The traditional alliance of the British crown with its former American colony, an alliance that served as a foundation for the British foreign policy during the times of Winston Churchill and also Margaret Thatcher, is called into question today. In effect, the United Kingdom has no other option than choosing between its Atlantist commitment and its European interests. However, as Cedric Housez notes while analyzing statements by British leaders, they reject this choice. Today’s criticism of Tony Blair’s participation in George W. Bush’s military adventures is limited to expressing a will for a balance in transatlantic relations.
- Demonstration against the invasion of Iraq in London, March 2005
Seen from France, the relationship between the United Kingdom and the United States seems to be marked, from the side of London, by the words said by Winston Churchill to Charles De Gaulle, which the latter cited in his Mémoires de Guerre: “Each time we must choose between Europe and the open sea, we shall always choose the open sea!” This phrase deeply marked French historiography of World War II and is always mentioned when speaking about US-Great Britain relations or the British presence in Europe.
At this moment in time, if we go by what the representatives of the British Labor or Conservative parties say, or what the main editorialists write, it might look like the United Kingdom is still loyal to the principles of Winston Churchill. London looks like the closest ally, it could be said like the most loyal vassal, of Washington in the world. However, after the war in Iraq and the casualties suffered among British troops, a different point of view has finally made its way through the British media and into the political field. British foreign relations and defense analysts, as well as some politicians, are calling into question the “privileged relationship” between the United States and the United Kingdom. However, that position is not so common in the media and has not found a wide political expression. In addition, the British desire for independence from the United States is still marked by ambiguity. On the other hand, while the arguments from the advocates of a close association between London and Washington are well developed and based on years of bilateral ties and political speeches, those of the opponents are linked, at least for the moment, to a more recent context and still need more explanation as they go against the mainstream trend.
The Privileged Relationship
After World War II and during the Cold War, London and Washington developed very close ties. These ties, which have frequently been described as a “privileged relationship”, are one of the traditional axes of the British foreign policy. The incorporation of Great Britain to the European Union, in 1972, brought modifications to this doctrine. Since then, the United Kingdom is presented as a “bridge” between Europe and the United States and, thus, as a guarantor of good transatlantic relations. Tony Blair made emphasis on this during an interview granted to the Financial Times in April 2003 . Also in that interview, the British Prime Minister condemned the French-German position at that time about the need for a multi-polar world. According to Blair, this could only result in the emergence of rival powers without any kind of cooperation in the long term. Faced with the US’s world hegemony, Blair supported the development of a unipolar world in which the western pole would be unified behind the United States thanks to the mediating work of the United Kingdom.
- Denis McShane
This doctrine has been rarely expressed in such a clear manner, but it is the postulate upon which most of the Labour or Conservative statements on foreign policy matters are based.
However, it is necessary to clarify something: this position is expressed more frequently in the British media than when these same people speak for other European media: When members of the Labour or the Conservative parties write for the European continental press, they often show a European fervor that is later contradicted in their own national media. Still acting as the British Minister for European Affairs, Denis McShane published on February 28th, in the French conservative newspaper Le Figaro, a call aimed at French voters who favored the European Constitutional Treaty (ECT) . In that call, McShane affirmed that many British people thought that the ECT was inspired by the French and was polite towards French citizens. After the British legislative elections, McShane lost his post as Minister for Foreign Affairs and, freed from the diplomatic language, he gave free rein to his francophobic speech  and started claiming the British paternity over the ECT  in the media of his country. Today, he is even part of the new think-tank of the neo-conservatives of the United Kingdom: the Henry Jackson Society. When British leaders speak to the public opinion of their own country or to that of the United States, the tone of their speech is not so Europhile and they give more importance to their alliance with the United States. In an article published in the Daily Telegraph in June 2004, , then Conservative leader Michael Howard developed a line of argument that is almost the archetype of this point of view. There, he praised the Anglo-Saxon model comparing it with the European model and glorified US productivity comparing it with that of the European Union. In addition, he wrote that the European Union endangered the British identity. With that perception of the situation, it was obvious the kind of policy that was necessary to implement… This approach is also present in the newspapers of media tycoon Rupert Murdoch. They frequently criticize the incorporation of the United Kingdom into the European Union and describe it as an obstacle for national independence while, in contrast, they present its relationship with the United States as a key element for independence and even national power. In effect, the United States is usually presented to the readers as a brute force that can be oriented and led by London in the British interests. In short, for the advocates of the “privileged relationship”, praising the unipolar world as alright. The United States should be the driving force of a western pole that controls and benefits the world (all Tony Blair’s speeches about the assistance that western countries can give to developing countries aim in that direction). European countries must follow the American “locomotive” and the United Kingdom should create that tie. Thus, NATO is systematically presented as an organization that should be defended if it becomes fragile. In the meantime, the conservatives criticize the European Union for its inconsistency while its “Labour” advocates present it as an economic structure that needs to be reformed to resemble the Anglo-Saxon model. In no case is the European Union seen as an organization that could become a political pole independent (let alone competitive) of the United States. However, today this speech has no echo among the British public opinion. The number of British casualties in Iraq continues to grow every day along with the scandals about the behavior of the troops of Her Majesty towards the Iraqi civilian population, and Great Britain’s cooperation with the United States there is causing upsets among the British people.
Iraq: the “privileged relationship” weakens
Contrary to what happened with the conflicts of Kosovo or Afghanistan, the war in Iraq was not so well received in the United Kingdom. Even before it started, there were important demonstrations against it. It was then when cartoons portraying Tony Blair as George W. Bush’s lapdog began to appear. Also in this context, British singer George Michael premiered in 202, a few months before the beginning of the invasion of Iraq, a song entitled Shoot the Dog. The song’s video showed Tony Blair, like a lapdog, picking up a small stick thrown by George W. Bush.
However, these kinds of attack against the British Prime Minister did not go beyond the personal level. The criticisms were against the submissiveness of Tony Blair and his government to the Bush administration and not against British and US ties.
Former Conservative minister Malcom Rifkind insisted on the personal nature of the issue in the British media and also in his public addresses. In a speech given on November 17, 2003, at the London School of Economics, he noted that, in the past, the “privileged relationship” between London and Washington did not excluded criticism and expressed contempt for Tony Blair’s behavior . Later, he told the Conservative Party to serve as counterpoint for Tony Blair and to fight the Labour Prime Minister supporting the “privileged relationship” but criticizing George W. Bush and his team .
This approach is not only limited to the conservatives. Liberal-Democrats and members of the Labour Party who oppose the Prime Minister’s policy also express their criticism of Tony Blair’s ties with George W. Bush without condemning the “privileged relationship”. This was particularly evident during the US electoral campaign prior to the presidential election of November 2004. At that time, Tony Blair’s former Foreign Minister, Robin Cook, criticized the personal relationship between the British Prime Minister and the US President and showed his concern for the future of the “privileged relationship” if John Kerry won the election . The argument was made by a Labour member who opposes Tony Blair and has close ties with the American Democrats and it was easy for Tony Blair’s former Public Relations advisor, Alastair Campbell, to answer . Highlighting the past bonds between Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, Campbell announced that the ties that linked the United States and the United Kingdom were a constant that could resist any change of government. Thus, for a while, the argument of a US “locomotive” that should lead the western dominating pole with the British support was not called into question. However, there was concern among the advocates of the “privileged relationship” regarding the ability of the British “driver” to lead the locomotive, or to have any influence at least. The denunciation of the British submissiveness did not encourage the British political leaders, Labour and Conservative, to question the convenience of a unipolar world or the position of the United Kingdom within that model. The controversy only involved the behavior, not the position, of London in the world order that the United States want.
- David Clark
However, on the same day that Alastair Campbell - and also in the same newspaper – Robin Cook’s former advisor, David Clark, questioned the analysis of the ex spin doctor, going even farther than his former employer .
For that author, the war in Iraq showed that the British had become the vassals of the United States and not their allies in leading the world. Without considering a change of leadership in Washington, the author asked London to recover its independence and question the very foundation of the “privileged relationship”. Also without referring to the topic of the unipolar world, he rejected the argument according to which the British can only benefit from their alliance with Washington. Clark’s text represented a breaking-off for a group of Labour members, but it was not out of the blue. It came accompanied and preceded by a series of articles by British experts on foreign relations or defense issues that had decided to question the founding paradigm of the British foreign policy.
The opposition of Experts and Analysts
In September 2003, only six months after the invasion of Iraq started, the new president of the prestigious Royal Institute of International Affairs, Dr. DeAnne Julius, caused a stir with her speech during the inauguration of the new studies cycle of her institute . She explained in detail the differing economic interests of the United States and the United Kingdom and which bring shadows over the situation of the “privileged relationship”. That speech was like a warning for Washington: the British leadership could cut itself off from the US policy if Washington insists on its unilateral approach. However, once again, the issue is not the existence of a unipolar world but British interests within the dominating pole.
After that speech, many experts began to systematically appear in media outlets denouncing the US control over British intelligence services and London’s submissiveness to Washington’s orders. Those interventions gained echo as public indignation grew among the British people that saw how their government buried the Kelly case (the scandal about the alleged suicide of an armaments expert of the Defense Ministry, David Kelly, who had told the BBC about the lies regarding Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. The Independent thus gave the floor to Professor Brian Jones, a former colleague of Dr. Kelly, to tell how the ploy was organized and the pressures that his team suffered to review their reports on the Iraqi armament. . Although Jones did not insist specifically on the issue of British independence in his description of the environment that existed in his team before the war of Iraq, the texts show the influence of the British leaders submitting to the propaganda program organized by Washington.
The analyses of Crispin Black (a former lieutenant colonel of the British army) and Dan Plesch (a researcher at the Royal Institute of International Affairs) went beyond their articles published in the Guardian. This newspaper also became a platform for those who oppose the US control over the British apparatus and its intelligence services. Crispin Black denounced the presence and influence of US intelligence members in the high-level meetings of the British intelligence services . Dan Plesch went even farther. He also denounced the vassal attitude expressed in the “privileged relationship” , and defended, along with member of Parliament Adam Price, the opening of a file to impeach Tony Blair . However, the harshest blow to the “privileged relationship” was dealt by 52 British diplomats on April 27, 2004. Abandoning the silence imposed on them, even after retirement, these diplomats simultaneously published in The Independent and in The Guardian an open letter to the Prime Minister. This unprecedented event caused a real stir among the staff of the Foreign Office. Due to its importance, Downing Street was not able to impose any sanctions. The signatories made in that call a balance of the results of the Coalition in Iraq and they urged for an immediate change in the policy jointly implemented with the United States and, what is worse, in the event of a rejection by the politicians, they predicted the breaking-off of the “privileged relationship”. Faced with the increase of these appeals, the revision of the relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom soon became the central issue of some British members of Parliament.
Members of Parliament against the “Privileged Relationship”
During the British legislative elections of 2005, some candidates of the Liberal-Democratic Party and those of the Respect Coalition, grouped around Labour dissident George Galloway, launched a campaign against the submissiveness of the two main parties to US interests.
The leader of the Liberal-Democrats, Charles Kennedy , and George Galloway  conducted separate campaigns affirming that their party had been the only one that did not supported the Prime Minister’s policy linked to Washington. Once again, it was The Guardian that spread these attacks. There is a common will in their appeals to break with the bi-partisan logic of the “privileged relationship” and at the same time to question the foreign policy dogma and the axis of the British bipartisan political life.
In effect, the British political system is made to create stable majorities in front of an opposition unified through a one-round uninominal count that leads the tactical vote in favor of the main parties and avoids party division. However, British democracy was built upon a first two-party system that opposed liberals and conservatives around the redistribution of powers between the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie. This two-party system disappeared with the political emergence of the social issue and the foundation of the Labour Party, which gave birth to a new two-party system opposing the Labour and Conservative parties while the liberals gradually disappeared from the political scene. Today, the liberals and the Respect coalition hope to make this system disappear to pave the way for British independence from the United States. They intend to collect the fruit and not to let others benefit from the new situation. The British election on May 5, 2005, strengthened the liberal-democrats and Respect, but it did not prevent Tony Blair from gaining a third mandate. The Guardian conducted a broad campaign against the “privileged relationship” but it was isolated. At this time, it is hard to know at what point the British public opinion is, with regards to the issue of the relationship with the United States, particularly because London’s vassalage relationship towards the United States is ambiguous. Of those who denounce the US control over the British policy, who does it because of the failure of the invasion of Iraq? Who wants long-lasting British independence? Who is moved by a pro-European sentiment? Who is being opportunistic? Who is moved by anti-imperialist feelings? Who does it in order to favor an exclusively British imperialist policy that would ignore US mandates?
The criticism of the British and American ties, thus far, lacks a global perspective for a breaking-off. In effect, the experts try hard to show the consequences that these ties with Washington may bring to British defense and the decisions made in that field. Political leaders take these analyses as grounds to question the way in which internal political life is developing in the United Kingdom. However, there is (maybe not yet) not a deep reflection about the unipolar world. The advocates of a breaking-off with Washington have not yet showed any support for a multi-polar world, or for the development of a European or Euro-Asian pole that could compete with the United States. Unless it believes in isolationism, London should make, therefore, if it distances itself from Washington, a profound revision of its alliance system and change its paradigm of analysis of international relations. This theoretical reflection about the representation of the world that implies a British realignment is still, so far, a task that is pending. So it is difficult to make an opinion about those who have chosen to denounce the links with Washington. However, it is an important issue. In fact, there are those who think that in order to resume their colonial adventures and to convince their own public opinion that they act leading the forces of the “free world”, the United States needs the support of the British government. The British former European Commissioner for Foreign Affairs, Chris Patten, and the former British ambassador to the United States from 1997 to 2003, Sir Christopher Meyer, allege that the invasion of Iraq would not have taken place had Tony Blair not supported George W. Bush. If this analysis is accurate, the British debate about the links between London and Washington is essential for all humanity.