Sunday 8 November 2020

Biden our time


In most European countries there is only a moderate amount of coverage of American politics and American elections. They are interested of course in who wins, but they are not that interested. They don’t follow all the day to day details of American political life like we do in Britain. This is partly because they don’t speak English, but it’s also because they haven’t for the past decades developed a subservient relationship to America.

If I could ditch one thing in Britain’s relationship with other countries it would be the concept of the “Special Relationship”. The Americans don’t think it is special, but they are willing to use it to make sure Britain does what it is told. If you don’t fight in Iraq or Afghanistan, you will damage the special relationship. If you leave the EU, you will be put at the back of the queue. If you leave the EU without a deal and damage the Good Friday Agreement, we won’t give you a trade deal. This stuff goes on and on and it’s all one-way traffic.

Britain has friendly relations with the USA, but no more friendly than any other reasonably prosperous democracy. France’s relationship with the USA is not noticeably worse because it didn’t fight in Iraq. Britain doesn’t get any special favours no matter how many wars we fight or how many times we support America diplomatically. The lesson is simple. Develop relations with America that are in Britain’s long-term strategic interest. Be friendly but make it clear that we are looking for mutual self-interest and nothing more.

There is a type of politician and diplomat that wants Britain to be influential. If only we suck up to the cousins enough, they will allow us to stay at the top table. But this influence has its costs, British soldiers dead in Afghanistan and has few benefits. All those wars count for nothing when we end up with a president who for a variety of reasons doesn’t much like Britain. So better by far to base the relationship on what we can do for you in return for what you can do for us.

From a British point of view, it would almost certainly have been better if Trump had won. Trump is half British, genuinely likes Britain and is a supporter of Brexit. Some of Biden’s great grandparents migrated from Ireland in the 1840s and he has the typical Irish American attitude towards Britain all ignorance of both Britain and Ireland but opinionated about contemporary events of which he knows nothing.

My mother is half Irish and I could get an Irish passport if I wanted one, but I wouldn’t dare describe myself as Irish. It would be grotesque if I went into Irish pubs in Dublin and made a big thing about being Irish. I lack the accent and the knowledge of a way of life that can only come from living in Dublin.

I know next to nothing about my great grandparents. I don’t even know their names, nor where they came from. This is not least because genealogy is bunk. I am not my ancestors. But Biden thinks that he is Irish because of someone who left Ireland in 1840 and thinks this gives him the right to lecture Britain about the peace process in Northern Ireland and our relationship with Ireland.

Imagine if a Spanish speaker from Texas left there in 1848 and came to Britain and all those years later became Prime Minister of Britain and started lecturing Mr Biden about the Mexican American war (1846-1848) and demanded he give Texas back to the Mexicans. How would that go down Mr President? Boris Hijo de Juan could say, but I'm Mexican and I’ve always been concerned about the injustice of the Americans stealing Texas, California and the rest from my ancestors.  Mr Biden would tell him to mind his own business, but he would be unable to reflect on the logic of this applying to him also.

Britain’s task is to develop friendly relations with other countries in such a way that the relationships do not control us. Free trade is about mutual self interest and nothing else. If it is in America’s interest to make a deal with Britain it will do so whether it likes us or not. The price we pay for a deal should not involve anything to do with Northern Ireland or any other piece of British territory. If we demanded New Mexico went back to Old Mexico as the price of a deal, Mr Biden would laugh out loud. We should do the same if he mentions the “old country.”

So too with the EU. Our task with each and every EU member state is to make clear that friendly relations and friendly trade relations require mutual respect and mutual self-interest. Any attempt to punish Britain for leaving the EU will not be met with friendliness, but rather with a cooling of relations and our attempt to find other trade partners. We would prefer to be friendly with the EU, but the price of this cannot be that the EU demands from us what it would not demand from Japan or Canada. If that is the price, then they can sell their cars elsewhere.

Mr Biden supports the EU and without doubt supports the Republic of Ireland. He may take their side on various arguments. But that’s fine. By the time he becomes president, assuming that he does, we will have already left the EU. A few years of cooling relations with the USA will do Britain no harm if it shows us that there is no “Special Relationship”. No need to fight wars because Mr Biden wants us to.

We have our own strategic interests and they differ from those of the USA. Britain’s task is to use Brexit to trade freely with as many countries as possible who want to do so simply as a matter of mutual self-interest. Those who want to attach conditions can lose out instead. Our primary however task is to maintain and protect the territorial integrity of the UK.  

The EU has flirted with both Scottish and Irish nationalism, but this is not the act of a friendly power, which attacks Britain while desperately hoping that we continue to defend it. The same argument must be made to Mr Biden. Do not expect Britain to be your friend if you side with our enemies.

But whatever happens we will manage. Presidents rule for about 3 years and six months, given that they start in January and pretty much finish in November. We’ll still be here long after Mr Biden is gone.