There will be much at stake when the United Kingdom finally goes to the polls on May 6 after months of phony war between the two leading parties: the future course of the British economy, the fifth largest in the world, now submerged under mountains of debt and regulation after 13 years of socialist rule; the state of Britain’s defenses, gutted by more than a decade of vicious cuts, and under threat from a European defense identity; Britain’s relationship with the European Union, which could be renegotiated with a change of government at Westminster. And the most important issue from America’s point of view, the future of the Anglo-American alliance, which currently stands at its lowest point in a generation.
There are two seminal dates, however, which are likely to decide the fate of the Special Relationship, the most enduring and successful partnership since the Second World War: May 6, 2010, and November 6, 2012, the date of the next U.S. presidential election. While the Special Relationship continues in terms of intelligence and defense cooperation, as well as economic, trade, and cultural ties, at the political level it is currently in a dangerous state of decline. The current British prime minister and the current U.S. president seem largely indifferent to the long-term future of the U.S.-UK alliance, and both have inflicted serious damage upon it.
The British government’s decision last August to free the Lockerbie bomber, Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi — responsible for the murder of more than 180 Americans — at the request of Scottish authorities, was an appalling affront to the U.S. It was a sharp reminder that anti-American sentiment is never far under the surface in the Labour Party, despite the brief love affair with Washington under Tony Blair. Further confirmation of the Brown government’s reckless approach towards the United States was given last week when the Labour-dominated House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee voted to officially end the use of the term “Special Relationship.”
At the same time, the Obama administration has displayed what can only be described as sneering condescension towards America’s closest ally, from throwing a bust of Sir Winston Churchill out of the Oval Office in its opening days, to siding with Argentina in its call for U.N.-brokered negotiations over the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands. Barack Obama has been conspicuously cold towards the United Kingdom, and has shown no interest at all in preserving the Special Relationship, treating Britain no differently than most other allies in Europe, and significantly less warmly than France.
There are never any guarantees in politics, but a change in government in London is likely to significantly revive support for the Special Relationship on the British side. The Conservative Party leader, David Cameron, is a firm believer in the importance of the Anglo-American alliance, as are several leading figures in his Shadow Cabinet, including Liam Fox (Defense), William Hague (Foreign), and Michael Gove (Education).
Conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic have a significantly stronger affinity and commitment to the Anglo-American alliance than their left-wing counterparts, and the party of Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher is far more likely to preserve the Special Relationship than Gordon Brown’s Labour. Similarly, on the U.S. side, the party of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush traditionally attaches far more importance to the ties with Great Britain than its political rivals.
It remains to be seen of course whether a Cameron-led government, if elected, can actually succeed in forging a successful partnership with an increasingly isolationist Obama administration that has shown little interest so far in Britain. The omens certainly don’t look good on that front. Ultimately, however, it will be the U.S. presidential election in 2012 that will play the biggest role in deciding the fate of the Special Relationship. To succeed, the alliance must operate as a two-way street, with both sides fully invested in ensuring it remains the engine of the free world. If the White House isn’t interested, the partnership simply cannot survive, no matter who is in charge in Downing Street.