Poodling in the era of Brexit Britain

Theresa May has to deal not only with Brexit, but with a new and frightening US President

 Theresa May has been thrust into the premiership of the United Kingdom at a most difficult time, and has had to deal not only with Brexit, but with a new and frightening US President
Theresa May has been thrust into the premiership of the United Kingdom at a most difficult time, and has had to deal not only with Brexit, but with a new and frightening US President

It is said that the dramatic changes that have taken place in British and American politics are the result of populism. Wishing to understand this phenomenon, I obtained a copy of a recent book: What Is Populism? by Jan-Werner Müller, Professor of Politics at Princeton.

Müller writes: “National Socialism and Italian Fascism need to be understood as populist movements”. This confirms my worst fears: the danger with populism is that, like Fascism, it leads to totalitarianism and dictatorship. In both the British EU referendum and the American election, there were many of the characteristics of the rise of Fascism. False propaganda and outright lies, incitement to racial intolerance, the involvement of rabble rousers, and open xenophobia spring immediately to mind.

According to Müller, populism is generally understood to mean anti-establishment – populists are ‘angry’ and suffer from ‘resentment’. Populists believe that only they are in the right and exclude all those who do not share their views. Daniel Finkelstein, writing in The Times, added that those who do not share their views must be considered as ‘Not a Real Person’.

And now, Theresa May has been thrust into the premiership of the United Kingdom at a most difficult time, and has had to deal not only with Brexit, but with a new and frightening US President. Both she and the President, riding on the crest of a wave of populism, are reaching out to find common ground – by invoking the Special Relationship!

No one disputes that a Special Relationship exists between the United Kingdom and the United States of America. What is unclear is the real nature of this relationship. Language of course plays a part, allowances being made for differences in the vernacular. The colonial and imperial past are largely forgotten, except that some imperial nostalgia still survives in a few hardcore sections of English society.

The two World Wars brought the nations together to fight for a common and righteous cause. Yet it took some years – and Pearl Harbour – for Roosevelt to overcome isolationism and join in the war. Britain could not have won the war without the American intervention, yet had to pay a high price for it – namely the implicit agreement to divest itself completely of its imperial role, as well as becoming financially indebted to the US.

As soon as the war ended, America terminated the Lend Lease arrangements  with the UK, greatly exacerbating the dire economic situation which the new Labour government had to contend with. Attlee sent Maynard Keynes to Washington to beg for a loan to save the economy. The negotiations were difficult and are said to have killed Keynes, who suffered from a heart condition and died soon after, but the loan came through on harsh terms, and did not make the British feel any warmer towards the Americans.

There was, of course, Britain’s involvement in the Korean War in 1951, as part of the Commonwealth Army, known as the British Commonwealth Forces Korea, serving with the United Nations. 600 British soldiers took part, with 59 losses. Britain’s role in the conflict has largely been forgotten by the public.

The relationship suffered a severe setback in 1956 at the time of Suez. The Prime Minister, Anthony Eden, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Harold Macmillan, still believing in Britain’s imperial role, ventured on a foolhardy expedition to take over the Suez Canal, in the face of intense opposition both at home and abroad. President Eisenhower, just elected for his second term, had not been kept in the loop. When appraised of the situation: “his wrath was terrible”. He instructed Eden to give up the invasion or face financial ruin. Great Britain was obliged to face a humiliating settlement.

Since then Britain has had to kowtow to American Presidents, most notably with Tony Blair’s involvement in the Iraq War. “When American Presidents say ‘Jump!’, British Prime Ministers ask, ‘How High?’”  Only Harold Wilson was defiant and kept Britain out of Vietnam. Edward Heath rejected the idea that British foreign policy should revolve around the special relationship, and felt it should instead centre on Europe. While Britain was mired in the Suez affair, the European Economic Community (EEC), led by France and Germany, was taking shape, and was going to matter more in the long term.

Matthew Parris wrote recently in The Times, “May’s US visit is a necessary exercise in poodling… She must poodle valiantly, poodle shrewdly, poodle for Britain. But she must remember – and I know she will – that the wise poodle does not lay it on too thick, and keeps a wary eye on the adjacent boot.” 

Having turned her back on the EU, Mrs May had no option but to reach out to President Trump in the light of his words of support and encouragement. One has to admire her courage and fortitude in facing this situation calmly and eloquently. Yet she has been warned that when “supping with the devil, you need a long spoon”. 

Parris commented further: “To what extent the special relationship will get us a special trade deal must be doubted, once the big American corporate lobbyists and the farming lobbies on both sides of the Atlantic weigh in. The offer, if not the reality, is something for Mrs May to wave at Brussels but here, too, she must tread carefully: if vaunted in the language of some Brexiteers the effect could be to infuriate the EU rather than impress.”

Where will all this lead? The hard right seems to have the upper hand. In Britain Mrs May says, perhaps correctly, that the Labour opposition is led by a man who is good only at leading protests, while she has to lead the country. It is difficult to know which of the two is in the worse position. Nick Clegg, until recently the leader of the Liberals, may be right in thinking that, “Never in modern history have a country’s interests been so gravely betrayed by the arrogance and casual incompetence of its leaders.”

Peter Apap Bologna, previously a chartered accountant and international banker, is now a writer and publisher

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