UK poll may speed change in U.S. special relationship

By Mohammed Abbas and Michelle Nichols – Analysis

LONDON/NEW YORK (BestGrowthStock) – Britain’s ‘special relationship’ with the United States, already past its heyday, may become increasingly humdrum if Thursday’s parliamentary election delivers a weak, minority government.

Britain’s role as a bridge between the United States and European Union has diminished and that trend will accelerate if the May 6 vote is inconclusive, with Washington looking more and more to the European Union as a whole as a global partner.

Opinion polls point to a hung parliament where no single party has a clear majority, the first since 1974. Post World War Two politics have been dominated almost without interruption by left-leaning Labour and right-leaning Conservatives.

While Britain and the United States remain close on issues such as intelligence, the war in Afghanistan, how to handle Iran, free trade and economic issues, experts say both countries appear to be altering overall expectations of their alliance.

The term “special relationship” was coined in a 1946 speech by Winston Churchill to describe ties binding two countries that battled side by side to liberate Europe in World War Two.

“There’s a sense that the UK doesn’t enjoy the pride of place it used to in Washington,” said Charles Kupchan, international affairs professor at Georgetown University.

“The biggest concern in Washington would be that the UK ends up with a dysfunctional government.. The general view from Washington is that the U.S. needs a strong European partner, and that a strong European partner depends in part on a strong British government.”


Even leaving the election to one side, relations between the United States and Britain have lost some of their luster. Former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair was scorned in Britain as President George W. Bush’s “lap dog” for sending British troops to fight in the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

“Relations are rather ‘unspecial’ at the moment,” said James

Goldgeier, a Council on Foreign Relations fellow for transatlantic relations. “There is suspicion of what closeness (to the United States) brings the UK.”

The British parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee released a report this year that said in the long term Britain was unlikely to be able to influence the United States to the same extent is has in the past and that it was potentially misleading to continue to describe ties between the two countries as a “special relationship.”

The Obama administration maintains “there’s no stronger relationship in the world” and that the two countries, “share a unique and uniquely productive relationship.”

“Whatever the outcome of the election, that basic fact won’t change,” said State Department spokesman Mark Toner.


Robin Niblett, director of Britain’s Chatham House think tank, said America does not need Britain to deal with some of its biggest strategic challenges, such as the rise of China, and that Britain needed to be more selective in how it takes advantage of its ties with Washington.

“We have got to expect that America at times will not pay that much attention to us or to Europe for that matter and it’s a difficult adjustment,” Niblett said.

The European Union is better placed than Britain alone to help Washington deal with the rise of China, which is forecast to overtake Japan this year to become the biggest economy in the world behind the United States.

Britain largely shares U.S. views on free trade and economic policy, making its influence on Brussels important. But a British government formed by the right-leaning Conservatives, in particular, may find itself a peripheral player.

“(Conservative leader David) Cameron has taken such a strong Eurosceptic public position that it will be very difficult for him to take a soft line on Europe,” said Philippe Defarges of French think tank IFRI.

Cameron has said he would try to negotiate the return of Britain’s opt-out in some areas of EU social and employment law, claw back powers on criminal justice and win a complete exemption from the EU’s charter of fundamental rights.

Cameron withdrew the Conservative party from the main center-right group in the European parliament last year, in a move against greater European integration.


Any prime minister leading a minority or coalition government would be unable to do handshake deals with the U.S. president, said Michael Laver, chairman of the New York University Department of Politics.

“The prime minister won’t be speaking with the authority that maybe U.S. presidents have come to expect,” he said.

Brown, Cameron and Clegg also lacked the “larger than life” personalities of past leaders such as Blair and Margaret Thatcher, which boosted Britain’s profile in America, said Walter Russell Mead, a U.S. foreign policy fellow at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations.

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(additional reporting by Andrew Quinn in Washington and Rosalba O’Brien in London)

(editing by Janet McBride)

UK poll may speed change in U.S. special relationship