Friday, 14 August 2009

The Poodle Bites!

There are those in Europe who see Britain as a European puppet of the US. It is claimed that the UK likes to ape the behaviour of the US, it has adopted an economy similar to that of the US, and it follows the US lead in foreign policy, and it has been rather uncritical in it’s support for US military policy. De Gaulle is once reputed to have said – at the height of the Cold War - that the UK was an unsinkable US aircraft carrier stationed off the coast of Europe. And yet, whilst there may have been a grain of truth in this assertion in the past, the situation may now be changing.

The British cherish a number of their institutions, and, as such, are held beyond criticism. One such institution is the monarch. Even republicans in the UK have to admit that we are currently served by a particularly good monarch. It is acceptable (but unpopular) to criticise Constitutional Monarchy as an institution, but it would be unacceptable to criticise the Queen as a monarch. Even American criticism of George III doesn’t feel right to British ears.

Another revered institution in the UK is the National Health Service (the NHS). The NHS is a curious institution in that it is closer to the European model of healthcare than it is the American. Funded through taxation, the NHS provides basic care to all at which is free at the point of use. President Obama appears to be suggesting that the US healthcare system reforms itself towards a European model. Conservatives in the US have responded by attacking the NHS (see advert). They have been aided and abetted by Daniel Hannan – a Conservative British Member of the European Parliament (see clip). Britain is absolutely incensed by this.

The government has rolled out John Prescott to answer these criticisms (see video). US commentators are also being rolled out in the defence of the NHS (see video). In the face of intense tabloid scrutiny, two of those appearing in the advert have retracted their statements (see report), claiming that they have been misrepresented. Even Stephen Hawking has added that, despite a claim to the contrary in the Investors Business Daily (see here for an interesting example of ‘we got it wrong but actually we’re right’), he is both a UK citizen and has received free treatment from the NHS for over 50 years. However, these are short term issues in the middle of the ‘silly season’, when there is little ‘real news’, and will blow over in a couple of weeks. We ought to be looking at some of the long term trends that this issue highlights.

First and foremost, the most obvious fall out is that Mr Hannan’s career now hangs in the balance. He has been disowned by his party leader (see report) and there are those who argue that he is now unelectable. Indeed, Mr Cameron needs to put a great deal of distance between himself and Mr Hannan because this gives his political opponents ammunition in the forthcoming General Election. Conservatives who I have spoken to off the record are dismayed that a small incident like this could affect the chances of the party being elected.

The second point to note is that the UK is now being pushed closer to Europe and further away from the US. How long this process will last is difficult to say, but I suspect that there are those in the State Department who are wondering what would happen if the US were to lose its main voice within the EU. The UK has defended many US policies within Europe in recent years, but that resolve is weakening. In the future, when a US President comes to Europe looking for additional troops and resources for long term engagements such as Afghanistan, they may find that the political price for such support is much higher than it is today.

Thirdly, there is a growing British indifference towards the views of the US. A case in point might be that of Mr Megrahi – The Lockerbie Bomber. There is currently an application before the Scottish Justice Minister for the repatriation of Mr Megrahi to Libya on compassionate grounds (see story). By and large, the families of the UK victims are quite sanguine about Mr Megrahi’s release, whilst the families of the US victims are against the release. The Obama administration has taken up the case for the families of the American victims, but the US has run out of political goodwill in Britain at the moment. In this sense the poodle is about to bite back. It will be interesting to see if Mr Megrahi is released in the next few weeks.

It is possible for the Obama administration to repair the damage caused in the UK by his critics in the US. After all, he didn’t exactly endorse the adverts. However, it does mean that the US will have to be a bit more conciliatory in its dealings with Britain if it wants to strengthen its ties to Europe. A key test later this year will be how willing the US is to act in step with the rest of the world at the Copenhagen meeting of the IPCC. From a British dimension, that advert about the NHS has made President Obama’s job just that little bit harder.

One of the dangers of keeping a lap dog is that there are occasions when it might be tempted to bite the owner. Now is such a time.

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