Off message: UK and US – the not-so-special special relationship

By:
Published on:

Brexit presents a fascinating situation for the financial services community.

by John Anderson

Obama Cameron-600
Hot dog, lukewarm relationship: Barack Obama and David Cameron


The investment banks are predicting doom and gloom if there is an exit; the hedge funds are fantasizing about life without Brussels; and all the transaction/settlement/clearing guys are deep in their bunkers trying to figure it out.

But for some reason I’ve become fascinated by the not-so-hidden player in the referendum: the United States, that country with which we in the United Kingdom have been hypnotised for decades into believing we have a "special relationship".

Well, folks, Brexit gives us a good opportunity to expose just how false a claim that is.

If we turn our attention back seven years to when Obama first came to office, there were grumblings in the then Labour-run UK government that life would be better outside the EU. At the time, the US almost choked on its Wheaties. The US State Department went into action and pressure was brought to bear on then prime minister Gordon Brown not to entertain any such foolish idea.

During that time, I ran into one of the political officers at the US Embassy in London who was most involved in keeping the UK in check. I told him I understood why the US would want the UK to be part of Europe for strategic political, military and financial reasons.

He just looked at me with a grin and said: "Actually, we want to keep to a minimum the number of small, insignificant countries we deal with."

I couldn’t believe my ears. Here was a country whose troops who had fought and died in Afghanistan and Iraq in common cause with the Americans now being described as "small and insignificant".

I thought he was being facetious, but when I asked the question again, he just smiled: "You heard what I said."

That political officer might have been in a foul mood, his words perhaps a bit sharper than they needed to be. But consider a more recent sentiment from a US trade representative who late last year said the US wouldn’t be inclined to enter into a bilateral trade agreement with the UK were it to leave the warm embrace of the apparatchiks in Brussels.

Michael Froman was quoted as saying: "We’re not particularly in the market for FTAs [free-trade agreements] with individual countries. We’re building platforms that other countries can join over time. We have no FTA with the UK, so they would be subject to the same tariffs – and other trade-related measures – as China, Brazil or India."

Criticism

To make matters even more interesting, Obama recently criticized the UK for taking its eye off the ball in allowing Libya to become a haven for the so-called Islamic State in north Africa.

Ever since Winston Churchill first spoke it in 1946 as a clarion call for the US and the UK to face off against Stalin’s Russia, the platitude of a special relationship has stuck so hard and fast that to even hint at its diminishment is seditious, though it continues to have less and less authenticity.

Now we have the news – yet to be confirmed – that Obama is going to pay a special visit to Britain in the coming months in order to make his views known on why the US needs a strong ally in the UK and why the UK can only remain strong if it says in the EU.

When that happens, press secretaries and speechwriters will pour forth a panoply of adverbs and adjectives about why the two countries have such a special relationship.

Those in favour of staying will delight in the involvement; the opposition will groan about the interference from over the pond, but at the end of the day it will have little impact on the outcome.

What will remain is this label that has little bearing to reality; which benefits neither side, but can’t be dissolved for the embarrassment that would follow.

From a communications perspective, the phrase 'special relationship’ is like a bad tattoo: You’re desperate to have it removed, but the pain is too much to bear.

John Anderson is a freelance writer who spent more than 20 years as a senior corporate communications official at a number of leading global financial institutions. He welcomes comments at  john.anderson293@googlemail.com.