Theresa May is off for a chat with President Donald Trump today – the first foreign leader to get a face-to-face with him since he was inaugurated – and, as usual, we are faced with the usual slightly embarrassing discussion about whether there is, in fact, a ‘special relationship’ between the US and the UK. It always goes the same way: the left and the ‘futilitarians’ of the right and centre – sneeringly crow that the UK is nothing more than a supplicant for whatever largesse the US is prepared to hand out; the ‘Atlanticists’ of the right argue that the UK has a vital role in guiding the US Government through the choppy waters of international affairs, as if the State Department was entirely staffed by second-year humanities undergrads in need of a bit of mentoring. There’s an assumption that if such a relationship does exist, it’s based on some kind of informal mutual admiration.
It’s all a bit ‘cringe’, as my daughter would say.
The reality is that there is a ‘special relationship’ between the UK and US which is both well-defined and formal. The truth is that, since the Second World War, by formal agreement, secret intelligence collected by US and UK agencies has been shared to an extent that many would find surprising. In fact, it isn’t too far fetched to claim that the NSA and GCHQ, for example, effectively operate as two branches of the same organisation.
So what? Well, it means that to a large extent, US and UK policy is informed by the same basic intelligence information. Interpretations of what this shared intelligence means can and do differ, but there is always that background awareness and mutual understanding between the two governments.
So yes, British blather about the ‘special relationship’ does get a bit embarrassing and does make us seem more than a little needy, but it is nevertheless a real thing, and it’s a relationship that many of our western allies would give their eye-teeth to be a part of.