The defiance of fascism stands at the heart of our national mythology. It is an ever-recurring theme, not restricted to the real moment of existential peril in 1940, but wheeled out whenever Britain squares up to some monster-of-the-week, from Gamal Abdel Nasser to Saddam Hussein to Osama Bin Laden.
At such moments, serious voices urge us to remember the lessons of appeasement. And more than that, to live up to who we are as a nation. A historic bastion of liberal democracy, nemesis of bad guys everywhere.
Yet history will record that when the government of the UK’s closest ally fell into the hands of the far right, the British policy was one of blithe accommodation. This held even as Donald Trump pulled the US out of the Paris Climate Accord, effectively passing a death sentence for millions of people worldwide. It held even as Trump made overt threats to American democracy itself in the autumn of 2020. And in the Anglo-American backed Saudi war on Yemen, the policy was one of joint collaboration in likely war crimes.
Criticism of the UK’s relationship with the US tends to be offset by reference to London’s relative powerlessness in the face of Washington’s demands. According to this portrayal of the ‘special relationship’, British obsequiousness may be unseemly, but is fundamentally understandable.
This lets the UK off the hook to an unwarranted degree. The Atlantic alliance in its modern form is a choice freely made, and within it, the British political class have always stood up to the Americans when they felt it necessary.
Managerial responsibility for global capitalism passed from London to Washington at the end of the 1914-45 ‘age of catastrophe’. Whitehall planners accepted this reality, and sought to maximise the benefits to British capitalist and state power within the new post-war framework. This perception of strategic self-interest is what has guided British policy toward Washington ever since. It is not the obedience of a ‘poodle’ or ‘lapdog’, but the independent calculation of an accomplice.
Consider the current Anglo-American split over Iran. By his own capricious standards, Trump has shown steady commitment to his policy of ‘maximum pressure’ on Tehran. Having pulled the US out of the nuclear deal brokered by Barack Obama between Iran and the leading world powers, Trump imposed crippling sanctions backed by a major military build-up with the aim of intimidating Tehran into signing a new deal on more punitive terms.
Along with the European powers, Russia and China, Britain has been equally steady in its opposition to Trump on this key issue. These states have stayed in the deal, worked to incentivise Iran to do the same, and actively undermined Trump’s attempts to tighten the grip of sanctions at important moments.
This has played a significant role in the failure of Trump’s Iran policy to date, perhaps his greatest embarrassment on the international stage. As far as London is concerned, this is a price worth paying for maintaining the rapprochement with Iran, and for the expected security and economic gains if the deal survives.
A powerless Britain would not defy a US president in this way on one of the most important planks of his foreign policy. It follows that when Britain accommodates Trump – or actively collaborates with him, as it has over Saudi Arabia’s starvation of Yemen – responsibility can not be mitigated. London’s choice to treat Trump as little more than an uncouth and unpredictable ally, rather than a white nationalist and an international menace, is just that. A choice.
The reality of Trump’s politics have never been a secret. ‘Alt-right’ zealots such as Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller held senior policy positions from the start of his administration. His notorious description of neo-Nazi demonstrators as “very fine people” was not a slip or a gaff. It was one expression amongst many of a consistent and recognisable worldview.
In 2017, Trump delivered a chilling speech in Warsaw, likely composed by Bannon, which articulated the modern white nationalist ideology at its most paranoid and grandiose. At the height of the European ‘migrant crisis’, Trump claimed the survival of the West itself was under threat, but ultimately declared in his blood-curdling peroration: “Our people will thrive, and our civilisation will triumph”.
The inhumanity of Trumpism is made manifest in his sadistic border regime. There, infant children are torn from their parents and consigned indefinitely to squalid cages. Hysterectomies have reportedly been performed on detained women without their consent. Meanwhile, Trump has egged on far-right militia who have plotted to kidnap his political opponents, told those militia to “stand by” when asked to distance himself from them, and refused to confirm he will leave office peacefully if he loses next month’s election.
One of the greatest fears of Trump’s opponents in the US is that four years of his presidency have pushed these far-right politics into the mainstream through a process of normalisation. Too often, deference to the office of the president, and to hitherto established political norms, have led politicians and the media to treat Trump’s hateful ravings and extreme politics as though they were respectable and legitimate. Too often, American allies abroad have been guilty of the same irresponsible approach.
In few places is this more true than in Britain, where Trump was honoured with a state visit in June 2019, meeting both the Queen and then prime minister Theresa May, who had previously held hands with him on a visit to Washington. There is no way for the British state to honour the world’s leading far-right politician without both strengthening his politics and dehumanising the targets of his hate. On the latter, there is a clear message from London that their lives don’t matter.
The same message is conveyed by British media discussion of the presidential election’s implications for the UK. The near-exclusive focus of journalists and Whitehall policymakers is the effect Trump’s victory or defeat will have on the UK’s Brexit policy. There is no sense that a Trump victory, and America’s subsequent descent into naked fascism, will prompt any serious reassessment of the Anglo-American alliance.
Labour leader Keir Starmer recently refused to express a preference between a Biden or Trump victory in November. This may be the standard line to take in normal circumstances, but to treat these as normal circumstances is to normalise the extreme. Starmer’s moral illiteracy on this basic point is consistent with that shown by the entire British political class over the last four years. The claim that the ‘special relationship’ is based on enlightened values has rarely looked so ridiculous.
David Wearing is an academic specialist in UK foreign policy and a columnist for Novara Media.