Alex Massie

Jeeves and Foreign Policy

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Timothy Garton Ash tries to explain the Anglo-American relationship in terms of another great partnership: Jeeves and Wooster.

Here, in miniature, is a classic example of that whole British approach to our relationship with the US, which I call the Jeeves school of diplomacy. Impeccable manners; a discreet smile; always perfect loyalty in public; but privately murmuring insistently, "Is that wise, Sir?" And back home in Jeeves's own club, frequented - as devotees of PG Wodehouse will recall - only by gentlemen's gentlemen (ie butlers), you tut-tut about the foolish conduct of the masters.

This has, in some measure, been a British approach for more than 60 years, ever since hegemony passed across the Atlantic. (For this Jeeves was himself a master once.) But it has been a national strategy with ever diminishing returns, and it has no remedy for the circumstance that Bertie Wooster goes berserk. What does Jeeves do when Wooster starts torturing people in a back room, or getting a Moroccan butcher to do the penis-slashing for him? What if Wooster embarks on what you believe is a dangerous and mistaken war? From everything we know so far, the British Jeeves's answer was to murmur by turns: "Might I assist you, Sir?"; and "Is that wise, Sir?" That was the approach not just on particular horrors like extraordinary rendition but also on the Iraq war and the whole misbegotten concept of the "Global War on Terror". For all along, the Foreign Office, and much of the British government, knew better, knew that this was not wise or right, and would privately tell you so...

Not only Britain but the US, indeed the world, would be in better shape today if Britain had not continued to play this demeaning part of the faithful retainer who will put up with anything. A true, valued friend is the one who tells you when are doing something stupid or wrong, not the one so anxious to keep your friendship that he will never bawl you out. I am sure that is what many people in the Obama administration feel in their hearts today, even if they wouldn't articulate it so clearly. So that this subservient fetishisation of the special relationship, with intelligence-sharing at its heart, ends up weakening even the special relationship. Poor, stupid, self-deluding old Jeeves. This won't do. I mean, the foreign policy analysis is all very well and good but the literary analogy makes no sense at all. It's flattering to consider us Jeeves to the American Wooster. I mean, Bertie is lovable and has a heart of gold but, in the end, he's also often something of a fathead. No wonder Jeeves always needs to save both the day and Bertie from himself. In the end Bertie always listens to Jeeves. And that's the point exactly: Jeeves is actually the boss. Not for nothing does he make his debut in a story titled "Jeeves Takes Charge".

So though superficially it might seem as though Bertie runs the show (and he'd like to think he does) but he doesn't. The gentleman's gentleman is the real master and it is Jeeves who determines how much rope Bertie can be trusted with. That is, from the merits of the banjo to the colour of his socks or the wisdom of a moustache, Bertie's life is run by Jeeves. This extends to matters of the heart too: Jeeves is happy to pervert the course of love if that's what it takes to keep Bertie independent and "free". This is good for Bertie and good for Jeeves too, ensuring that he won't face a rival for the Wooster ear. In that sense, then, Jeeves is as formidable and controlling a figure as any of Bertie's aunts could hope to be. More so, in fact. Jeeves isn't "self-deluding" or stupid so it's hard to see how Britain can be that and play the Jeeves role. Note too that it's always "Jeeves and Wooster" not "Wooster and Jeeves."

That is to say that, if anything, the British position within the transatlantic relationship is actually much more like that of Bertie Wooster than Jeeves: superficially independent, always coming up with cunning wheezes, generous to a fault but always making an ass of himself and, in the end, deluded, utterly dependent upon the good intentions of others and completely incapable of any kind of independent action...

In other words, while trying to flatter us all, Garton Ash gets his Wodehouse completely wrong.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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