The Sunday Telegraph
Of course the Americans irritate us so badly. Family rows are always the worst
Both nations believe they share the same outlook on the world. This closeness explains why flare-ups happen
American presidents wind up the British people like no others can. President Obama’s crass prereferendum threat that we would be at the “back of the queue” for a postBrexit trade deal with the US helped push the Leave vote over the line. President Biden now risks irritating the British public by apparently preparing to lecture Britain on the impact of the post-Brexit settlement on Northern Ireland.
American Presidents irritate British people so much not because British people are anti-American. Of course, anti-Americanism is prevalent on the hard-Left, but for everyone else irritation is so keenly felt because Americans are viewed as family – and family rows are always the worst.
The “special relationship” between Britain and America is easy to ridicule and is regularly described as a figment of British imagination. However, polls are clear: on both sides of the Atlantic, people agree that this is a real and meaningful relationship worth preserving. A 2018 YouGov poll for my agency Public First showed that British people think – by a huge margin – that the US is our closest ally. Crucially, they also believe we have the closest cultural relationships with the US and Australia (pretty much jointly top). There was massive support for a new trade deal with the US.
YouGov polled American attitudes to Britain in the same research project – and the results were the same. Americans said Britain was the US’s top ally and that Britain was the nation closest to it culturally. Again, there was massive support for a new trade deal. Other, even more recent, polls have shown the same: a Public First poll of the American public for the foreign policy analyst John Hulsman also put Britain top of Americans’ list of closest allies.
The fact this is a relationship built on shared fundamental cultural values – and sustained by ordinary people
– is crucial to its strength and likely endurance. Strategic calculations are part of the story, naturally. But British and American people believe they share the same outlook on the world.
This closeness explains why flare-ups happen and why they feel temporarily like a big deal. Many British people wonder how Americans can obsess over their own independence and freedom, but express scepticism about Britain’s decision to secure its own independence in 2016. They similarly cannot understand how US politicians can call for a global war on terror, while treating the IRA and the British state as being somehow morally equivalent in Ulster. These examples of seeming double standards drive British people crazy.
In every family, there is always a subject which everyone tries desperately to avoid – a subject where people’s views are so different that it is impossible even to understand each other on it. As Biden’s comments this week showed, between British people and Americans that subject is Ireland.
Given that we all know Ireland causes terrible rows between us, Biden’s decision to jump straight into the subject is particularly irritating for people here – more so given his inexplicable decision to quote WB
Yeats’ poem on the Easter Rising in a speech at an RAF base. As Ruth Dudley Edwards pointed out in the Daily Telegraph, Biden has a tendency to quote Irish poets like Yeats given half a chance, but this was still ill-judged.
I have worked and lived in Washington DC and New York City. Even among conservative Republicans – who invariably revered the archunionist Thatcher – I learned quickly not to mention Ireland. Until you have seen the Hibernia flags carried down New York’s Fifth Avenue on St Patrick’s Day, or been in Irish bars in DC with 1980s-era “Brits Out” paraphernalia, you cannot appreciate what you are walking into when you talk about Northern Ireland.
Many Americans simply view Britain as occupiers of a foreign state; to them, the unionist majority in Northern Ireland is not there. British people cannot understand why some Americans provided money (and weapons) to the IRA given their eyewateringly tough attitudes to terror in other places. They cannot understand why Sinn Fein leaders were feted by American politicians.
But we need to put all of this in its proper perspective. When Biden returns to the US next week, people will remember the pictures of the Bidens meeting the Duchess of Cambridge and of the First Lady playing happily with Carrie Johnson and Wilfred on the beach. They will remember the pledges to continue to work together on substantial issues.
Above all, they will view his comments on Ireland as being just a tiff between family members that is best forgotten. And so it will be.