The (not-so) Special Relationship

The United Kingdom (UK) and the United States (US) are arguably the two strongest allies on the planet – since the mid-20th Century, the term ‘Special Relationship’, coined by Winston Churchill, then Leader of the Opposition has been used to describe the unparalleled and tremendously close cultural; diplomatic; economic; historical; military and political ties between the two countries. Although it is known that the two countries have had peaks and troughs, some argue that the Special Relationship is now at its bleakest point.

The term ‘Special Relationship’, as aforementioned, was introduced by Winston Churchill in his 1946 Sinews of Peace Address (Iron Curtain speech): “… This means a special relationship between the British Commonwealth and Empire and the United States”.

At numerous points since 1946, it is true that the two countries have remained distant, notably because of differences between UK and US leaders – indeed, it is reported that Prime Minister John Major and US President Bill Clinton did not get on; similarly, the differences between Prime Minister Harold Wilson and his US counterpart Lyndon B Johnson due to the British Government’s declination to enter the US-Vietnam War helped cloud the closeness of the relationship.

The UK-US relationship has not always been prodigious – the angst between both nations was at its highest point in the early-1940s which led to the Government planning a campaign to counter the negative stereotypes of the US Government and the US people – this scheme, called the ‘America in Britain’ programme was implemented by Art Historian Sir Kenneth Clark. The British Government is said to have bought nearly 30% of newspaper advertising space to promote a pro-American view, as well as hiring actors such as Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh to also promote the close relationship. Problems between the countries such as the Lend-Lease delays were covered-up to strengthen the relationship as the 1940s progressed.

There are numerous, possible reasons for the decline of the Special Relationship – one appropriate suggestion could be the shift in demographics in both countries: in the UK, there has been an increase in migration from Asian countries as well as from continental Europe, whilst in America there has been a rise in the number of Hispanics. These demographic shifts could potentially transform both British and American interests and this may ultimately lead to a shift in their choice of allies. There is evidence of this shift – for example, a 2013 British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) poll found that many of the participants ‘strongly disapproved’ of US-led military action in Syria. Similarly, over 67% of Britons thought that the Special Relationship was no-longer necessary in the modern age.

Another reason as to why the Special Relationship may no-longer be considered ‘special’ could be the decline in military and geo-political prominence of Britain and the British Empire, whilst the US has subsequently ascended into world dominance, now holding the titles of the world’s number-one economy and number-one military amongst other feats. British Historian C Barnett has stated that the Special Relationship is a British ‘fantasy’ and in 1982 and 2002 Barnett presented the relationship as highly negative in-relation to Trident.

Nonetheless, according to The American Interest, the closeness of the two allies, in-terms of military cooperation is, and always has been, regarded as very strong – alongside the US, the UK was at the forefront of military intervention in the Afghanistan War and the 2003 Iraq War, and are now currently fighting the War on Terror; both are founding members of the Five Eyes Intelligence Agency; both the British Army and the US version participate in joint training exercises; and both are key partners with regards to nuclear-military arsenal in-which “the UK services and maintains the Trident missiles it draws from the commingled US/UK pool of missiles to precisely the same standards as does the US” according to a July 18, 2005 Freedom of Information (FoI) request from the Ministry of Defence (MoD).

It does seem as if the 21st Century has brought more problems and strain on the so-called Special Relationship. Indeed, it was only last year that former US President Barack Obama stated that the United Kingdom would be ‘at the back of the queue’ in-terms of an Anglo-American trade deal if the British voted to leave the European Union, which they subsequently did. Even so, Dr Madsen Pirie, President of the Adam Smith Institute stated at a lecture that this phrase ‘was written by someone at Downing Street’ as opposed to members of the White House and this therefore hinders the extent to which the Special Relationship is dwindling.

Americans are heavily influenced and engaged with British culture, from Harry Potter to James Bond; from the Beatles to Queen; from Big Ben to the London Eye, whilst Britons are also heavily engaged in the American way of life such as the awe of Hollywood and greatness of US corporations such as Google, Inc., Facebook, Inc., and McDonald’s to name a few. There is no greater relationship between any two countries and whilst there have been tumultuous periods, we must remember the closeness at other times such as the ‘great personal friendship’ between Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. If the Special Relationship were to collapse, it would not do so instantaneously, but rather slowly dwindle over time – with that being said, with President Donald Trump in power, someone who strongly loves the UK, the Special Relationship may be on the up once more.

by Milan Shah


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