It's US and them . . and Bush to blame
WHAT do you do when your best friend gets too big for his boots? Do you have a quiet word in their ear or turn your affections elsewhere?
That's the very real dilemma facing Britain at the moment as our special relationship with the United States becomes more and more strained. The infamous conversation between Bush and Blair picked up at the G8 Summit seemed to have the tone of master and servant more than equal partners working together.
The Middle East lies at the heart of the tension. Traditionally, Britain follows its own agenda in the area but as chaos continues in Iraq, in policy terms we're now increasingly tied to America's coat tails throughout the region. And even here at home, no-one is safe from harm. What Uncle Sam wants, he gets.
This week I've been in Texas interviewing the Scots businessman caught up in the collapse of America's biggest corporation. Gary Mulgrew and two colleagues allegedly took part in illegal transactions linked to Enron while they worked in Britain for the NatWest Bank.
Any crime was substantially committed here but that didn't stop America applying for extradition. Even though the United States hasn't yet ratified the treaty, the British Government happily handed the NatWest Three over on the basis of the charges made, but no evidence.
Unsurprisingly, the men feel let down and abandoned by their own government. The case is also puzzling ordinary Americans. From taxi drivers to the barman who poured me a cold beer, everyone I spoke to seemed genuinely perplexed by how readily Britain had given up its own citizens. As a leading law professor told me, it just wouldn't have happened the other way around.
Having said that, in a lot of ways, visiting the States at the moment is a good way to reinforce your faith in human nature. In five days of travel, I didn't hear a single word of support for George W Bush. In fact, many of the people I spoke to were genuinely embarrassed by his attitudes and behaviour.
If this is a troubling time to be in a special relationship with America, it is even harder on those who call the vast country home. The Tower of Babel nature of American society has produced a nation where sticking together is the key to survival. With so many nationalities and languages grouped together, loyalty to the Stars and Stripes and support for the constitution have traditionally been the glue holding things fast.
Start questioning the State of the Union and that way chaos lies. But in 20 years of travelling to America, I've never heard people so disenchanted with the way they are being led. And this in Texas, the state Mr President calls home.
For those on the far-left in this country, who view the US as some evil, gun-toting madhouse, a quiet word with some ordinary Americans would be quite an education. Even those who voted for Bush because they believed America needed to be strong post 9/11 and John Kerry looked too weak, are admitting they made a mistake.
Thankfully, there is light at the end of the tunnel. All the American journalists I spoke to seem convinced Hillary Clinton and Condoleezza Rice will have a shot at the presidency next time, at least breaking years of macho cowboy posturing. They might also introduce some female sanity to how America is run.
Stepping off the plane and approaching US immigration these days is an ordeal guaranteed to put anyone off the idea of a holiday in America. After an eternity of queuing you are confronted with government officials who seem to start from the standpoint that you have done something wrong and don't belong in their country.
Every airport and train station crawls with brusque officials desperate to exert their little bit of authority. Tannoy announcements warn anyone joking about anything to do with terrorism will now be charged with a federal offence carrying huge prison terms. After clearing Customs I was threatened with arrest by a little fat lady with a gun because I had chosen to wait for someone at the exit of the customs hall. Apparently, that was a severe breach of regulations. By stepping across an adjacent white line I was no longer in the customs hall so wouldn't have to be arrested or shot.
Of course, that kind of behaviour stems from the paranoia Bush has introduced into America as part of his campaign to try to keep the nation onside. Regardless of our special relationship, a white skin and Scots or English accent is no longer enough to win Brownie points with American bureaucracy. If you don't have a US passport, you are a potential security risk. It's as simple as that. What life must be like for American Muslims when confronted by officialdom doesn't bear thinking about.
But even at the heart of the machine, there are good people not swayed by the nonsense. My internal flight from Houston to Atlanta was delayed by two hours. No apology, no explanation and no assistance when I explained it would leave me just five minutes to get on my flight from Atlanta back to Scotland. In fact, when I started to ask what would happen to my bags, I got the impression I was only moving myself up the security risk register.
But then came Veronica. As I sprinted down the jetty on eventual arrival in Atlanta, she reopened the gate, found me a boarding pass and ushered me last onboard.
"Hey, you made it. Have a great flight and come back soon," she said. I will, because Veronica, not George W Bush, is what makes America great.
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Wednesday 19 June 2013
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