One of the first big strategic decisions made by David Cameron after his election as Conservative leader more than five years ago concerned the United States of America. Cameron claimed to have been taken aback by Tony Blair’s uncritical subservience to George W Bush, so he promised that any government he led would take a more independent stance. Britain, or so he stated, would no longer be “America’s unconditional associate in every endeavour”.
It is tempting to say that these remarks were brave, but actually, they weren’t. Cameron was simply reflecting the national mood of disgust at the busted alliance between Blair and Bush. And like so many of his pronouncements while in Opposition, the pledge to distance Britain from the US has been at least partly forgotten.
This week’s visit by Barack Obama has been a national embarrassment, although Cameron is not the only one at fault. Nick Clegg has been almost as bad, and the same applies to Ed Miliband. A great deal of the media coverage has been more craven still. I have detected very little sense that Britain is a proud, independent nation with a distinct sense of our own values and traditions, many of which are very sharply different and, in some cases, contradictory to America’s.
It took the President a very long time to force his way through Westminster Hall after making his over-hyped speech. This was because each and every member of our political class wanted to talk to him or shake his hand. It was like teenagers surrounding a pop star, but with very much less excuse: grown men and women, with a long record in public life behind them, abandoned all judgment and propriety.
The face of John Bercow as Obama spoke was a picture: like many other members of the audience (apart from Ken Clarke, who fell asleep) he appeared to be undergoing a profound, mystical experience.
Many people will have seen the photograph of Obama in the Cabinet room. The President is the only one standing up. Those seated around him are grinning sycophantically: a collective act of naked power worship. Lord Acton famously remarked that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”, and looking at those pictures one can understand exactly what the great historian was talking about.
There is, of course, no questioning the utility of the visit for the two young men at the heart of it. For David Cameron, a presidential visit is one of the massive advantages of incumbency. It differentiates him from Ed Miliband, his Labour rival, and helps establish him as an international statesman. For Obama, contact with the magical glamour of the Royal family is important as his campaign for a second presidential term gets under way: the historic apparatus of the British state wheeled out for a bit-part role in US domestic politics.
Hence the photo opportunities: at the Cabinet table, serving a barbecue, high-fiving after a ping-pong game. Doubtless, all this was a joy for Craig Oliver, the Downing Street director of communications, and his White House counterpart. Yet, in view of the times we live in, with wars being fought in distant places (and tragic though the British and US military deaths are, let us also remember the innocent victims of US drone attacks in Pakistan) all this bordered on the tasteless.
It was made worse by the lack of substance. Perhaps I am wrong, but there was no real sign of sleeves being rolled up, or hard analysis taking place, between the US President and the British Prime Minister in regard to our complex and morally treacherous wars in Libya and Afghanistan.
More disturbing still was another contradiction. Obama’s rhetoric was impeccable as he spoke of how we “stand squarely on the side of those who want to be free”, and of how the “longing for human dignity is universal”. But away from the gilded elite in Westminster Hall, these words make no sense.
America has little concept of the rule of law, a point trivially symbolised by the £5.2 million of outstanding congestion charge fines racked up by US diplomats in central London – a matter raised personally by Boris Johnson, London’s mayor, at the Buckingham Palace dinner on Tuesday night, and discussed at some length with the President, despite repeated attempts by Louis Susman, the US ambassador, to close Johnson down. Good for him.
More significantly, Obama, in breach of his election promise, has recently announced that the illegal prison of Guantánamo Bay is to be kept open. Further, both the US and British governments are selective about which freedom movements they support. They have nothing to say about the suppression of the Shia population in Bahrain, with the assistance of neighbouring Saudi Arabia. In the context of this dark ambiguity, the timing of last week’s announcement that the Gibson inquiry into torture will not include the British extradition of terrorist suspects for interrogation by the US looks cynical and dirty.
There is a paradox about these occasions. For more than 50 years after the end of the Second World War, not a single US president made a state visit to Britain. There was contact, of course: President Eisenhower met the Queen at Balmoral, the Kennedys had dinner at Buckingham Palace in 1961, while president Nixon was given lunch by the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh in early 1969. Ronald and Nancy Reagan stayed at Windsor Castle 13 years later. It is only the two most recent presidents – George W Bush in 2003 and now President Obama – who have been granted state visits, with all the associated grandeur which we witnessed this week.
So while this week’s formalities looked antique, we actually witnessed something that is wholly contemporary. When the relationship between Britain and the United States really was the hinge on which the world was constructed – think Churchill and Roosevelt, Macmillan and Kennedy, Reagan and Thatcher – nobody needed grand state ceremonial occasions to make the point. Now that it matters very much less, we do.
Another explanation of last week’s events goes deeper still. Britain is losing faith in its institutions. When we were confident about our role in the world, we were rather proud that the Queen’s first minister lived in a ordinary townhouse off Whitehall. Now everything is becoming presidential. The British prime minister used to have a principal private secretary, who would run his office. Now he has acquired a “chief of staff”, as well as a personal “military aide”.
Likewise, defence and security issues used to be dealt with by the relevant cabinet sub-committee. Now we have the ludicrous “National Security Council”. Downing Street has acquired a “Rose Garden”, even though it contains no roses. Our law lords meet in the “Supreme Court”, while moves are afoot to convert the House of Lords into a “Senate”. Without exception, all of these changes are based on the US model. There was reason to hope, when David Cameron became Prime Minister, that he would value the British way of doing things. But this week he has seemed to share with New Labour an awed, abject fascination with America. This, I feel, should disappoint us.
Cross-posted with thanks from the Daily Telegraph