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Is it a special relationship?

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 31 July 2007

Is Britain's relationship with the US simply a case of getting "up the a*** of the White House"?

"We want you to get up the arse of the White House and stay there." The memorable opening sentence of the memoirs of Sir Christopher Meyer, British ambassador to the US between 1997 and 2003.

For some, particularly in the UK, Sir Christopher's words encapsulate the subservient nature of Britain's position in the relationship. And the term "special relationship", coined by Sir Winston Churchill at the end of world war two, is in any case rarely used by Americans.

This sense of an imbalance has been at its most acute in recent years. Many in the UK believed that no national interest was served by the involvement of British troops in the invasion of Iraq, that it merely afforded a figleaf to George W Bush's pseudo-imperialist ambitions and a sop to Tony Blair's political vanity.

History shows that special relationship is at its strongest when both countries share a joint approach to matters of vital national interest.

That perception was reinforced last summer as, along with the United States, the United Kingdom conspicuously failed to criticise Israel for its military incursions into Lebanese territory.

But the fact is that the strength of the US-UK relationship has always waxed and waned as each country responds to issues that directly affect it.

The press may talk up the importance of Prime Minister Gordon Brown establishing good relations with his American counterpart, but history shows that special relationship is at its strongest when both countries share a joint approach to matters of vital national interest.


Churchill enjoyed an excellent relationship with FDR - just as well, since the US president brought the United States into the second world war, a gesture that ultimately assured allied victory over Nazi Germany.


The decision by Prime Minister Anthony Eden to invade Suez with France and Israel was strongly opposed by President Eisenhower (the US had not had not been consulted).

American pressure eventually forced the British to withdraw. A deep chill in the special relationship ensued.


Sir Harold Macmillan had known Eisenhower during the second world war, and their cordial relations were carried through into political high office (Eisenhower became president in 1956; Macmillan became prime minister the following year).

Good relations were maintained after John F Kennedy was elected president in 1960. In the wake of the Cuban missile crisis, the UK took delivery of Polaris weapons in 1962 and signed a partial nuclear test ban treaty with the US and the USSR.


Relations between Labour's Harold Wilson and the Democratic president Lyndon Johnson were never warm, partly because of the former's repeated refusal to permit British involvement in the war in Vietnam.


Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were enjoyed famously good relations. In military terms, the UK benefited during the 1982 campaign to recapture the Falkland Islands from the Argentinians.

The decision by the then US defence secretary, Casper Weinberger, to supply the British with vital American logistical and intelligence support proved invaluable.


Relations between the two are rumoured to have cooled in the wake of revelations that the Conservative government had given Clinton's Republican opponents access to documents relating to the US president's time as a student at Oxford university.

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