Monday, March 29, 2010

UK special relationship with US is over, say MPs

Phrase coined by Churchill out of step with reality, notes committee as it recommends more hard-headed approach to US

Mark Tran

MPs today urged the government to adopt a more hard-headed approach towards the US and avoid the phrase "the special relationship" as Britain's influence over America was likely to diminish.

The 14-member cross-party foreign affairs committee said that the phrase coined by Winston Churchill more than 60 years ago no longer reflects political reality and should be dropped.

"The use of the phrase 'the special relationship' in its historical sense, to describe the totality of the ever-evolving UK-US relationship, is potentially misleading, and we recommend that its use should be avoided," the committee said. "The overuse of the phrase by some politicians and many in the media serves simultaneously to devalue its meaning and to raise unrealistic expectations about the benefits the relationship can deliver to the UK."

Three Labour MPs and two Conservatives voted unsuccessfully for the recommendation to be dropped but were overruled.

In words that will be interpreted as criticism of Tony Blair's decision to stand "shoulder to shoulder" with George Bush on the invasion of Iraq, the committee said: "The perception that the British government was a subservient 'poodle' to the US administration leading up to the period of the invasion of Iraq and its aftermath is widespread both among the British public and overseas. This perception, whatever its relation to reality, is deeply damaging to the reputation and interests of the UK."

Mike Gapes, the chair of the committee, said that Britain needed to have a realistic sense of its own limits and national interests.

"It is likely that the extent of political influence which the UK has exercised on US decision-making as a consequence of its military commitments is likely to diminish," he said. "Over the longer term the UK is unlikely to be able to influence the US to the extent it has in the past."

Gapes added that the UK foreign policy approach advocated by the committee reflected the more pragmatic tone that the US president, Barack Obama, has taken towards Britain.

A Foreign and Commonwealth Office spokeswoman said: "As the report notes, 'the British media's preoccupation with the state of the special relationship is frequently at the expense of coverage of the more substantive aspects of the relationship.' It doesn't really matter whether someone calls it the 'special relationship' or not. What matters is that the UK's relationship with the US is unique, and uniquely important to protecting our national security and promoting our national interest."

In testimony to the committee, British diplomats took a hard-headed view of that relationship.

Sir Jeremy Greenstock, the former British ambassador to the UN, said that British officials themselves do not use the term "special relationship".

"We might have to respond to it in public if it is thrown at us by Americans, but we don't regard it as special," he told MPs. "We regard it as an asset that has to be nurtured and worked at, and the access to the United States in terms of politicians, officials and members of Congress has to be earned because we're bringing something to the table. That is the way we think and work. We do not think it is special unless we are introducing substance to make it special."

David Manning, who was Britain's ambassador in Washington between 2003 and 2007, also said that there was "sometimes a tendency to over-hype the emotional relationship".

One of the difficulties about the term "special relationship", he told MPs, is that it can be overused. "It can give a sense that we can deliver more than is actually going to emerge from this relationship."