The American president is coming! All over Britain, people are putting up the bunting, cutting the crusts off the tea sandwiches and preparing to inflate the traditional welcome gift, a giant orange baby that resembles Donald Trump. The Queen is baking bread in the kitchen of Windsor Castle, and the Duke of Edinburgh is kneading her baps. Over at 10 Downing Street, Theresa May is preparing the burgers, whistling nervously as she shapes her patties and warms her buns. In every household, the children gather round as grandfather explains why the lights would go out were it not for the Special Relationship, why the happiness of Meghan Markle is a national priority, and why Vinegar Joe Stilwell called his British allies in Burma ‘pig-fuckers’.
You hear a lot about the Special Relationship in Britain. In America, less so. That says a lot about how the relationship between Britain and America is special. It is unequal, a psychologically abusive marriage in which the weaker party agonizes over hints of exclusion that the stronger party barely thinks about. Political scientists have long suspected that the British, or at least the caste of privately educated men who still run Britain, are a nation of flagellants who like nothing more than a good spanking. The Special Relationship tends to confirm this. It is special in the way of elaborate masochist scenarios. The British do not walk tall and free in the world. They go on all fours, wearing a dog collar, and thanking the United States for rubbing their nose in their own mess. That’s why Tony Blair was called ‘Bush’s poodle’.
Like any other kind of pervert, British politicians claim that their favorite scenario is eternal and unchangeable. This, like any other kind of perversity, derives from a fantasy of inverted power. Some historians believe that the Special Relationship was invented on a slow afternoon on the Mayflower. But the truth is that it only got going in the late 1800s and early 1900s—around the same time as the Anglo-French Entente Cordiale, which is not much of an entente, and not very cordial either.
There were some difficult moments in the early days. In 1776, the Americans, realizing that they were on the weaker end of the imperial power game, ended the relationship. In 1812, the British retaliated by smashing the crockery in the White House—in British culture, breaking someone’s tea cups is a far greater insult than burning down their home. In 1859, sabres were rattled over San Juan Island, near Vancouver, after an American settler shot a pig belonging to a British settler. The pig was the only casualty, and Britain’s climbdown was a promise of embarrassments to come. In 1895, sabres were rattled again over Essequibo and Guyana Esequiba—do pay attention—which Britain claimed for British Guyana and the United States, warming to its imperial destiny, preferred to give to Venezuela. Things got so heated that Rudyard Kipling, having settled in Vermont with his American wife Jessie, argued so grievously with her brother that he returned to Britain.
And then Britain and America suddenly discovered that they were cousins. Much of this had to do with race theory and imperial ambition. As early as 1869, the British Liberal MP Charles Dilke’s Greater Britain had sketched out the dream that would so entrance Winston Churchill, in which Little Britain passed the baton of Anglo-Saxon domination to the crude but energetic Americans. This smart piece of positioning flattered the Americans. So did the trading of blue British blood for green American assets. As all British schoolchildren know, the most important event in this breeding program in the style of Henry James was the successful insemination of Lord Randolph Churchill by Jennie Jerome, a union which produced King Winston I.
Things got really special for Britain after 1940. Roosevelt kept Britain in the fight, but the price was the Atlantic Charter, with its promise of postwar decolonization. Jennie Jerome’s son Winston accepted the offer, even though he was an arch imperialist. The collapse of British power was confirmed in 1956, when Eisenhower and Dulles threatened to trash the British pound if Britain didn’t withdraw from Suez and leave that nice Mr. Nasser in power. And people wonder why the British have a good sense of humor.
The French concluded from Suez that they should never trust the Americans. The British concluded that they must always have the Americans’ trust. Harold Macmillan, who had encouraged Anthony Eden in the Suez adventure, was to suggest that it was Britain’s destiny to play Greece to America’s Rome. Not all Britons have been happy with assuming a Grecian posture before the advances of the thrusting Americans. Anti-Americanism remains strong in the Labour Party and is an article of faith on the further left in Britain, but the Conservatives have come around. Better to be on the receiving end, because second place is preferable to no place at all.
Dean Acheson, it turns out, was wrong. Britain had lost an empire, but it very quickly found a role. This was to do whatever the United States asked, and to flatter the Americans while complaining in private about their neo-Roman vulgarity. This was one of the few equal elements in the Special Relationship, because the Americans flatter the British that they can still cut the global mustard, while complaining in private about British effeteness and neo-Greek fatalism.
It hasn’t all been plain sailing. Lyndon Johnson was most unhappy when Britain declined to send troops to Vietnam. Margaret Thatcher was furious when the Reagan administration seemed ready to surrender the Falkland Islands to Argentina’s fascist dictatorship, and not especially pleased when the United States invaded Grenada, a Commonwealth state, without asking the Queen’s permission. Generally, though, the British will go along with pretty much anything the Americans suggest, sometimes with gritted teeth, but frequently with glee.
The real relationship between the British and the Americans is at the human level, not the political one. The British people like Americans, though they find them a little unpolished and noisy. The Americans like the British, though they find them a little smelly and stuck-up. The relationship between the two nations is special in a family way—not incest, God forbid, but cousinhood. Perhaps the political Special Relationship is an obstacle to an otherwise natural friendship?
Certainly, Americans watching the footage of protests against Donald Trump’s visit to Britain might feel that he has landed in hostile territory. But many of them feel that the White House is now hostile territory too. Cousins have a tendency to mirror your own aspects, for good and bad. Trump’s ‘friend’ Boris Johnson, busy this week at destabilizing Theresa May’s hapless government, is a New York-born blond with big hair, boundless ambition, a chequered record in the bedroom, and a way with a one-liner.
So welcome to the Fifty-First State, Mr. Trump. We can’t wait to feel superior to you while you ritually humiliate us. We wouldn’t have it any other way. Nor could we, because we have no money and our only aircraft carrier is a bit leaky. So come back soon. Please.