Politics - Stryker McGuire asks: what's so special?

The special relationship has not been a laughing matter for some time, and certainly not since Blair

Raymond Seitz, US ambassador to the UK in the early 1990s, tells a story about the "special relationship". John Major went to Washington a few weeks after Bill Clinton took office. The Democrat Clintonistas believed - wrongly, Major always insisted - that officials in the Tory government had riffled Home Office files looking for dirt on Clinton from his Oxford days. As the meeting approached, Seitz wrote in his memoirs, the British press was "almost ghoulish in its anticipation of rancour at high levels". Just before Major arrived at the White House, one of Clinton's aides teased the president, "Don't forget to say 'special relationship' when the press comes in." "How could I forget?" said Clinton. The president threw back his head and laughed.

The special relationship hasn't been a laughing matter for a long time, and certainly not since Tony Blair signed on to America's Iraq-war plans. Winning admirers and infuriating detractors, Blair has managed the special relationship with remarkable panache. No one could forget the tears in his eyes at Warwick University in December 2000, when Clinton came to Britain to speak one last time as president. Then along came Bush. Blair - the consummate political chameleon - was determined to build a strong relationship with him, and he did.

This dynamic will be on display again at the G8 summit. When the family portrait is taken, I will try to Photoshop Gordon Brown into it. This is more than a parlour game. It's still likely that the Chancellor will move into No 10 before Bush leaves office in January 2009. Can Gordon match Tony when it comes to George? Should he even try?

If you look back at great British practitioners of the special relationship, few can touch Blair. Churchill's courting of Roosevelt changed history. Thatcher and Reagan had a meeting of minds at a momentous time. But Churchill despaired of winning over Roosevelt's successor, Harry Truman. And neither Churchill nor Thatcher could lay claim to building transformational relationships with presidents so vastly different as Clinton and Bush.

With Brown in the role of junior partner in the special relationship, it's hard to imagine quite the same closeness between Downing Street and Bush - or, for that matter, between Downing Street and whoever succeeds Bush, Republican or Democrat. For one thing, there will be no war to bind them together. America has no appetite for one; if it did, Britain has no appetite to tag along. For another, in the absence of a grand cause like Iraq, Britain and America seem certain to drift apart, as the UK pursues causes - on debt, climate change, trade with China and India, the Middle East peace process - that will be inimical to US interests.

If that happens, it will be interesting to see whether Brown finds himself shifting allegiances in the way Blair did. Blair always saw himself as a bridge between America and Europe, but he was at heart a European. Iraq sabotaged his European objectives, at least until recently. Brown is a fan of America with Eurosceptic leanings. While Blair and his closest political friends favour summering in Tuscany or France, Brown prefers Nantucket Island, off the Massachusetts coast, as a guest of his friend Bob Shrum, who worked with John Kerry in 2004 (and who was here at his friend's side during the May election campaign). If Britain and the US drift apart, will Brown find it advisable to move closer to Europe?

Britain would do well to stand back and reassess its fixation with the special relationship. A test: did it matter to Britain that Blair went to war in Iraq with the US? (Terribly.) Did it matter to America that Britain went to war along with Bush? (Not much.) Among the big majority of Britons who think favourably of the US, most cite by name the "special relationship", according to a MORI survey. In the US, says MORI's Bob Worcester, an American who has lived in Britain since the 1970s, "nobody outside the [Washington] Beltway even knows what the special relationship is".

There are strong ties: in language, history and trade; the sharing of military technology; a quarter of a million US citizens live in Britain; there are more US military personnel here (11,500) than British troops in Iraq (7,500). In no way does the relationship exist more covertly and crucially than among the intelligence agencies - witness the joint working at the listening centre at GCHQ.

British politicians may call this a "special relationship" still; their American counterparts do not. The fact is, since the rise of Asia as an economic power and the end of the cold war, the phrase has fallen out of favour in Washington. How much so? Diplomats at the US embassy in Grosvenor Square are instructed not to use the term.

Stryker McGuire is London bureau chief for Newsweek magazine. This is the latest in a series of political columns by guest writers

This article first appeared in the 27 June 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Smokescreen