Support 100 years of independent journalism.

28 March 2010

The mythical “special relationship” declared over at last

MPs tell the truth that dare not speak its name.

By James Macintyre

After what appears to have been some internal wrangling, the Commons foreign affairs select committee has produced a powerful report dismissing as redundant the use of the phrase “special relationship” to describe Britain’s relationship with the United States. It condemns the cliché’s use by media outlets and politicians and says that the UK should be “less deferential” in its approach to the US.

From the report:

The use of the phrase “the special relationship” in its historical sense, to describe the totality of the ever-evolving UK-US relationship, is potentially misleading, and we recommend that its use should be avoided.

The overuse of the phrase by some politicians and many in the media serves simultaneously to devalue its meaning and to raise unrealistic expectations about the benefits the relationship can deliver to the UK.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

This, of course, is quite right, and puts into stark words the truth that has dared not speak its name in recent years: that if we ever did have a “special relationship” with mutual benefits — and surely we did when Winston Churchill coined the phrase — we do not now. This was comprehensively proved during the build-up to the Iraq invasion, when the UK subcontracted its foreign policy from Whitehall to Washington, only to be defied in its desire for a second UN resolution sanctioning intervention.

Content from our partners
Small businesses can be the backbone of our national recovery
Railways must adapt to how we live now
“I learn something new on every trip"

Furthermore, the personalities involved — take John Major and Bill Clinton — often disprove the cherished phrase, especially when Labour is in office at the same time as the Republicans, or the Tories at the same time as the Democrats.

This will be proved to be the case more than ever if David Cameron does indeed become prime minister, as almost everyone expects him to, during the Obama administration. After all, the two have diametrically opposed values.

“Special relationship”: RIP.