‘Special relationship’ is a source of confusion

“GET out of my room. I’m sick of that subject. You’re all mad” was the response of a senior member of the White House staff when asked about the ‘special relationship’ the USA had with Britain.

This story was related by the BBC’s Justin Webb, reflecting on his eight years as their North America editor.

The White House was then occupied by President Bush, who really was an Anglophile. His greatest hero is Winston Churchill.

The President today, Barak Obama, had Churchill’s bust removed from the White House. His father was black, from Kenya – where the British white colonialists were notorious even within the British Empire for their racism.

He was brought up in Hawaii – the other side of the globe. He lived in Chicago, dominated by a huge Irish-American diaspora not exactly keen on the Brits. And he looks west, to Asia, more than he does east to Europe.

So what about the UK’s ‘special relationship’ with the United States, about which we’ll hear so much this week during David Cameron’s visit to see the President?

Is the idea just bunkum, in the words of the Commons’ Foreign Affairs Committee ‘potentially misleading’, or is there something in it?

The phrase goes back to a famous speech which Churchill made in March 1946 in Fulton, Missouri, in which he called for ‘a special relationship between the British Commonwealth and Empire and the United States’.

I doubt however that he’d use the phrase today.

The British Empire has gone. We are still very influential on the world stage for our size, but others are there too: China, India, Brazil, Japan, and the economic power-house of Europe that is Germany.

With each of these countries, at least as crucial to the US’s future as we are, the US has a distinctive relationship. The adjective ‘special’ may well be trotted out in mutual flattery by their heads of government.

As British Foreign Secretary I worked hard for a good relationship with the US (as I did with other countries). But, echoing that Commons’ committee, I think the phrase ‘special relationship’ is confusing, and patronising, and should best be avoided.

Author: Jack Straw

Jack Straw was elected as the MP for Blackburn in 1979 and is currently the Secretary of State for Justice.

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