Buruma’s account perhaps unintentionally demonstrates that permanently yoking Britain’s global role to America’s has unnecessarily made permanent Britain’s subservient wartime relationship to the United States. More explicitly, Buruma maintains that London’s ongoing attachment to the special relationship has thwarted Britain from pursuing what he sees as its “proper” international role.
For the past 80 years, Labour and Tory prime ministers alike have been almost as unwilling as Churchill to forsake their vision of Britain as a global power. Even the Labour prime minister Harold Wilson, the antithesis of an imperial statesman, insisted that Britain’s “frontiers were on the Himalayas.” And because only London’s tight ties to Washington bestow on Britain its great power status, successive British governments have felt compelled to assent to Washington’s policies, even when London has thought those policies unwise or dangerous. Moreover, although the United States regularly indulged in fulsome and cost-free rhetoric in praise of the Anglo-American bond, it asserted its dominance whenever that connection conflicted with American interests.
Buruma’s principal objection to the special relationship is that it distracted Britain from playing a key part in Europe’s ever closer union. But in fact many devotees of the alliance, such as Harold Macmillan, Tony Blair and David Cameron, have also been among the strongest advocates of closer integration with Europe. The special relationship in fact prescribed it: Washington pressed Britain to involve itself in Europe to enhance America’s goal of bolstering Western Europe as a self-sustaining “pillar” in the Cold War. Indeed, the desire to please Washington was among Macmillan’s main reasons for applying for membership in the European Economic Community. Moreover, the most prominent postwar figures who opposed Britain’s entry into Europe — Aneurin Bevan, Richard Crossman, Barbara Castle, Michael Foot, Enoch Powell, Tony Benn — were “Little Englanders” and therefore also hostile to the special relationship.
In assessing the British drive to play an expansive role on the international stage, it’s helpful to remember that, to its British adherents, the special relationship is a means toward that end, not an end in itself, and that the two recent prime ministers most ardent in pursuing that role — Blair and Cameron — were devoted to both the American connection and to the E.U. In pursuit of what Blair has celebrated as the ambitious policy of “regime change,” they each committed Britain to accompany the United States in military interventions — in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya (and pressed for intervention in Syria, though that was stymied by Parliamentary opposition).
But neither leader undertook those interventions to sustain the special relationship. Rather, that relationship allowed them to assume the global role they coveted. Buruma rightly characterizes Blair as “a true believer” in the trans-Atlantic doctrine of muscular liberal interventionism; Cameron has described himself as “the heir to Blair.” Clearly, many Britons in both parties share Buruma’s skepticism toward the international role Blair and Cameron have pursued, but Buruma, who also conspicuously wears the mantle of anti-Brexit cosmopolitan, probably wouldn’t plump, as some would, for a Little Englander revival to counter the interventionism that the special relationship has enabled.