Is there a special relationship?

Tony Blair and George Bush

I was on the radio this evening, debating the state of Anglo-American relations with Sunder Katwala of the Fabian Society. We actually agree on a lot, so it was a rather strange debate, trying to find things we disagreed on. When I was asked to go on the show, I had expected my opponent to be one of those Tories who argue that Britain’s relationship with America is paramount and that we should stay out of the EU because it made that relationship weaker. (Read about them here.)

My central point was that it is not up to Britain whether or not it has a special relationship with America. I might like to have a special relationship with Scarlett Johansson but it is not up to me. The Americans have many interests around the world, and accordingly many relationships. The test of whether or not their relationship with Britain is special is not what they say to us, but what they say to others: when they tell the Canadians that they can’t do something because of their relationship with Britain, that’s when we know it’s special.

If we want to have a special relationship with the Americans, we will get one if we are part of Europe, not if we are on our own. And we should not fear that the other Europeans will not want such a relationship, because they are all obsessed with America, too. I remember a Norwegian friend of mine explaining to me why the referendum on EU membership in 1994 had been lost: many Norwegians would rather be the 51st state of the United States, he said. Countries such as Ireland and Sweden have stronger family connections with the USA than Britain does. We should not kid ourselves about the extent to which we are unique in that respect.

In answer to the question in the title of this blog post, the answer is that we do indeed want a special relationship with America – even in relative decline, it is still the most powerful country in the world and it shares many of our values and interests – but we will get that special relationship to work best by being part of the European Union. I suspect that Sunder Katwala would agree with that.

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