Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Special relationships

While on holiday in the USA a few years ago, an English friend and I fell into conversation about the so-called 'special relationship' which is supposed to exist between the USA and Great Britain. Having kicked around the expression's meaning and history for a few minutes, he wondered whether this term 'special relationship' was one known among Americans, like it is known among Brits. Well, since we were in the USA, it was the perfect moment to find out.

We were at that very moment in some east-coast town, probably Baltimore. Surely, if anyone knew about the 'special relationship' between the USA and GB, it would be the Baltimorers. After all, Baltimore is the site of Fort McHenry where American soldiers fought so bravely during a nocturnal bombardment by the British in the War of 1812. The words of the US national anthem were inspired by that event, as Francis Scott Key, their author, witnessed the 'star spangled banner' emerge through the smoke and the mist the next morning.

So we asked. I think we asked in several places. Most memorably, we asked at a museum where artifacts from the War of Independence and the war of 1812 (and probably a few other wars too). And in each place, the answer came back: 'The special WHAAT?' Hmmm, well those who listen to the vox populi get what they deserve.

That was an illustrative experience for a couple of proud Brits abroad, I can tell you. Just when we had studied the British part in America's rise, we were exposed to that cruellest of cultural encounters: they have all the uniformed mannequins and narratives of liberating conflict you can ask for, but scratch away at the surface and America has moved on. I felt like a Norman touring the southern counties of England a century or two after 1066 and hearing from the natives that they had never heard of Bayeaux.

At this point a certain kind of non-American critic likes to scorn the American thing. It's an easy and common emotion for a conservative-minded Brit, but it is one I strongly disapprove of. In any case, on reflection I'm sure the inhabitants of Hastings hardly dwelt at all on their own relationship with Normandy. Why should the Baltimorers know anything about the special relationship anyway, especially since it was invented by Winston Churchill to help lever the Yanks into WWII? I'm reminded of the importance that Britain takes on for certain ex-colonies and colonials who sometimes look to this country with a piety and fervour that is hardly reflected in the complete popular indifference, not to say ignorance, which Britain shows towards its former empire. I dare say the natives of Tuvalu feel a pulsating fidelity to the civilisation brought to their country by the British lo those many years ago, but do we know who they are? I think not. Ask the average Brit what Tuvalu is and they will probably think it is some kind of soya-based meat substitute.

So, there are several conclusions which we can draw here. One is that when David Cameron meets President Obama today we should not be surprised if Barack gives him an order for drinks ('since Prime Minister Cameron is about to arrive'). The second is that we cannot pretend to any greater importance in their lives than our neighbours are prepared to grant us. Some diplomatic relations are like an unrequited attempt at mutual respect.

And perhaps the last is that we cannot trust Churchill, except when he's telling a joke (Like 'some chicken ... some neck'). When he was deadly serious, on the other hand, the man could be a menace!


  1. Well Innocent, seeing that the Yanks are more religious than the Brits (well they are!), perhaps there is a religious component to this seeming lacuna in the minds of assorted Yanks. Now in religious life special relationships are frowned upon, nay are categorically forbidden. Yea, even to the extent of “Thou shalt not have…” It is not known how this proscription came about, but if you said St. Anthony the Hermit in Middle Egypt about eighteen hundred years ago, you might not be far off the mark.

    Now St. Anthony never learned to read or write, or as they said back then he was ‘unlettered’ - which has nothing to do with ‘lettering’ in assorted sports in American High Schools today (which the snide might sniff are the only ‘letters’ ever acquired by some students…). But St. Anthony didn’t feel he was missing anything by not having acquired basic reading and writing skills, being of the opinion that a ‘sound mind’ was more important than ‘letters’.

    And he had a sound mind – being filled with ‘divine wisdom’ as St. Athanasius tells us. Thus being of sound mind he must have started the whole business about special relationships…

    Er, did I say ‘special relationships’…? I meant ‘particular friendships’.

    Never mind.

  2. I think our 'special relationship' means never having to say you're sorry.

    - A Yank