ONE Boris Johnson Telegraph column has lately been on my mind. In it, he brazenly misquoted Clint Eastwood’s ‘Do you feel lucky?’ speech in the film Dirty Harry. Plainly not bothering to look it up, he then compounded his error, declaring that the film exemplified the can-do culture of the macho 1980s. Dirty Harry came out in 1971. It exemplifies so much about Boris: his ability to turn a great phrase, his sloppiness with detail and that fact he always knew he could get away with it.
Those same attributes were on full display when he got us entangled in the Northern Irish Protocol – he once said that any customs form between Ulster and Britain should be thrown in the bin. Well, they must have industrial size bins in Liverpool and Stranraer today. Northern Ireland has paid a heavy price as trade has become re-routed to the Republic, and momentum towards a United Ireland is building.
And he really cannot get away with it any more. Momentum matters in politics: fail to lance the boil of the Protocol and not only could he lose Ulster – with God knows what long-term consequences given the rise of Sinn Fein North and South – but then Scotland too. He should invoke Article 16 of the Protocol immediately if the situation is to be saved. However, he received a stern warning from that befuddled old plastic Paddy who wandered off the street into the White House recently. So is it really possible that Boris is willing to upset not just the EU, but also the so-called ‘special relationship’ with the United States?
‘So-called’ of course, because the ‘special relationship’ has never existed, or at least not in the form that British politicians, especially Tory ones, think it does. Yes, there is strong collaboration between our countries in many areas; yes, there is considerable affection between our peoples; yes, individual Presidents such as Reagan and Trump have been well-disposed towards us, but the simple fact is that politically America is mostly indifferent to Britain and sometimes downright hostile. Moreover, that hostility is taking a significantly darker tone: in the age of woke, Britain is seen as a proxy for America’s founding White Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture to which woke ideology is so aggressively hostile. A special relationship that is especially toxic.
In historical terms, the ‘special relationship’ is a Tory invention. When the Old Etonian Harold Macmillan said that Britain should play Greece to America’s Rome, he exemplified the eternal Tory preoccupation with social status rather than power. Admittedly this outlook did have its uses: the myth was a soothing balm as the Union Jack was lowered around the world in the post-war years, and Tory pragmatism was certainly better than the tub-thumping nationalism that doomed France to repeated military humiliation, each as bloody as it was futile, during the same period.
But those years are long gone, and still we cling to the myth, the idea that we retain some nebulous influence on America behind the scenes. As the journalist Iain Martin notes, the reality is that at root the relationship between Britain and America is based on rejection. Britain behaves like a pathetically needy ex-spouse who, having abused their partner, seen them leave and then become far more successful, desperately tries to win back their approval and affection. In turn, we have become serially abused ourselves.
The damage doesn’t end there. As with any socially exclusive arrangement, whom you exclude from the club matters just as much as whom you admit, and Australia, Canada and New Zealand were very much excluded, a disgusting insult given that their countries gave the lives of their soldiers far more willingly than America ever did in two World Wars.
These days there is exciting talk of a more truly ‘Anglospheric’ global outlook, and the recent ‘AUKUS’ deal is certainly a significant step in this direction. Other ideas, such as CANZUK are also being explored. However, plainly the broader concept of Anglosphere partnership cannot be fully realised if we continue to cling to the fantasy of an exclusive and special relationship with America.
In short, the Anglo-American relationship needs a reboot, and invoking Article 16 of the Northern Irish Protocol would be just the tonic. There is precious little America could do: now that a trade deal is out of the question it has next to no leverage in economic matters. After its shambolic retreat from Kabul, an action about which we were never even consulted, any attempt of moral suasion would be laughable. Cancel the AUKUS deal? That would just confirm its pariah status as a military partner not to be trusted. Instead, maybe Biden can paint his face green and give a ranting speech about British perfidy in Boston on St Patrick’s Day – at least it would give us all a good laugh. Perhaps Bunter Boris could turn up in an orange sash just to rub it all in.
Domestically, it would also be enormously popular. That may seem like pandering to crude British anti-Americanism, but in the long-term relations would actually improve. A good deal of what anti-Americanism there is in this country isn’t fuelled by resentment at American power per se – though that is certainly a factor – but by the continually craven reaction of British’s governments to it. After Kabul we owe America nothing, and failure to stand up to them on the Northern Irish Protocol will both store up resentment for the future and prove to America that it can just treat us as it likes, when it likes.
Yes, invoking Article 16 of the Northern Irish Protocol would cause an almighty row, but the long-term upsides are enormous. The Union may be saved, and the psychological Rubicon of firmly saying no to America would have been crossed. In time, our not-so-special relationship would mature towards that of any divorced couple who wish to remain on friendly terms: respectful of each other’s boundaries, accepting the new relationships in each other’s lives, moving forward and learning to live with the regrets.
So, Boris, in the face of any more of Biden’s empty threats, perhaps you could repurpose another of Dirty Harry’s quotes: ‘Go ahead, Joe, make my day’.