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'Special arrangement' seen as a delusion

DISCUSSIONS | June 09, 2006

Kirsty Milne, Great Britain

2004 Nieman fellow, Great Britain; visiting scholar, Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies at Harvard

Interesting question, and nice to be asked. I wish I believed, however, that the answer was of interest to any Americans other than anguished cosmopolitan liberals in New York, Boston, San Francisco and so on. I am glad such people exist, but they do not run the show.

Survey evidence usually shows that people in the UK make a clear distinction between America as a nation and America under George Bush. Crudely speaking, they like the first and don’t like the second. The turning point would not have been 9/11, as your question suggests, but Iraq. An ICM poll carried out for the BBC in March found that 60 per cent thought it was wrong to go to war in Iraq, although opinion was evenly split on whether American and British troops should pull out immediately or stay as long as necessary. There is a widespread view that Tony Blair has got nothing back in return for our support.

The war has hurt Blair electorally, especially in Muslim communities which usually vote Labour, and has provoked perceptible antagonism towards Bush and the direction of U.S. foreign policy, most noticeably on Iran. The question is whether this will evaporate with the arrival of a new president in 2008 – by which time we will also have a new prime minister, probably Gordon Brown.

It is difficult to write about this other than anecdotally. My observation is that there has been a generational shift from being pro-American by instinct to anti-American by default. When I went to Harvard in 2003, my father was very enthusiastic about my going. He was born in 1930, and the U.S. to him is still our wartime ally, a country of Cadillacs, opportunity and stunning scenery.

My two brothers, by contrast, seemed bemused and never came to stay despite the strength of the pound against the dollar. When I got back, the elder inquired how I could justify having spent two years in a country that contributed so much to global warming and had twice elected Bush. A colleague explained that he had decided not to visit because he did not want to be finger-printed.

These principled objections do not, however, stop Britons pouring into the US to work or study. They don’t stop children from using American slang or prompt people to turn off Desperate Housewives.

But the ‘special relationship’ is increasingly seen as a delusion of grandeur on our part. At the same time, Britain is slowly, reluctantly finding its place in Europe. The practical reason why my brothers didn’t visit was that they already had holidays booked in Italy or Germany. My husband, an architect, spends almost as much time in Paris and Lyon as in London. When I got home in the summer of 2005, the big story was what the collapse of the European constitution would mean for the future of the EU. Iraq may have been the wake-up call that makes Britain look across the Channel instead of across the Atlantic.  

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