TCS Daily

How Britain's Conservatives Have Undermined the Atlantic Alliance

By Andrew Apostolou - May 5, 2005 12:00 AM

Just when the US and allies such as France and Germany are patching up their differences and letting bygones be bygones over Iraq, the hottest ticket in Britain's elections seems to be anti-Americanism. Nothing illustrates this trend better than the fact that the Conservative Party, the party led by Margaret Thatcher for 16 years, is distancing itself from its traditional pro-US stance. Indeed, the novelty of British politics in recent years has not been the flowering of extreme left anti-Americanism, a perennial in every political garden, but its new growth on the right-wing.

In one sense, the Conservatives are simply accepting the unpleasant realities of British political life. Although polls indicate that few intended to vote on May 5th on the basis of the Iraq war, opinion among professional and educated voters, the bedrock of Conservative support, is running against the US. The Liberal Democrats, previously the center party of British, are increasing their share in opinion polls by moving to the anti-American left. They opposed the Iraq war and want to unilaterally withdraw British forces from Iraq.

There are other reasons for the Conservatives to follow the Liberal Democrat lead. Some Conservative members of parliament, including the Conservative leader Michael Howard, have faced a serious challenge from the Liberal Democrats in their own constituencies. Add to this the constant drumbeat from against the US and the Iraq war in the British media, in particular the BBC, and the frequent insinuation that Tony Blair lied in the run up to the war, and there is little political advantage to being George W. Bush's friend.

Faced with growing anti-Americanism in public opinion, the Conservatives have attempted to do the impossible, to support the Iraq war while retrospectively opposing the reasons for the Iraq war. Michael Howard has openly called Tony Blair, and by extension George W. Bush, a liar over the Iraq war. Britain's Conservatives proclaim that they are pro-American and then take electoral advantage of anti-Americanism. With a straight face, Michael Howard burnishes his pro-US credentials as president and founding chairman of The Atlantic Partnership, an organization devoted to fostering transatlantic links.

The effectiveness of anti-Americanism as an electoral tactic remains to be seen, but the Conservative approach has already eroded the British-American alliance. The pro-American consensus at the center of British foreign policy has been weakened, in large part because its normally vocal and reliable Conservative supporters are instead sniping at the Iraq war. The strategic necessity of the "special relationship", which brings Britain influence unrivalled influence and leverage with the US and with Britain's jealous EU partners, is no longer an article of faith. Instead, many now ask what Britain receives from being the most prominent friend of the US in a world where, if the media are to be believed, the US is hated, reviled and wrong.

Michael Howard's repeated criticism of the case for the Iraq war has also damaged an important ideological alliance, between British Conservatives and US Republicans. Last August, Karl Rove called Michael Howard to inform him that he was not welcome at the White House. Every time that Howard attacked Blair over the use of intelligence before the Iraq war, he was, in effect, assaulting Bush and handing ammunition to John Kerry.

Howard's reaction to being rebuked by Rove revealed just how much British Conservatives feel that they have to pander to increasing anti-Americanism -- the Conservative Party leaked the story to a British newspaper, making the Rove rebuff a badge of pride. To rub salt in the Republican wound, Michael Howard then declined to extend the traditional congratulations to President Bush following his re-election in November 2004.

The "special relationship" will probably survive the May 5th British elections. After all, Britain has unique attributes as a US partner, an unusual mix of growing economic might, diplomatic influence and military expertise. Moreover, the only alternative for Britain to the "special relationship" is to be the emasculated subordinate of France and Germany, to become a slightly larger version of Belgium. Given the starkness of the choice, sensible British leaders will stick with the US as Britain's main global strategic ally. Britain and America will still be friends, but the old alliance between American Republicans and British Conservatives will not be the same again.

Andrew Apostolou works at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington D.C.


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