No amount of Churchillian invocations can disguise the fact the ‘special relationship’ between the UK and the US is over, writes Martyn McLaughlin
It requires only a perfunctory rummage through the mountain of gifts lavished upon Donald Trump by foreign leaders over the past two-and-a-half years to question whether the latest offering will catch his eye, or end up gathering dust in an Oval Office cupboard.
Soon the pile, which includes some on-brand, bespoke Trumpian trophies (a gold-plated golf club from Japan’s Shinzo Abe and a purple wool robe with white tiger fur lining from the Saudis) will grow a little higher, thanks to Theresa May.
Her parting present to Mr Trump is a framed copy of Winston Churchill’s personal typescript draft of the Atlantic Charter, a document which set out his and Franklin Roosevelt’s goals for a world exhausted and crippled by the rise of fascism.
The dedication to multilateralism paved the way for the formation of the UN, Nato, and the WTO. Above all, it defined the post-war journey both countries would make.
Given Mr Trump steadfastly refuses to read one-page memos, let alone weighty tomes, it is not unreasonable to assume his incognisance of the landmark policy statement. After all, Atlantic Charter does sound awfully like a long-lost, long-haul airline.
Then again, perhaps that is an unfair reading of his grasp of political history. Mr Trump shares with Britain’s leaders a tendency to invoke Churchill, cherry picking bon mots in the hope of basking in their reflected wisdom.
Between May 2012 and October 2015, he cited the British statesman’s remarks no fewer than 33 times on Twitter, which may be either a sign of a deeply held reverence, or that his birthday gift from Donald Jr was the audiobook of “Winston Churchill, CEO: 25 Lessons for Bold Business Leaders” (This, it gives me no pleasure to inform you, is a genuine publication).
If, through its ever-so snarky gift, Downing Street is intent on ensuring Mr Trump upholds the commitments of one of the defining agreements of the 20th century, it might wish to lead by example and heed the lessons from the two countries’ more recent shared history.
Mr Trump’s visit to Britain last July was preceded by his highly critical comments, which undermined Ms May’s authority, savaged Britain’s Brexit strategy, and attacked Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London. This time around, his visit to Britain was preceded by his highly critical comments, which undermined Ms May’s authority, savaged Britain’s Brexit strategy, and attacked Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London.
History has a tendency to repeat itself, especially when no-one was listening the first time. And so Britain – meek, rudderless Britain – submitted itself to further embarrassment at the hands of its most “enduring partner”.
The good news is that it could have been worse. Gnawing fears that Ms May’s impending departure would unshackle Mr Trump completely from any sense of restraint during yesterday’s joint press conference were not realised.
The 72-year-old gave a muted performance, reining in the worst of his scattergun proclamations, instead trampling through prepared statements, largely without incident. When he turned to address Ms May and her tattered legacy, pity manifested itself as sincerity.
“Perhaps you won’t be given the credit you deserve,” he reassured her. Of course, habitual lies peppered his address: the one about thousands of his supporters thronging London’s streets, or the hoary old claim that he predicted the outcome of Brexit while visiting Turnberry. It is worth calling out such nonsense, though I suspect the time when the public would be shocked by them has long passed.
And yet, the fact Mr Trump was able to observe rudimentary diplomatic etiquette cannot and should not be presented as some kind of achievement on Britain’s part.
For all that Ms May spoke of how she and her US counterpart were guardians of a “precious and profound friendship,” and that their “strong alliance” founded on co-operation and compromise, there was little beyond Mr Trump’s script to suggest he cherishes the relationship. His insistence that the NHS and “anything else” must be “on the table” in trade talks – despite the fact Jeremy Hunt, the Foreign Secretary, described it as a “red line” just hours beforehand – is a stark reminder that America First remains his administration’s guiding policy.
Mr Trump, a foreign leader, is entitled to take such a view. What is maddening is that Brexiteers vying to replace Ms May could well set the gears of Britain’s clunking great diplomatic machine in motion in order to appease him.
It is one thing to cater to his family’s craven pursuit of social acceptance by surrounding them with the baubles and arcane rituals of British statecraft. Such trinkets are designed to dazzle the vainglorious and fill the dead hours of rolling news channels.
What must be protected at all costs are the principles and values we have left. The NHS is integral to that. No friend of ours would suggest otherwise.
When Mr Trump returns to Washington, the Atlantic Charter will not be at the forefront of his thoughts, but perhaps one of Chuchill’s more colourful remarks will; after all, Mr Trump shared it on its Twitter timeline back in 2014. “An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last,” it states.
Whoever succeeds Ms May should tread carefully. Mr Trump may have been all smiles yesterday, but make no mistake – he is ready to bite.