UK-US Relations: how special is the special relationship?

Gregory Holyoke 9 November 2018
Credit: Chris Williamson

Now more than ever our lives seem to be dominated by abstract political jargon. One of the most enduring phrases is the so-called ‘special relationship’ between UK and the United States. After a contested debate at the Union on Tuesday night, members rejected the proposition that this relationship is over.

The hall was packed, more so than in a long time. People were, whatever their opinions, eager to hear about and discuss the UK’s relationship with our American allies. It was an undeniably impressive panel, featuring the former French prime minister Bernard Cazeneuve from the Socialist Party; as well as the Liberal Democrat leader and former Fitzwilliam student Vince Cable; and the Union’s debating officer Joy Jia (Queens’) proposing the motion. Facing them was the Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry, Obama’s Secretary of Homeland Security; and history finalist Lewis Thomas (Sidney Sussex).

Throughout the evening, the debate tended towards Trump and his effect on the relationship. Yet on this point the two sides could almost agree. They both saw his effect as detrimental but differed on what the overall outcome of this would be. Those proposing the motion opining that Trump has destroyed this relationship, with Cable suggesting that “Trump is transparent… he says what he thinks… you know exactly where he stands, and he has used this to expose the weakness of the United Kingdom.” While the opposition insisted that the relationship could survive his presidency, with Thornberry tweeting afterwards “…despite ‪@realDonaldTrump and his antics Cambridge Students voted against the motion that the Special Relationship is over.”

If we are really so concerned about the effect that one president, one person can have on a relationship that has apparently endured since Churchill first coined the phrase 72 years ago, then surely that exposes the fragility of our position. This is where the crux of the problem lies, in suggesting that we have had a meaningful, special relationship since 1946. In reality any special rapport with the US has been transient. The first two decades after Churchill’s speech in Fulton Missouri were marked by intense, acrimonious competition over power and oil in the middle east, and the US pressuring the UK into conceding it prized empire. Since then relations between our countries have fluctuated massively, and while we saw a coziness between Thatcher and Regan; and Bush and Blair, the actual relationship has only ever been as special as successive leaders have been willing to make it.

In the debate, many cited the cultural ties that we have. With a British mother and an American father, am I product of this special relationship? Perhaps I should feel more viscerally attuned these cultural bonds. But I don’t. In the same way that any other dual-nationals may not feel an irrevocable bond between their two respective nations. Yes, our screens are filled with American dramas, but so are the screens of many others, especially English speakers, across the world. Yes, we share a common language, but so do millions, if not billions of other people. Besides, the special relationship has historically been political and diplomatic rather than a cultural or social. It comes down to whether each government will prioritise the other in its strategic decisions. Over the last seven decades, very often neither party has done so.

Without taking on the role of a humanities student too much: given our shared recent history, it’s hard not to question the premise of us ever having a continuously special relationship. However, leaders on both sides of the Atlantic continue to cite it through good times and bad, past and present; and it seems in diplomacy that the said, not done prevails. In this way, the mere fact that both sides agree to use the term validates it. At the end of the debate I, like many, abstained.