Britain has been both blessed and cursed by its so-called ‘special relationship’ with the United States. This is the convincing conclusion of Ian Buruma’s well-written history of the Anglo-American association over the past century. The phrase itself was popularised by Churchill, who, like successive prime ministers, emphasised the bonds uniting the two English-speaking nations: kith and kin, common culture and shared devotion to ideals such as freedom, democracy and the rule of law. Such considerations cemented the Western alliance against Nazi Germany and the common front against communist Russia during the Cold War.
Yet the special relationship has also fostered British delusions of grandeur and encouraged absurd fancies, such as Harold Wilson’s assertion that our frontiers were in the Himalayas and Douglas Hurd’s claim about Britain boxing above its weight. At the same time it has often pushed London into complying with Washington’s policies, as in the Iraq War. And it has led to the UK turning its back on Europe and looking to the America of Donald Trump, whose followers, when inflamed by his ranting, reminded Kim Darroch, our former ambassador to the United States, of marauding cannibals.
Close examination reveals, however, that the special relationship was always something of a myth. It had deep roots, going back at least to 19th-century dreams of Anglo-Saxon global hegemony. But transatlantic rivalries also ran deep, exacerbated by discord over the Irish Question. During the 1920s, Churchill actually contemplated war with