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The special relationship

Well, an end to my radio silence. I travelled to London last week, and thought I’d have time to post from there, but discovered that I did not. As it happens, the news while I was in London was about America – namely, David Cameron’s trip to America. 

The Prime Minister first visited Washington for talks with Obama and members of congress, and then he went up to New York to talk business and eat a hot dog with Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It was big news in the UK, but much less so in the US. (I asked Americans what the reaction was to Cameron’s visit, and the general response was, “he was here?”)

At the start of his trip, Cameron sought to lower expectations. He talked of the UK as a “junior partner” to the US, and said the relationship should be “solid not slavish”. In a number of respects, this level-setting made sense. The “special relationship” has always been one-sided (the UK talks about it, the US doesn’t). And by playing down the importance of the visit, Cameron avoided heightened UK media scrutiny, like the kind Gordon Brown received during trip to the G-20 in Pittsbugh last fall, when every gesture was examined for signs of a snub from the Americans.

But I get the sense that this “we’re just the junior partner” stuff is going too far in the other direction. It’s as if Cameron hopes that the UK will be seen as such a modest and unassuming small-time player that it won’t get criticized for what it does in the world, because it doesn’t amount to much. But there are significant US-UK ties still: intelligence and commercial interests spring to mind. Cameron’s posture seems more like a defensive response to the type of criticism that Blair was Bush’s poodle, and in doing so, he gives some credence to that outlook.

The reality is that the UK is in Iraq and Afghanistan because they see it in their national interests, not out of some loyalty to the US. Neither the US nor UK have a very clear rationale for having occupying forces in those countries, but their actions spring from a similar pressure: the lack of moral certainty and purpose at home leads them to seek those things abroad.

In the event, Cameron’s visit was overshadowed by the controversy over whether BP lobbied the British (and Scottish) government to have the Lockerbie bomber, Abdel Basset al-Megrahi, released. It appears that Cameron is taking Labour’s line “it wasn’t us, blame the Scots”. Cameron seemed to think that just by admitting to Americans that “it was wrong” will stop the investigations. It won’t.

From the US side, the focus on BP and al-Megrahi is really an attempt to extend the vilification of BP into new territory. Talking tough is thought to be a vote-winner, and adding BP – which has become a cardboard-cutout villain in the US – just gives extra bonus points.

Like BP, Cameron was caught in a US politics crossfire. It’s not really about Britain, despite what Norman Tebbitt says (even if he should know what bigotry looks like). American politicians are just being opportunistic, and taking a dig at a “foreign” firm like BP is convenient.

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