On October 28th 2007 the National Football League (NFL), the professional league of the most American of sports, granted the city of London the honor of hosting the first NFL game played in Europe. Before the game went on in rainy conditions before a disinterested city, viewers watching back in the states were treated to a hearty rendition of ‘God Save the Queen’; local dives throughout New York full of many Americans with roots in Ireland, India, and other former British colonies exploded in profane jeers from the very first note.
The patriotic tide turned somewhat on December 8th in Las Vegas when the legion of British folks who flew into sin city in support of fighter Ricky Hatton booed loud enough to overwhelm the ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ being sung in the ring before the fight. Hatton was knocked out by American Floyd Mayweather Jr. shortly thereafter.
Does either of these boozy incidents serve to reveal anything significant? For one thing they probably reminded even the most unsentimental Americans of their grammar school history lessons about the Boston Tea Party and Lexington and Concord. For the more historically inclined they may represent tongue in cheek editions of the infamous 1849 riot at the Astor Place Opera House in New York sparked on the heels of the rivalry
between British actor William Macready and American actor Edwin Forrest. Their theatrical sparring brought about a momentary cultural confrontation between the city’s British inspired elites and the working class. A pamphlet circulated in the proceeding days read: “WORKING MEN, Shall Americans or English Rule in this city”. The riot left twenty-two people dead, mostly killed by militiamen firing into a crowded street.
On the other hand, perhaps this line of thought leads to either grudging or guilty reflections about the “special relationship” between the United States and Britain. That such a relationship exists is taken to be a truism in many circles, particularly political ones. Indeed it is striking how often prose and history color American political rhetoric. When Islamic terrorists inflicted 9/11 on New York and Washington it was the image of Churchill, rather than a comparable figure in American history, that was most sought after by the American media (the fact that the mantle was settled on the odious figure of Rudy Giuliani is an unfortunate testament). The shadows of Churchill and Chamberlain often cast in times of American wars and crisis both real and imagined, while Shakespeare’s ‘Band of Brothers’ speech from Henry V is sure to appear on the editorial page of all hawkish outlets in the run-up to military action.
Still despite the wartime alliance against Nazi Germany and Britain’s current support for the American occupation in Iraq, it is fair to question the depth of the special relationship. It does appear that political and intellectual elites married to the idea have pushed a bit too hard at times. For example, one wonders about the reaction of John Hancock and Thomas Jefferson to the opening page of British historian Andrew Roberts’ latest work A History of the English Speaking Peoples since 1900. In a tone he uses for 700 plus pages, Roberts asserts:
Just as we do not differentiate between the Roman Republic and the imperial period of Julio-Claudians when we think of the Roman Empire, so in the future no one will bother to make a distinction between the British Empire-led and American Republic-led periods of English speaking dominance between the late-eighteenth and twenty-first centuriesIt will be recognizedthat they ought to be regarded as a single entity, which only scholars and pedants will describe separately.
Roberts views the English speaking people’s dominance in the context of its wars against Communism, Fascism, Islamic Terrorism, and what he terms Prussian militarism (climaxing in the First World War). An interesting irony to note is that Roberts’ war against the latter puts him at odds even with the other historian booster of empire currently in vogue Niall Ferguson, who maintains that a quick German victory over France in 1914 would have been more beneficial to Europe than a British intervention. Nonetheless Roberts was awarded lunch at the White House for his work, much of which is a silly defense of every British and American military adventure from the Philippines to South Africa (Ireland meanwhile is described by Roberts as having “provided the exception to ever rule, disrupted every generalizationfrom the rest of the English-speaking peoples so often that it must be considered quite apart from the rest.”)
While Roberts may represent the extremist, and desperate for returning glory, Tory camp, more reasonable voices are pushing the same theme. The influential historian Robert Conquest uses the appendix to his latest book Dragons of Expectation to put forward what he calls the “Anglosphere”: an UN/EU style organization to be based in Bermuda and made up of English speaking countries, specifically the U.S., U.K., Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Ireland, and the Caribbean. Complete with its own Declaration of Independence “Holding that our countries, subscribing to a common political tradition, economically and otherwise, form the strongest force of humanity; with the aim of providing a present center of hope in the worldNow declare our independence.”
James Bennett voices a similar sentiment and term in his book titled The Anglosphere Challenge: Why the English Speaking Nations will lead the Way in the Twenty-First Century. Bennett argues that far from eliminating borders globalization will create what he terms ‘network commonwealths’, distinct but overlapping linguistic spheres of which the English speaking one will be best equipped due to its civil society traditions and pure capitalist economies.
In this rarefied atmosphere, and despite what its practitioners claim, it is difficult to encounter the spirit of 1776, yet in reality its ghosts have resurrected themselves many times. It shouldn’t be forgotten that America’s first declared war as an independent nation was against Britain in 1812 (this somewhat overlooked war featured a British torching of Washington DC). The next major conflict in American history saw Britain in sympathy with the Confederacy as a means of stemming American expansion. There was nearly a third war in 1896 over the borders of Venezuela (at that stage the U.S. Congress could still safely be described as having an “anti-British” bent).
Of course the pendulum began to tilt somewhat after the U.S. put the finishing touches on Spain’s empire in 1898. Kipling urged Roosevelt to seize the White Man’s Burden in the Philippines, Admiral Mahan envisioned a navel fleet to emulate and overtake the British fleet, Andrew Carnegie was preaching an American-British federation, and Cecil Rhodes created his scholarships in part as an effort to influence American intellectuals in the British mold.
In other words the dawn of the twentieth century saw America’s international imperial moment arrive, a British establishment that conceded that America was here to stay and work to get the emerging power on its side, especially against the rise German sea power. Churchill was soon to follow, first convincing the U.S. to assist in aiding the Whites in Russia and crushing the October Revolution in 1918, and finally establishing Britain as the junior partner to the now dominant American hegemon; over the course of time Reagan had Thatcher and Bush had Blair. The affair that continues to the present with the U.S. ruling over an unofficial, informal empire never quite declared as such- never declared as such because of the events and eternal anti-colonial emotion of 1776.
What does all this say for the “special relationship”? From a historical perspective, clearly it is a late developing partnership of self-interested elites or as Christopher Hitchens wrote more succinctly in his book Blood, Class, and Empire: The Enduring Anglo-American Relationship,
Although it is expressed in idealistic terms and based on a carefully cleansed reading of “history”, this relationship is really at bottom a transmission belt by which British conservative ideas have infected America, the better to be retransmitted to England.
As such we can surely expect a similar relationship to continue for the foreseeable future. Considering that both major political parties of both states have morphed into a single corporate entity, neither would seem overly interested in a serious policy overhaul. The greatest moment the relationship can claim is the defeat of fascism in Europe (accomplished with substantial help from the Red Army); however is also heavily stained with the bloodbaths of World War I, Vietnam, and the entire Middle East among other places.
A far better scenario to the status quo would be a greater resurgence of the ideals of the Glorious and American revolutions, ideals of anti-imperialism, secularism, and freedom. Obviously it’s foolish to expect political and corporate elites with this task; therefore it falls to the citizens of both countries to make an alliance that can provide true hope and support for the world, finally proving George Bernard Shaw wrong by no longer being separating by a common language by those in power.
JOSEPH GROSSO is a librarian and writer living in New York City. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org