“Darling, I think you’re special. Special… like in Special Needs.”
I’ve said it myself when I’m feeling mischievous – and for anyone like me who’s got just a little bit tired of hearing all about the weird love-in that is going on between PM Cameron and the leader of the free world at the moment, it’s worth remembering that little spin that you can put on the word “special”.
Having just got back from the States to attend a friend’s wedding, the weird double-edged sword that is the relationship between Britain and America is right now as prominent in the Press as the Willis Tower is prominent in the middle of Chicago. If you haven’t heard of the Willis Tower, by the way, try its old name: the Sears Tower. Sound more familiar? It’s just that it’s now named after the London-based company Willis Holdings Group. And there’s the thing: Britain is America’s largest single investor, and America is Britain’s largest single investor. The US and Britain are stuck with each other for some time to come, that’s for sure – so making that relationship work is absolutely vital for both of us.
But the “special” relationship is a strange one. As a friend I spoke to in the US told me, the Brits aren’t entirely sure of what they think of the US. “It’s not even right to call the relationship complicated. It is,” she told me, “downright schizophrenic.”
Looking at it from my perspective, she’s right.
Growing up in Britain the 1970s, the son of a Naval officer, I didn’t quite know how to respond to the idea of America.
One day, my father took me to the Captain’s House at the shorebase, HMS Mercury, and stood me in front of a portrait of Lord Nelson.
“This man,” he told me, “changed history and allowed Britain to become the world’s most powerful nation.”
While for 150 years or so that had been true, by the time he told me this it was old news. It overlooked 35 years of US global dominance. Tales of a lost empire are a great way to set up a pointless rivalry – and I’m sure I’m not the only one of my generation to have heard them.
What did I know of America? I loved the Superman comics I bought from the newsagent down the road starring a musclebound oaf flying around in a cape and lifting up whole planets. At the same time I hated the American belief, manifested in countless Westerns, that might is right and that arguments could be settled down the barrel of a gun.
I loved the crazy antics of American rock stars like Jimi Hendrix with his free expression and creativity, at the same time that I hated the moment American kids opened their mouths to speak on tv shows.
Always, always, always in growing up with America I experienced that double edge – that “yes” and “no” both at the same time.
On my short trip to the States this time around, I was struck by the differences in nuance – the tiny things, that make our countries so very, very different.
Meeting a US police Sheriff I was impressed by his complete and utter charm, by his deep sense of humour and by his courtesy and manners. Reading his facebook posts later I was surprised to find that he held what I and my friends would consider strong right wing political views – supporting the excesses of Israeli oppression of non-Jewish people, placing God at the middle of considerations about how to vote, and declaring that most homeless people don’t want to be bought food, but would prefer to spend their money on drugs.
These are opinions straight out of our worst right wing, intolerant newspapers, but in the US I think they are pretty mainstream. And despite this, I liked this guy… It was another “yes” and “no” moment. I want to learn more about him, and drink a beer with him, while knowing that there are things we will never agree on…
That ambivalence is true, too, in the so-called “special relationship”. My friend told me that while she was an exchange student in the UK, she had been shocked to be confronted by young Brits challenging her about her Americanness.
I suppose you think you came here and saved us, don’t you? – was one question she was repeatedly asked by angry Brits while she was a student in the UK. If ever there was a sign of a “Special Relationship”, then American action in World War 2 would be pretty much at the top of the list of what the Americans might point to as an example of it. Yet, the hostility aimed towards her was palpable.
The truth is, we Brits hate to be reminded that we couldn’t have made it alone, which is something we really need to get over. And hearing an accent is enough to remind us, it seems!
There is no doubt that without Uncle Sam’s massive industrial might, without the sacrifice of American lives on European and Asian soil, the whole world would have fallen under a shadow of fascism almost unimaginable. There is no doubt that American Industrial and Military sectors made a major contribution to saving the world, as US soldiers fought alongside their Allies from the British Empire, the Soviet Union and elsewhere.
Yet at the same time, for the Brits it was a mixed victory. Although during the War the US had offered Britain its resources through the Lend-Lease scheme, meaning that we could use what we needed when we needed it for the duration – at the end of the War there was an invoice to be paid.
A bankrupted British Empire lay in tatters, while we borrowed a million dollars a day from the US to buy grain to stop the Germans from starving to death. At the same time, the military heavy machinery and supplies that we had borrowed from the US for the duration of the War either had to be returned or paid for. Even at the massive discount the US gave us (90%), our War Debt was only finally paid off in 2006. During the course of the War, we had bargained away our patent on the jet engine to the US, numerous other inventions, as well as an array of military bases throughout the world. These negotiations were to stand the US in good stead to project its massive military and trading presence throughout the world in the Post-War years. Throughout the war, America was preparing to make the most of the peace.
When peace finally came and Britain asked the US to honour the agreement that it share its nuclear secrets with us, after we had supplied some of our greatest brains to build the first atom bomb in the Manhattan Project, we were given a straight “no”. And when we decided to build our own nuclear power station at Calder Hall to start our own nuclear military project, the Americans genuinely drew up plans to invade Britain and destroy the facility – a plan that thankfully was never acted upon.
Meanwhile, the American policy of weakening and collapsing the British Empire remained active. After all, while in the first half of the 20th Century there had been an arms race between Britain the US and Japan, the US alone owned the peace of the latter half of the 20th Century. When the old imperial powers decided to flex their muscles in Egypt, in a combined operation between France, Britain and Israel, to drive Nasser out of the Suez Canal, America pulled the plug on the operation. It was a humiliating defeat that contributed to the further collapse of Britain’s crumbling credibility as a military power.
This, at least, is the way that the post-War years are sometimes presented from a British perspective, and it is part of this world view that informed some of the hostility that my friend from Chicago encountered whilst in the UK. Spotty kids don’t know much, but what they do know, they know with absolute ferocity, after all. And they knew they didn’t like Americans, although they couldn’t put their finger on why.
And so the story of the “special” relationship between Britain and America goes on. At times of difficulty, Britain and America work together. At times of peace, we are often rivals. We adore American pop culture – but there is enough of it that we are bound to hate it, too. We admire American science – but sulkily bemoan the loss of our great brains to the States.
We often bemoan the dumbing down of British culture by American culture – while ignoring the fact that the phrase “dumbing down” is a symptom of American English entering British English vocabulary. It’s a strange, complex, mix. As my friend in the US said: “It’s schizophrenic.”
For her, the thing that I did find shocking is that the hostility she experienced came from a generation long past being post-Imperial: she was at University over here a good 25 years after my father had told me of Lord Nelson. Old stories fade slowly, it seems.
And here’s the irony at the heart of it all. The “Special Relationship” we Brits cling to like a neurotic girlfriend is a throwback to a time when we felt far more important. It reassures us of our place in the world, while simultaneously reminding us of just how much the world has changed.
Part of the pointless resentment of young, uninformed Brits toward the US comes from exactly this: that 70 years ago, Britain as an Imperial power was Top Dog.
Many Brits just can’t quite swallow that it was both saved and superceded by that upstart nation – the Home of the Hot Dog.