Tuesday 20 August 2019

Colm McCarthy: 'Special relationships like these happen every day in the USA'

Britain's importance to the US has always rested on being a key player in Europe, writes Colm McCarthy

Donald Trump didn’t hold back from his criticisms of the UK leader
Donald Trump didn’t hold back from his criticisms of the UK leader
Colm McCarthy

Colm McCarthy

Of all the delusions feeding the Brexiteer narrative, none survives contact with reality better than the 'special relationship' presumed to describe the connection with the former colony across the Atlantic.

Both candidates for the prime ministerial succession insist that the US will reward Britain after Brexit with a bilateral trade deal to beat the band. Last week's collision with reality saw the US president deride the outgoing prime minister's handling of Brexit. He had told Theresa May "how to do that deal, but she went her own foolish way - was unable to get it done. A disaster!"

Trump called the British ambassador wacky, stupid and pompous, in response to the latter's descriptions of Trump, in leaked diplomatic reports, as inept, chaotic and dysfunctional. The ambassador resigned.

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Who needs Europe when you have such a cosy relationship with America?

The United States has, since its assumption of superpower status 100 years ago, cultivated the illusion that every non-rival country in the world enjoys a special relationship. A surprising number of British politicians, but not many British diplomats, appear to believe that the favoured status is not only real but also exclusive.

Last Tuesday the White House feted the Emir of Qatar, Tamim bin Hamad al Thani, and on March 17 next will host once again the St Patrick's Day bash for the Emir's Irish counterpart.

There is a special place in the presidential calendar for Korean national day (March 21), for Italian national day (June 2) and a day apiece for every single constituent of America's hyphenated electorate. Norwegians are remembered on May 17 and Swedes on June 6, especially in the Midwest. Hostility to Scandinavians does not win votes in Minnesota (the football team are not called the Minnesota Vikings for nothing) and Hibernophobes do not prosper in the polling booths of Boston.

Because the USA has a special relationship with everyone, it cannot, and does not, offer special treatment to anyone. There will be no super-duper trade deal for the UK to compensate for exit from the European Union and Donald Trump is following long-established policy in putting America first.

The relationship with the UK is special only in Brexiteer imaginings - for less credulous countries, the once-a-year specialness is ritualised blarney, an outlet for warm political rhetoric and photo opportunities.

The historian and former Daily Telegraph editor Max Hastings had this to say prior to Trump's recent state visit to London: "Since World War II, the United States has conducted its foreign policy on the principle that dictates the actions of all governments including our own: furtherance of national interests."

Hastings went on to quote the US ambassador to the UK in 1991...

"Never forget that the United States is only interested in Britain in so far as Britain is a player in Europe."

Since it is obvious to Hastings, and to a slew of British diplomats who have opined on the matter, that the special relationship is somewhere between wildly overblown and non-existent, why does it play such a central role in the Brexiteer credo, impervious to evidence that it has never been taken seriously in the USA?

The reason is that it must. There needs to be a counter to the fear of life outside the EU and the counter must enjoy some degree of surface plausibility. The reconstruction of the empire does not pass this test (India is now run by uncooperative Indians) and the peregrinations of ministers around the world in pursuit of post-Brexit trade deals have come up empty.

A no-deal rupture with the prosperous European neighbours threatens economic costs which even the Brexit ultras no longer deny.

The get-out-of-jail card is a hypothetical trade deal with the Land of the Free and it reaches comfortably the prevailing plausibility standard: it is an untested assertion of belief. The USA will grant to Britain, and to Britain alone, a free trade deal beyond what serves America's interests - because Britain is special, and the reason Britain is special is because Britain has a 'special' relationship with Uncle Sam.

So there.

Evidence of specialness would require actual examples, occasions when the United States granted exceptional treatment to the UK not extended to others and in matters of substance. Max Hastings argues that there have been no examples for at least 70 years - but happily for the Brexiteers, they need produce none. Hastings is just another expert to be dismissed, since the Brexiteer project is a professio fidei, a profession of faith for which belief rather than evidence will suffice. No projection of likely outcomes, based on evidence, history or the testimony of experts, has anything to do with it.

The Brexiteer ranks have been thinning recently, with some Leave-supporting Tories muttering against the no-deal crash-out entertained by May's probable successor Boris Johnson.

In the Brexiteer press, preparations are in hand to blame treachery should no-deal prove unavoidable or should the humiliations of May's deal have to be countenanced. This is clearing the runway for an emergency landing, a natural complement to the illusion that Trump and the special relationship will subsequently save the day.

Candidates for blame include traitorous British diplomats, the scheming bureaucrats of Brussels - and of course the Irish.

Domestic traitors have previous convictions in many countries where patriotism masqueraded as policy, most notably in taking the fall for Germany's defeat in World War I. The Dolchstosslegende - the stab-in-the-back by a discredited establishment, and not the defeat of armies in the field - was the legend that fed the German populist right through the 1920s and Britain's very own version is coming along nicely.

The studied reluctance of Johnson to defend the UK's Washington ambassador last week was accompanied by broad hints from acolytes that the hapless envoy was a closet Remainer.

He had previously served in Brussels, a clinching piece of evidence, and several other senior civil servants are facing defenestration for inadequate Brexit fervour.

Superior court judges got the traitor treatment from the Daily Mail when they ruled that parliament must approve the Article 50 notification. The House of Commons speaker, a Conservative member of impeccable ideological pedigree, is also suspect - he has ruled against the Brexit ultras on points of parliamentary procedure.

The narrative is that no problem with Brexit has anything to do with the project itself. Fervour alone would deliver success and its absence in the ranks of the disloyal establishment exonerates the Brexiteers should things go wrong. And they must go wrong, since the pure version of Brexit, blessed release to prosperity and untrammelled sovereignty, is undeliverable.

Any form of Brexit involves economic costs, the more abrupt the fissure, the greater the costs. The European Union is a deep internal market and non-members are in an inferior position to members. Should exit be rendered free and frictionless, the EU would cease to exist - and the Union has declined to liquidate itself.

The prospectus of Britannia Unbound was and remains a deception, not because an organised departure, minimising costs all round, is impossible but because that is not the Brexiteer project as advertised. This cannot be admitted, and it is too late to reverse engines. Foam the runway, all hail Boris and assume the brace position.

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