Feature

Snubbing the British prime minister

Will the "special relationship" between Britain and the U.S. survive?

Did President Obama even know that Gordon Brown was coming to visit him? asked Alice Miles in The Times. At his first meeting last week with the U.S. president, the British prime minister wasn’t given a formal White House dinner, but had to make do with a working lunch. Brown didn’t even rate a joint press conference at the podium. “It began to look like one of those embarrassing situations when somebody you don’t particularly like invites himself to dinner.”

And then there were the gifts, said Andrew Rawnsley in The Observer. Brown presented Obama with a “historically resonant and tastefully symbolic” gift of a pen holder carved from the timbers of the HMS Gannet, whose sister ship supplied the wood used to make the Oval Office desk. Brown also gave Obama a first edition of Martin Gilbert’s seven-volume biography of Churchill. Obama, by contrast, came up with “what smelt like a panic buy,” a DVD collection of 25 American movies. “It is not so much the cheap price tag that is wounding to British pride; it is the lack of thought.” It doesn’t help matters any that Obama’s staff had already returned the bust of Churchill that the British government had lent to the U.S. during the Bush administration.

The First Ladies’ meeting was no better, said Sarah Vine in The Times. Sarah Brown arrived with “lovely” gifts for the Obama girls: trendy dresses with matching necklaces and a basket of books by British authors. Michelle Obama apparently had “an aide pop to the White House gift shop for a piece of merchandising”—she gave the Brown boys, Fraser and John, models of Marine One, the presidential helicopter. Such a self-aggrandizing gift is “inherently dismissive.” Worse, in the single photo the White House released of the women’s visit, “the angle is most unflattering to Mrs. Brown, who has the air of a woman very much in need of a stiff drink.”

The reason any of this matters, said Iain Martin in the Daily Telegraph, is that you can’t have a “special relationship” when one side wants “to date other people.” Oh sure, Obama talked up the specialness, having no doubt been told that “we Brits are seen as so needy that we will have a national, collective nervous breakdown unless we hear the magic words.” But the truth is that Britain is not America’s most important ally these days. And even if Britain were as important as it used to be, cultivating a relationship with Brown would be a waste of time. Brown’s Labor Party is down in the polls, and he will probably be voted out of office in the next 18 months.

So what if Obama and Brown aren’t best friends? asked Tony Parsons in The Mirror. We don’t need a repeat of the sycophantic Blair-Bush relationship. It was embarrassing to see Tony Blair “licking the cowboy boots” of George W. Bush, and positively “obscene the way he put this country’s armed forces at the beck and call of a half-wit president” during the Iraq war. Brown, at least, is “no one’s poodle.” When he addressed Congress last week, he told Americans that their instinct for protectionism was dangerous and wrong—a criticism that Blair would never have dared offer. For his part, it’s no surprise that Obama is no Anglophile. How could he be? As the “son of a black African father born in colonial Kenya,” he “carries the wounds and resentment” of someone who has experienced British colonialism. Obama and Brown, then, will have a cooler, but more mature, relationship. That would be “healthier for both countries.”

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