Trump, Theresa, and the special relationship

Since his inauguration there has been a criticism from the Left about Theresa May’s closeness to Donald Trump and more recently her refusal explicitly and directly to condemn Trump’s weasel words about the terrorist violence by the white nationalists in Charlottesville. This seems to me like misdirected ire. It would be remarkable indeed in a British Prime Minister directly condemned an action or declaration by a US president. The entire political context of the relationship between the two Premiers acts against it.

The ‘special relationship’ goes well beyond and far deeper than party politics. The British and American diplomatic and intelligence services have long-standing and intense relations that deeply pervade the British government. The military relationship is equally entrenched into the sinews of the British state. The trade and investment relations between the two countries are also very substantial indeed – something that, strategically for the UK at this moment of profound Brexit uncertainty, must seem especially important.

In a nutshell, this transatlantic relationship is structural not ephemeral, and it is robust enough to condition the very nature of the British state. It is, at its core, a dependent relationship that emerged not with American Independence but rather the mid-Nineteenth Century emergence of a continental industrial economy. After the two World Wars and the Suez crisis it was clear that the entrenched Anglo-Atlantic relationship was now one of American core and British periphery.

As with so much normative discourse about Britain’s place in the world, the relationship with America is filtered through a very British anxiety which can be stated very plainly: we used to rule the world, we are still special, and so we should remain at the ‘top table’ in global affairs. This basic post-colonial agonising routinely crops up in those moments in which the world becomes headline news in British public culture, from the Malvinas/Falkland islands war to Brexit.

And, the British Left has always had within it a peculiar xenophobia about America that very easily resembles a kind of snobbery. When left-wing websites mock American popular ignorance, obesity, or religious zealotry I cannot help but wonder how similar the tropes are to those of the military, monarchical, and landowning elites of Britain after the Boston Tea Party. When people joke about Americans not knowing where to locate a European country on a map I wonder whether those people could identify the location of Washington DC and Washington State on a map.

There is, I am suggesting, a specific angst and provincialism in British political culture about America that leads some on the Left to behave in snobby ways. This was extremely clear after Trump’s victory in which many on the Left – without any basic empirical evidence – seized on a ‘white trash’ image of mass America, portraying all poor white people as irredeemably racist, stupid and violent.

Perhaps, then, the criticisms of Theresa May’s refusal to condemn Trump directly is in part an instantiation of this more general anger at Britain’s dependency on its former colonial possession, renewed through generations still working out their post-colonial melancholia and finding easy stereotypes of ‘merica that assuage the realisation that Britain is a middle power off the north coast of Europe.

To expect May to condemn Trump is not dissimilar to expecting a dog to sing Schubert’s Ave Maria. It doesn’t matter how much this inability angers you, your anger will not make this more likely to happen. And, in the unlikely event that it did happen, it would probably seem so odd that you regret crying out for it in the first place. Theresa May is not a politician who understands the entrenched and manifold oppressions of ‘race’ in any case; no Tory does. It would not surprise me if privately May has some coolness or even contempt for Trump: the Conservative Party is a great place to rekindle to last embers of a landlordly imperial sensibility which looks down its nose at Yankee entrepreneurial and arriviste power. But a public breaking down in leaders’ relations would seriously upset the stability of the upper echelons of British state itself. That would be an odd thing for the Tories to do, bearing in mind that this is precisely what defines them.

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