the unlikely Atlantic alliance

As an Englishman living in Switzerland I am often asked questions about my homeland. For the last twelve months the most asked question has been why are the British, and Prime Minister Blair in particular, so firmly on the American side in the proposed attack on Iraq?

It is a question that many Britons are also asking, and living here in central Europe the paradox of such a North Atlantic friendship appears almost unnatural. On the face of it, the United Kingdom is a solid member of the European Union. It is 35 kilometres from its nearest European neighbour, France, and is connected by a tunnel, while the distance from London to Washington is over 5500 kilometres. Britain’s economic, political and cultural future should be firmly within the brotherhood of European nations. Britain’s main trading partner is the European Union. Yet, despite these facts, the British feel closer to and have more in common with the inhabitants of Paris Texas, than Paris, France.

Every nation, whether it likes it or not, is a victim of its history. And Britain’s recent and long-term history has been one of conflict with the continent and companionship with the USA. Every British schoolboy will tell you what happened in 1066 - England was invaded from France by the Normans led by William the Conqueror. A date as significant for the British as 1291 for the Swiss, it was the last time we were invaded by a foreign power. By no other fortune than being an island, Britain withstood invasion attempts by the Spanish Armada, Napoleon and within living memory the German Luftwaffe. While the rest of Europe may want to forget the ignominious history of Europe during the twentieth century, the British still revel in it.

The British from the media and politicians to the ’man-in-the-street’ can be heard daily referring to “Europe and Britain” as if they were two separate continents. The London newspaper headline of the 1920s “Fog in the Channel – Europe cut off” is still relevant today as a barometer of British attitudes to its continental partners.

Britain’s dealings with her nearest European partner have been less than happy over the years. De Gaulle famously said “Non” to British membership of the EU through the 1960s; the missile that sunk the British warship in the Falklands war was a French-made Excocet; British beef has been embargoed by France against EU regulations, for the last three years. All perpetuating Britain’s xenophobia.

In contrast our “cousins across the pond” as we call Americans, are perceived as “folk like us” and not really foreigners at all. Many white Anglo Saxon Americans can trace their ancestry to the UK or Ireland. Most important, as Winston Churchill observed we are “two nations divided by a common language”: we understand each other perfectly without an interpreter. Parts of the USA were once British colonies and they have never tried to attack or invade us. We share a relationship based on mutual admiration. Americans are awed by our history, royalty and class system, we are awed by their openness, zest for life and financial success. Our relationship is all the better for having over 5000 kilometres of ocean between us. The USA and UK are in many ways like Germany and Switzerland. Americans are loud-talking extroverts, while the British by comparison are cool and reserved. Imagine how the Swiss relationship with Germany might be if Germany were 5000 kilometres away.

The twentieth century saw the Americans and British twice standing side by side in global conflicts, albeit that the Americans in those days were slow and reluctant to join with us entering both the first and second world war. This renewed our friendship and bonded ‘Yanks’ and ‘Limeys’ in a new alliance. In 1942 the British met the Americans in the flesh en masse when they were based at UK airfields and we were as impressed as our reserve let us be. The reaction from British men to the GIs dating and in many cases marrying British women was met with typical British dry humour: “the Americans are over paid, over sexed and over here”.

Today the USA is Britain’s third most popular holiday destination after Spain and France. We simply get on well with each other, like Churchill and Roosevelt did, as did Thatcher and Regan and today we see the less likely partnership of Blair and Bush. Tony Blair would appear to have little in common with George W Bush. Blair is a socialist, a graduate of Oxford University and a lawyer who specialised in trade union and industrial law. Bush is a right-wing Republican, a Texas rancher with a sense of humour likely to confuse even a generation of Britons brought up on ‘Monty Python’. After their first meeting, when asked by the press what he and Blair had in common, Bush said “We both use Colgate toothpaste”.

The US’s financing of IRA terrorism against Britain for 30 years is forgotten, just as one forgives friends’ small oversights. Britain is not hampered by a dark and dubious recent history. Thus, when a friend is attacked and terrorism becomes the new danger to the free world, it seems only natural to Tony Blair to put on the robes of Churchill and look round for allies that he can trust and understand. He sees Europe as a disharmonious collection of states containing former enemies now reluctant to speak out without deep reservations.

Across the Atlantic the British Prime Minister sees an obvious, long-standing and trusted ally with an opinion broadly similar to his own. What he does not seem to see is massive opposition from his people and his own party who are opposed to any conflict with Saddam Hussein.