Benedict Brogan: This Relationship is Special, Despite the BP Oil Spill





[Benedict Brogan is the Daily Telegraph's Deputy Editor.]

My first lesson in American history was delivered by the fist of an older boy in the playground of Lafayette Elementary School in Washington, nearly 40 years ago. He wanted to put me right about my namesake Benedict Arnold, an enterprising colonial who offered to betray the fort at West Point to the British in 1780. As the new kid, I was to understand that the locals had long memories about the perfidious English, especially those with funny names. I was too busy studying the tarmac pressed against my face to point out that our school was named after a Frenchman – the cheese-eating surrender monkey who bailed out George Washington and his ragtag revolutionaries. But I remember wondering why these Yanks were not as friendly as they first appeared.

That painful discovery came back to me as I studied last week's photograph from the US of a hairy biker standing on the Union flag at an anti-BP demonstration. We are so used to hearing here about the uniqueness of our bond that these moments of Brit-baiting jar. Mud smeared across BP garages in Manhattan, lurid threats against Tony Hayward's family, and the venom dripping from every syllable when Barack Obama and his chums refer deliberately to "British" Petroleum: just how special is this relationship?

Well, in July, David Cameron will find out for himself, when he travels to Washington. He and the President will have met a few days earlier at the G8 summit in Canada, but it will be at the White House that they will have to forge the personal bond expected of them as keepers of the transatlantic flame. Their agenda will be dominated by many pressing issues, with Afghanistan top of the list. But their public task will be to paper over the cracks exposed by BP's incompetent handling of the Gulf oil spill and Mr Obama's inept grandstanding.

It will not be that easy. As the burn marks left when we torched the White House in 1812 might have reminded the two leaders, had they not been painted out, there has always been a dark side to our relationship, from the moment Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown and Thomas Jefferson likened the British to pirates who required "to be kicked into good manners". During the Civil War, things nearly came to blows when the Americans intercepted the British mail packet Trent and shanghaied two Confederate diplomats on their way to Europe to raise support. One English MP suggested tearing up the Stars and Stripes and sending it to the White House for use in the presidential water closet. Troops in Canada were put on alert, before Abraham Lincoln concluded that the affair was not worth opening a second front for.

In the last century, the narrative of a shared effort against fascism obscured America's initial indifference to British pleading for support, the financial cost of its help, and the galvanising effect of Pearl Harbour. Washington did much to wind down the British Empire, and pulled the plug on the Aden adventure in 1956. In more recent memory, the Reagan administration initially hedged over Argentina and the Falklands, then omitted to tell London about plans to invade Grenada, while Bill Clinton showed an enthusiasm for giving visas to IRA terrorists.

Worryingly, Mr Obama's record is especially open to scrutiny in this regard. In ways small (the return of Churchill's bust to the British Embassy, the gift of unplayable DVDs to Gordon Brown) and large (the downgrading of the Special Relationship, the studied neutrality over the Falklands) he has shown a signal lack of interest in the British-American alliance. For an Old Etonian Prime Minister, Mr Obama's memoir, Dreams From My Father, will make uncomfortable reading, with its account of his grandfather's ill-treatment at the hands of the British in Kenya and his own encounter with a clueless public-school Englishman. The President could in turn point to Mr Cameron's criticism of Tony Blair's"slavish" relationship with George Bush on the anniversary of September 11 as an example of words that might mean more than they should.

Mr Obama's attention has certainly been engaged elsewhere, first by grandiose plans in China and the Middle East, and now by the imperative of political survival after a year of policy failures...


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