Is the British relationship with the United States really so “special”?

In Britain today, we are constantly reminded of the special relationship that unites politicians in London and Washington. Yet, on wider consideration, it appears to be an exaggerated myth put together by British diplomats rather than a fully-fledged transatlantic alliance. This is particularly apparent when we consider that the special relationship is relatively unheard of on the other side of the Atlantic.


The history of the two nations is dominated far more by volatile rivalry than the sentimental “shoulder to shoulder” alliance we are told to believe in today. The original thirteen colonies on today’s eastern seaboard declared independence from the British Empire in 1776 and years of bitter conflict between Britain and the newly formed United States followed. Many would argue, particularly in Britain, that this is ancient history. However, the legacy of rivalry with the British as their former colonial rulers endures even today in the United States as it is taught in schools. The national anthem of the United States, The Star-Spangled Banner, describes a British bombardment of Baltimore in 1813 and a lesser known verse actually uses the words “their blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution.”

The Second World War is arguably a shining light in the history of the special relationship as the Allies eventually overcame the might of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. However, American suspicion of British attempts to gain assistance in the fight against fascism tells a different story. The America First movement, supported by future presidents John F Kennedy and Gerald Ford, was immensely popular and claimed that European Wars were none of their concern. After Blitzkrieg had obliterated Western Europe, Britain was left alone in the fight against Hitler. Yet, desperate requests for support were met by cold indifference from Britain’s North Atlantic ally. What followed was the transfer of the British Empire’s entire life savings to North America in a series of secret and desperate convoys. The British gave away state secrets, scientific innovation and, of course, vast sums of money to entice the reluctant Americans into fighting fascism. Churchill raged privately that Roosevelt was acting like a bailiff seizing the goods of a bankrupt, made worse by the fact that this was a time of war. By 1940 prices, estimates suggest that £500,000,000 went to the USA prior to 1942 (an immense sum when we consider inflation) and the exchange completely changed the balance of global wealth and authority, making the United States a superpower in the process. In many respects the United States crippled the British economy in exchange for military support and even then, in December 1941 it was Hitler who declared war on the United States, not the other way round.

After the war, this unsentimentality continued as Britain was shut out of the Bretton Woods conference of 1944, a conference that has shaped the global economic system as we know it. Britain’s representative was legendary economist John Maynard Keynes and it is staggering that a man of that stature and intellect had no say in the rebuilding of the post-war global economy. During the Suez crisis of 1956, Britain and the United States came extremely close to open conflict. America’s sixth fleet stalked the Royal Navy and President Eisenhower discussed the possibility of “being ready to shoot” at the British fleet amongst his closest White House advisers. Underhand suspicion has continued throughout the 20th and 21st century. Another more recent example is in 1994 when President Clinton granted Gerry Adams a visa to the United States, effectively handing him the respectability to move into mainstream politics. This was at a time when the IRA posed a genuine threat to British security. Adams was leader of Sinn Fein, an alleged terrorist and at the very least a vocal critic of the United Kingdom. Can you imagine the fallout if the British government granted a visa to an individual on the FBI’s “Most Wanted” list?

In reality there is no special relationship between Britain and the United States. This piece has not by any means attempted to portray the two nations as enemies, merely point out the several occasions where there has been genuine conflict. Conflict has occurred politically, economically and sometimes militarily far more recently than is widely recognized. The War on Terror in the early 21st century arguably brought the two nations closer together, particularly considering the close relationship between Tony Blair and George W Bush. Yet, in times of warfare this is necessary and cannot be cited as a sign of a transatlantic alliance. The more distant and often frosty relationship between current President Barrack Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron is far more normal than the bond between Bush and Blair. In truth, the term “special relationship” is used as a political tool, used far more in London than Washington as a vain form of legitimising British foreign policy. The United States relationship with Britain is no more “special” than with France, Germany or Spain and we, as Britons, should not be so naïve as to think that we stand on a higher pedestal.