Alex Massie

Special Relationship Fretting Special!

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Could there be anything more juvenile than Fleet Street's unanimous view that Gordon Brown has been embarrassed by Tony Blair "beating" him to an audience with Barack Obama? Sure, it's always entertaining to dip back into the Blair-Brown psychodrama and everyone likes the idea of the PM watching Tone preach the word at the White House and throwing the TV remote against the wall in a fit of Presbyterian - "Bloody Tony uses the Good News Bible. He would, wouldn't he? Good News! I ask you, what's that? Not even a proper Christian. Cherie believes in crystals - fury...

But I digress. the point is that the view that it matters who "wins" the supposed "race" to meet Obama is laughably trivial. Yet bizarrely our newspapers treat it as a matter of national importance and as though the order in which Obama meets foreign leaders amunts to some kind of international league table of influence. Help! Are we going to be relegated? Time to sack the manager! Thus Con Coughlin's column in today's Telegraph is headlined "Is Britain no longer special to America?" Crivvens! Apparently Miliband's meeting with Hillary Clinton, her first with another foreign minister, was an "enviable diplomatic distinction". That's not all:

There has been particular concern within Whitehall that, given the British government's close association with the previous Bush administration, the new president might be inclined to explore an alliance with other European partners, such as France and Germany.

Unlike previous American presidents, such as Bill Clinton and George Bush, who were anglophiles, most of Obama's perceptions about Britain are said to stem from his paternal relatives' unhappy experiences in colonial Kenya. There have even been suggestions that some of his forebears were tortured by the British during the Mau-Mau insurgency in the 1950s.

But Miliband's visit was a good start. Former prime minister Tony Blair may have won the race to be the first world statesman through the White House door, but it was the Foreign Secretary's one-to-one session with Clinton at the state department earlier this week which matters more.

Miliband had, of course, enjoyed a cordial relationship with Clinton's predecessor, Condoleezza Rice, and Clinton had every right to choose another of her many European suitors to have the honour of being the first visitor.

That Miliband made it first is a tribute to the energy of Sir Nigel Sheinwald, the British ambassador in Washington, who wants to ensure that Britain maintains its seat at the new administration's top table...

Miliband has played the overture with Clinton; it now falls to Gordon Brown to get on well with President Obama and cement the relationship anew. Number 10 is beetling away to get Brown in for the first proper meeting with Obama, ahead of other leaders. If they fail, he has the likely visit of the president to London for a G20 heads of government summit in April to look forward to.

I mean, really. How much does any of this matter? Are we really so craven, so insecure that our national amour-propre rests upon the order in which the new President meets his friends? It all rather has a whiff of Rome about it as vassal and allied tribes rush to pay tribute to the new Emperor in the Imperial capital. Maybe this is as it must be, but it's scarcely dignified is it? And nor, of course, does this "race" admit to the possibility that there may be times when the British and American interests diverge. No, we must make sure we stiff the French and the Germans and tie ourselves to the new regime, promising that we're their Best Friends Forever. To hell with policy, feel the closeness! 

PS: Incidentally, I don't think there's much concrete evidence that Obama bears a Kenyan-inspired grudge against Britain. It's also not the case that Bill Clinton was an anglophile: he may have been a Rhodes Scholar but, as his autobigraphy makes clear, he didn't much care for Britain or the British during his time by the Cherwell. Mind you, we've been here before: If memory serves, there's a passage in George Stephanopoulus's memoir of the Clinton White House when, prior to Clinton's first meeting with John Major, his aides reminded him of the importance (to the British) of mentioning the magic phrase. "Ah yes" Clinton chuckled, "the Special Relationship". Well, he said the right words and everyone went home happy.

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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