Seismologists have detected an ominous humming sound somewhere below the subsoil of Britain, and it could gather in strength and suddenly erupt into the form of a giant bestriding man smoking a large cigar aglow with fury. Winston Churchill began spinning in his grave early Friday morning and his stirring is already widely felt—and feared.
What the hell just happened?
That’s a polite way of saying what Churchill’s reaction would be to the worst electoral cockup in recent British history that has left the country looking like a banana republic.
After a disastrous performance in the election Prime Minister Theresa May is clutching to power by making a squalid and unprincipled deal with a bunch of racial atavists in Northern Ireland, the Democratic Unionists. The Tory party, the party of Churchill, is now the party of small-minded lunatic isolationism. Wrapping themselves in the Union Jack they have, in the crude British argot they use, told the rest of the world to “sod off.”
This, remember, is the party that from the onset of Churchill’s wartime premiership in 1940 stood steadfast as the founding partner in a glorious Anglo-American alliance.
Under this partnership Europe, ravaged by war, was repaired and defended, first against the Soviet Union in the Cold War and later against Putin’s Russia. Of course, in terms of power the partnership was always unequal if judged only by relative power and resources, but it was always morally a mission of equals, leading Western Europe to create a framework of progressive democratic institutions and an age of unprecedented peace and prosperity.
Now Europe is on its own.
Donald Trump, behaving like a tourist made irascible by customs he did not understand, languages he did not speak and civility he did not share, would rather play a swordsman in Saudi Arabia than be a statesman in Brussels.
And in Theresa May he has a fawning partner. For the British, having designed their own fate a year ago by voting to leave Europe without having understood the consequences, it was a natural instinct to look west in the hope of finding a sympathetic collaborator—and, hopefully, a trading partner. Bearing in mind how capricious Trump is, that is probably delusional.
The so-called special relationship is seldom easy to manage. Barack Obama never seemed really devoted to it. The only time in recent history when it rose to a truly devotional level was during the Margaret and Ronnie Show—the improbable but warm embrace of Reagan and Thatcher. However, if a British prime minister got too close to a president they could end up with a shattered reputation, as Tony Blair did after playing poodle to George W. Bush in the Iraq war.
May invited the same fate by rushing unwarily into Trump’s embrace as soon as he took office, the first foreign leader he saw. They looked an extremely odd couple. She resembled the headmistress of a classy but impecunious college greeting a wealthy but somewhat vulgar parent in the hope of inspiring some generous philanthropy.
She has continually pandered to Trump. Unlike other European leaders she refused to directly attack Trump when he quit the Paris climate agreement and she failed to defend London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan of the Labour Party from Trump’s despicable attack after the London Bridge terrorist atrocity.
Nonetheless, it remains true that regardless of who occupies the White House and Downing Street, the intelligence and national security relationship between the U.S. and Britain remains unique in the world and mutually essential.
At the operational level it can survive the occasional outrage like Trump sharing some ISIS intel with the Russians. But at the level of the principals it’s more vulnerable. For example, British intelligence chiefs are reportedly aghast at Trump’s tendency to bad mouth his intelligence chiefs, disregard their briefings and blow up sensitive partnerships with imbecilic tweets.
But, in theory, May still holds in her hands an ace card. She presides over a prize that Trump must lust for—the planned state visit to Britain later this year. She issued the invitation just seven days after Trump took office—an unprecedented step.
Details are not clear, but the normal protocols of a state visit imply the promise of a meeting with the Queen. In Riyadh Trump obviously relished the gilded opulence of the Saudi royal palaces but compared to Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle that’s all ersatz, just Mar-a-Largo writ large.
For sure, some of the Windsor family history is as racy as Trump’s but the venerable and venerated Queen is above all that—so much so that she must be choking on the prospect of having to host such a vulgarian.
After Trump’s attacks on London’s mayor there were renewed calls to cancel the visit but May ignored them. She is in a far more fragile parliamentary position now, and might not want to be distracted by the popular protests that would surely follow allowing the visit to go ahead.
Sometimes in politics a figure appears who rises without ever being really known—until they are exposed as being not at all as advertised. May was not put into Downing Street by the country in an election but by the Tory party, on the resignation of her predecessor David Cameron after the Brexit fiasco.
There were people who believed that she might turn out to be another Iron Lady—another verbally emasculating martinet like Margaret Thatcher, able miraculously to cow and whip the country into finding its spine again. Or, more importantly, that she would be able to instill confidence in her people that she would somehow be able to negotiate a painless exit from Europe.
Instead, the election exposed her as stubborn, imperious and an appalling campaigner. She doesn’t like having to explain herself to the people. She refused to debate the Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn. Her efforts to explain policy read like bureaucratic drivel. In the words of one Tory quoted anonymously by the Financial Times, “the campaign has exposed not so much the prime minister’s hidden depths as her hidden shallows.”
But to be fair to May, she wasn’t responsible for creating the country’s descent into bitter disorder.
Overhanging this whole election was the influence of an invisible man: Nigel Farage, creator of the U.K. Independence Party, UKIP, but no longer its leader. In the year since the Brexit referendum Farage, has behaved like someone hastily leaving the scene of a major accident, content to know that his toxic role in whipping up anti-immigrant fever probably tipped the balance in the narrow 52-48 pro-Brexit vote.
The way Farage himself explained it was more respectable, “My achievement was to take an issue that was considered to be completely wrong, perhaps even immoral, and help to turn it into a mainstream view of British politics.”
Because Brexit was a referendum, not an election, party loyalty was less a factor in 2016 than the xenophobia and bigotry that coalesced as Farage’s “issue that was considered completely wrong, perhaps even immoral.”
UKIP pushed that sentiment way beyond simple Europhobia: they aroused from dormancy the dream of a Little England purged of miscegenation and all other impurities of nationality. In this UKIP gave expression to the delusion that the country no longer needed to belong to a far bigger idea, the post-war alliance of progressive democracies.
Shortly before the U.S. presidential election Farage aroused derision when he predicted that Trump would win. By then Farage had been hanging out with the Trump crowd for long enough to see that Trump was tapping into the same resentments that he had exploited. It turned out that there was a Little America, too. Trump was the perfect face to lead it, grabbing a slogan for long discredited for its fascist associations and renewing its appeal, America First!
According to The Guardian, Farage has become “a person of interest” in the FBI’s probe into links between the Trump election team and Russia. Farage dismissed the story as “fake news” and insists that he has not been contacted by the FBI.
But Farage was an early and eager member of the Trump entourage, appearing occasionally at rallies with Trump as a cheerleader although few in the audience seemed to know which planet he was from. He visited Julian Assange at the Ecuadorian embassy in London, has appeared on the Russian media propaganda station, RT, and has hung out with Roger Stone, the earliest of Trump’s spiritual guides.
In the meantime, UKIP has been wiped out as a political party. Its supporters have dispersed back to either the right wing of the Tory party or the similarly reactionary cells of the Labour Party. Ironically the Northern Irish Democratic Unionists who have saved May (for the moment) are even more rabid nativists than UKIP.
In the end, the sad message from events in both Britain and America is that you can’t have a coherent world view if you have no knowledge of the world—or any interest in acquiring it. The inhabitants of Little England and Little America don’t care about anything that smacks of a collective responsibility, like saving the planet from a man-made calamity.
And there’s a particular strain of misanthropy that Trump and Farage both revel in—leaving “the other” to a fate they deserve, whether it’s Middle East refugees supposedly consuming an undeserved share of British social services (Farage) or cutting off the funding of birth control services for poorly educated Africans (Trump).
The election result has reinforced the polarity of the Brexit vote. Neither May nor Corbyn, had any interest in seeking support from moderate centrists. Indeed, the progressive center that gave Tony Blair three successive election victories from 1997 has apparently evaporated. Perhaps it was a coalition that only Blair had the political skills to create and sustain.
Those who yearn to see that constituency return but realize now that it will not do so any time soon are left looking wistfully across the Channel to France where the new president, Emmanuel Macron, with Blair-like energy, is promising an alliance of reason and progress with Germany’s Angela Merkel.
As long as Britain was in the European Union it offered a third voice and a check on the power of that Franco-German axis, while at the same time being constant to its American ties. Keeping that careful balance was one of Churchill’s most ardent wishes as post-war Europe took shape.
It’s a new European order now. Little England and Little America are excluded.