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Commentary 315 – December 2006
10 December 2006 (16:23:21)

YO MING?

If there is one thing that has earned Tony Blair the contempt of the nation, it is his sycophancy towards the USA. The sense of national humiliation was crystallised by the infamous ‘Yo Blair’ encounter with President Bush at July’s G8 summit.

While most of the British political establishment may still be in love with the USA, most of the British people have moved on.

In the 1940s, the relationship was sustained by wartime comradeship. In the fifties and sixties, American consumer goods were something to aspire to.

By the seventies and eighties, everyone had a fridge and a colour TV, and America ceased to be a model. We no longer watch American TV programmes in primetime. But we do fly to the USA in unprecedented numbers, and experience in person both the highs and the lows (the latter now including a three-hour wait in a queue labelled ‘aliens’ before the compulsory fingerprinting).

Iraq has been a catalyst for popular scepticism about Britain’s relationship with America but political, social and economic trends would have led this way in any case. British people once regarded Americans as ‘people like us’ but increasingly perceive them as weird. Any politician who doesn’t believe this ought to spend an evening in any local pub, where mockery of America is now common currency.

If Britain had won anything significant in return for its ‘special relationship’ – a just deal for the Palestinians, for example – this might have redeemed the situation. But as the Times (30 November) revealed, US State Department analyst Dr Kendall Myers has claimed that the policy of hugging America close has been a failure for the British.

The ‘special relationship’ is a myth, the relationship is one-sided. Myers admitted, “I feel a little ashamed and a certain sadness that we have treated him [Blair] like that. And yet there it was – there was no payback, no sense of reciprocity in the relationship.”

Myers added that he could not think of anything to put on “the asset side of the ledger” for the Prime Minister. He predicted that Britain would have to reconsider its role as a bridge between America and Europe after the ructions of Iraq.

Despite the obvious failure of British foreign policy, there seems a remarkable reluctance by the political establishment – Liberal Democrats included – to ask some fundamental questions. Apart from a few tame dissident noises by David Cameron, not reflected in any tangible change in Tory policy, criticism of the notion of a ‘special relationship’ is confined to the likes of George Galloway and Ken Livingstone.

It is hard to discern what inhibits British politicians. It cannot be popular sympathies, since we know from recent opinion polls that a large majority of voters feels that Britain is tied too closely to the White House.

The puzzle is all the more strange when it comes to the Liberal Democrats. The decision to oppose the Iraq war in 2003 was a brave one and – besides being vindicated by events – proved an electoral winner. Despite this, having occupied the moral high ground, the party has failed to capitalise on its stand.

Lib Dem MPs could have seized the opportunity to raise the issue of Iraq repeatedly and aggressively – and led public opinion against Blair and Cameron into the bargain.

The party could also have raised some fundamental questions about Britain’s relationship with the USA and begun to build a coherent position embracing related policy areas – such as the Trident replacement and our role in the EU – which are being taken in the wrong direction by Blair’s delusions.

Instead, we get Charles Kennedy – once the hero of the party’s Iraq policy – lecturing the party conference about ‘anti-Americanism’. And we get a statement by Ming Campbell (1 December) on the future of Trident, which was a tragic chunk of fudge.

Why the timidity?

Three ingredients seem to be at work in the leader’s office and none of them belong in a recipe for political success. The first is Campbell’s natural tendency to lawyerly circumlocutions on political issues that avoid any display of passion.

The second and third relate to the advisors with which Campbell has surrounded himself. He has one group of risk-averse associates who advocate caution at every turn and ensure that Campbell can never seize the moment or take a clear position on anything.

Meanwhile, another clique of confidants, some of them refugees from Mark Oaten’s doomed leadership campaign, believe that the secret of success is for the leadership to stage a ‘Clause Four Moment’, to take on and humiliate its own membership.

This explains the absurdly disproportionate amount of energy and prestige poured into the engineering of manufactured rows on such irrelevances as the party’s policy regarding the post office.

But it may also explain why Campbell hasn’t the balls to oppose Trident’s replacement.

One can hear these right-wingers now, urging Campbell on to a Gaitskell-style “fight, fight and fight again” posture to defend a ridiculous policy. But this is not 1960 and Campbell is no Gaitskell.

Little wonder that the leadership veers between moral cowardice and macho attacks on its own members. Neither of these postures qualifies as ‘leadership’. A coherent assault on Labour/Tory acquiescence to the White House would.

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