Let's bury the "special relationship" myth, says Peter Hitchens

"We've come to believe a myth of permanent soppy friendship. But the truth, most commonly shown in conflicts at sea, has been one of fierce rivalry"

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Let's bury the "special relationship" myth, says Peter Hitchens
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Peter Hitchens

I love America and like Americans. But, having lived and travelled much in the USA, I also know that the USA is a foreign country, not a big England full of sentimental people yearning to be reigned over by our Queen.

As such, it has its own powerful aims and interests. And from the very beginning they have often been hostile to ours. After all, if we got on so well, why did they throw off British rule in the first place?

We’ve come to believe a myth of permanent soppy friendship. But the truth, most commonly shown in conflicts at sea, has been one of fierce rivalry. There have been few sea-battles more savage, blood-soaked and merciless than the duel, in 1813, between Britain’s HMS Shannon and America’s USS Chesapeake.

Britain won that conflict. And America never really forgave us for building the commerce raider Alabama for the Confederate rebels during the Civil War. She did so much damage that at one stage Washington demanded the whole of Canada as reparation. But that rivalry ended, after a long and bloodless struggle, with the US Navy supplanting the Royal Navy as the world’s greatest sea power.

As for the shoulder-to-shoulder alliance of the Second World War, it came late, was grudging and followed a long and bitter period during which many prominent Americans, including respectable figures such as future President Gerald Ford, and future US Ambassador to London Kingman Brewster Jr, campaigned fiercely for America to stay out of the war.

They very nearly succeeded. Many Americans felt Britain had tricked them into entering the First World War, and were angry that we had defaulted on our war debts. Winston Churchill’s supposed close wartime friendship with President Roosevelt was often privately cold, with Churchill endlessly biting his tongue rather than voice his pain at unceasing American demands for British gold, and his impatience with Roosevelt’s reluctance to declare war.

As a result, even though we were left alone in Europe as the only power still defying Hitler, America stripped us of almost every penny we owned before eventually agreeing to the Lend-Lease scheme, which provided us with the means to carry on fighting, but not to recover economically from the huge cost of rearmament.

The history of what followed, including the forced dissolution of the British Empire, the American-backed herding of Britain into what is now the EU, the amazingly dangerous (and still largely unknown) tension between the two fleets during the Suez episode, and the Clinton White House’s support for the Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams is not a story of warm and loving friendship but of hard rivalry concealed with diplomatic smiles.

Hardly anyone in Washington DC has ever heard of the supposed “special relationship” between the two countries, though it has to be dragged out of the attic, like a family heirloom, and reverently referred to by every President during the ritual visits of British premiers.

Personally, I don’t mind at all that America has treated us as a rival and sometimes as an enemy. I think the USA has behaved throughout in honest pursuit of its own interests. That’s what Britain used to do in the days when we were still a great power, and in my view it is what we should start doing again.

I think we would actually get on better with America, and be less likely to be used as her sidekick and poodle, if we treated her like any other foreign country.

France has never suffered from insisting on maintaining her independence. Even Canada, which pulled its troops out of Afghanistan long before we did, has shown more self-reliance than we have in recent years, yet remains on perfectly friendly terms with her immensely powerful neighbour.

Self-confidence works. When we refused to join in a planned attack on Syria, Washington did not punish us. In the end, President Obama copied our decision to put the matter to Parliament, and decided to abandon the assault.
 The time has come to grow up, and declare our own independence as a country with a will of its own and interests of its own. Proper friendships are based on honesty, not on sycophancy and self-deception.

Peter Hitchens presents The Special Relationship Uncovered on Monday at 8:00pm on Radio 4. A former Washington correspondent, he is a columnist for the Mail on Sunday.

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