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Misfit Britain:
The UK weathers public opinion as it straddles the US and the EU.

By Dean Broadbent
Posted: December 2005

Britain has always been a misfit. Historically much less “European” than its continental neighbors, for centuries it reveled in its isolation, content in the pursuit of empire.

Times change, though, and the modern world forbids such a stance. Since World War II British integration into the EU has been fitful and always awkward, and British leaders have typically found it easier to associate themselves with Washington and invoke the “special relationship.” In recent times, though, the shadow of Iraq makes that relationship ever less special in the public mind, whilst European relations remain fraught with problems, offering Britain no happy bedfellows in the years ahead.

Britons have always been suspicious of American motives, but the “War on Terror” partnership has achieved something new; it has turned this suspicion into a deeply held conviction that being so close to the US gains little and exposes Britain to ever-greater danger.

It is instructive that in the aftermath of the London bombings of July 7, many were fingering the American alliance as a root cause. The Bush administration, meanwhile, is an object of scorn, fear and ridicule in turn.
As for Europe, the Constitution is effectively dead, the chances of Britain joining the Euro grow ever fainter, and Britain’s attempts to reform the EU have only served to increase tensions. The Atlantic Alliance, meanwhile, leads many Europeans and particularly the French to speak ever more disdainfully of the ‘Anglo-Americans.' All this threatens to make a mockery of Tony Blair’s early promises to straddle the Atlantic in a bold new era.

These tensions are expressed in a palpable polarization of media opinion. The Rupert Murdoch-led conservative media pour scorn an alleged EU bureaucracy, meddling and abrogation of sovereignty, whilst invoking the threat of terrorism as a cause to remain at Washington’s side. The relatively liberal media, including much of the BBC and newspapers such as the Guardian and NewStatesman, tend to extol the benefits of close ties with Europe, while never tiring of criticizing the faults and dangers of being ‘too close’ to the US.

In politics, the Labour party yearns to distance itself from the US, but is held back by Tony Blair’s personal dominance of the British government. The divided Conservative party shows signs of realizing that it could gain many voters, as did the Liberal Democrats, by openly opposing the American embrace. If the next election returned a Conservative government – and increasingly plausible outcome – it is likely that the Conservatives would add to their traditional Euro-skepticism a hostility towards the US, at least as long as the ‘neo-conservatives’ hold power. Either way, when Tony Blair steps down, a drastic change in the British government’s public relationship with the US can be expected.

As long as the British people see so little worth in either relationship, and considerable disadvantages to both, it seems the ‘islander mentality’ may be set to grow once more. Culturally, Britain will remain loyal to both, but unless things improve it may be that Britain decides that close political relationships with such troublesome neighbors are more costly than they are worth, and desire the Splendid Isolation of Empire once more.


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