state has heavily divided opinion in his native country, so has he sparked great debate among those in Britain who have either been appalled or charmed by the actions of the White House’s newest occupant. Indeed, while both nations are bound together by a shared history, said Sir Richard Dalton there are always risks to Britain in getting too involved in the conduct of its larger ally.
“The British danger is that you are seen not to have had any serious influence, that you are seen to have been the poodle rather than the candid friend on an equal footing,” said Dalton, a former UK ambassador to Iran and Libya, speaking to Al Jazeera. “But these two countries are fated to deal with each other and Mrs May chose this high-profile, high-risk route to carry out her duty to get alongside President Trump and only history will tell whether it pays off.”
In recent decades, the “special relationship” found its most profound expression in the dealings between UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and US President Ronald Reagan during the late Cold War era of the 1980s. As Nicholas Wapshott, author of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher – A Political Marriage, wrote in The New York Times in 2013: “From the moment they met, in April 1975, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan bonded. They agreed on almost everything, and even completed each other’s thoughts … On the world stage, she was mostly the good cop to Reagan’s bad, though sometimes they switched places.”
That said, and even accounting for the – widely reviled – close bond that developed between British Prime Minister Tony Blair and US President George W Bush that saw them execute their joint plan to invade Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 2003, the “special relationship” is largely bogus, say many analysts. It began as a Churchill public relations exercise, said Scott Lucas, as the UK statesman tried to “whip up American support for the British position over Europe and therefore over the Soviet Union” in a tour that saw the cigar-chomping Briton deliver his “Iron Curtain” speech.
“That means, in a sense, that the ‘special relationship’ has always been a PR device,” continued Lucas, a politics professor at the University of Birmingham. “Which has been used primarily by the British because the British have needed the Americans more than the Americans have needed the Brits at high level. That doesn’t mean that at certain points you don’t get people who embrace that as being a reality, or at least grasp that relationship as certainly having a priority.”
Lucas said that, during the late 1950s and early 1960s, when UK Prime Minister Harold Macmillan “had the tricky task of basically downsizing Britain, he cloaked it with the idea that Britain had a ‘special relationship’ with the Americans”.
“Macmillan kept selling the idea that Britain was the brains to American brawn,” added the academic.
While the prime ministerial-presidential relationships of Macmillan and John F Kennedy – when images of a young JFK and an older Macmillan gave the appearance of the former being the latter’s protege – and Thatcher and Reagan, when both railed against the political ideals of the Soviet Union, fed the notion of the “special relationship”, the lopsided status of both nations has been apparent from the time Britain began giving way to the US as the world’s global superpower in the post-war era. And it is the uneven nature of Britain’s relationship with the US – and the fact that America has, in the likes of Canada and Japan, other crucial international partnerships – that has, for the term’s detractors, made it almost redundant in meaning. Yet, with historical institutional ties of the military and intelligence variety dating back to World War II, the UK-US alliance is a relationship worthy of a name, said Dalton.
“There was a period under [former UK Premier David] Cameron and [Barack] Obama when – I think – an effort was made to drop ‘special’ and replace it with ‘essential’,” stated the former British ambassador. “I would rather that that had been kept up and ‘special’ quietly dropped, as it is prone to ridicule when the reality does not match the rhetoric.”
Those who place great weight on the “special relationship” have seen the decades-old term come under strain. The image of May and Trump briefly holding hands as they strolled through the White House grounds together invited scorn upon the UK prime minister. And the widely signed British petition against Trump making an official state visit to Britain, together with the announcement by House of Commons Speaker, John Bercow, outlining his opposition to the US president addressing Westminster have also combined to put the Anglo-American alliance on shaky ground.
So, what does the future hold for May’s Britain as she attempts to place her own stamp on what the British government continues to deem the “special relationship”?
“May could find herself in the position that Tony Blair did with respect to the Bush presidency,” warned Parakilas. “That is, trying to stay close to the US and being linked into some kind of unpopular and distracting and damaging foreign engagement. Trump’s own popularity ratings are not good at the moment … This won’t help May’s own position vis-a-vis China, the EU and other necessary negotiating partners if she’s seen as too close to Trump, who, at the moment, is not a brand that the world has a high opinion of yet.”