Something very strange and rather disturbing appears to be happening to the British right. Or at least to a large and noisy segment of it. It seems to have decided that the Republican party is something to emulate. Of course Ukip has always had a Tea Party tendency but this once-niche persuasion appears to be going mainstream.
The reaction to Barack Obama’s remarks yesterday, in which he suggested that Brexit campaigners were not being wholly straight with the British people (I know! Who knew?) has been as remarkable as it has been depressing. How dare Obama insult Britain like this! How dare he threaten the British people! Why has Britain allowed itself to be humiliated in this fashion! And who is this guy to talk anyway? He’s just a jumped-up, half-Kenyan, lame-duck President whose record is nothing to celebrate anyway. Ya boo, sucks to be you Barack Hussein Obama. You know nothing.
But if what Obama said is a threat or even a humiliation then I’m afraid those words have been stripped of their traditional meanings. Because this is what he said (it bears repeating in full):
“My understanding is that some of the folks on the other side have been ascribing to the United States certain actions we’ll take if the UK does leave the EU. So they say, for example, that ‘well, we’ll just cut our own trade deals with the United States’. So they’re voicing an opinion about what the United States is going to do and I figured you might want to hear from the President of the United States what I think the United States is going to do. And on that matter, for example, I think it’s fair to say that maybe some point down the line there might be a UK-US trade agreement, but it’s not going to happen any time soon because our focus is in negotiating with a big bloc—the European Union—to get a trade agreement done. And the UK is going to be at the back of the queue. Not because we don’t have a special relationship but because, given the heavy lift on any trade agreement, us having access to a big market with a lot of countries, rather than trying to do piecemeal trade agreements, is hugely inefficient.”
This is a statement of the bleedin’ obvious. It is merely a restatement of long-standing American preference. Yes, there might one day be a post-Brexit Anglo-American trade deal; no it won’t happen any time soon. By all means vote to leave the EU but, in as much as this has an impact on your trade relationship with the United States, do so with your eyes open. Don’t believe everything you have been promised because, you know, we have skin in this game too.
It’s rather like when George Osborne, supported by Danny Alexander and Ed Balls, said that a currency union with an independent Scotland might very well be in the interests of that independent Scotland but it was not nearly so obvious it would be in the interests of what was left of the United Kingdom. Then, as now, there was much bleating and whining. How dare Osborne threaten and bully poor-but-proud little Scotland! The SNP and the wider Yes movement rushed for their forks and pitchforks.
Some of those objecting to Obama’s intervention have rewritten history to argue that Osborne’s currency union position was a disaster that only fuelled the thirst for separatism. Conveniently, most of those people now think Obama’s remarks will rebound on the Remain campaign and persuade more people to embrace the uncertainties of leaving the EU.
I doubt that. What happened in Scotland was that those who were already inclined to vote Yes found their instincts confirmed by the currency union brouhaha. But there were many other voters, those whose voices were not nearly so often heard (because they were not on the streets and nor were they on Twitter), who thought: hang-on, perhaps Osborne has a point. And even if we dislike what he says and might wish that some hard truths remained unexpressed, shouldn’t we at least think about it? The currency question was not the only issue that sunk the Yes campaign but it played a part in weakening its case for independence. In like fashion, I rather suspect Obama’s intervention will leave much of middle-Britain wondering if the risks of Brexit are worth it. I mean, it might be a nice idea but is it a sensible or necessary one?
Because, right now, the Leave campaign is asking a question that cannot end well for them: who has a better grasp on US trade policy? Is it Dominic Raab or is it the President of the United States of America?
But, my word, the bile. And the sourness. There has always been a prickly, touchy, latent anti-Americanism on the British right and, gosh, haven’t we been reminded of that these past few days? The views of Wilson and Roosevelt have been cited (and it is true that the Americans viewed the British Empire with, shall we say, some scepticism. But you can’t really fight wars for ‘democracy’ and add the rider ‘except for the pink bits of the map’). Why, even the ghosts of Suez have been resurrected: Cameron’s acquiescence in Obama’s press conference is the greatest British humiliation since Suez, apparently.
Above all, there has been a whining suggestion that Britain – loyal, steadfast Britain, the country that always stands with America – is being shafted by its big brother and this is not on. It is not on and it is not fair. God, it is all so very miserable and pathetic. Friends disagree with one another all the time. The Anglo-American alliance is strong and still important but that doesn’t mean there’s no room for ample disagreement on any number of smaller matters. It is a macro alliance with space for micro tempests.
Obama, if anything, was more measured than he might have been. As the Americans say friends don’t let friends drive drunk and that, as far as most of the Washington establishment is concerned, is what Brexit would amount to. Now they may be wrong but if friends cannot speak candidly to friends what is the point of being friends?
It’s not just the Americans, of course. Everyone else thinks the same just as there was almost no government anywhere else in the world that viewed the prospect of Scottish independence with any great enthusiasm. In both cases, this country’s oldest and closest allies accepted that these were decisions to be made here but earnestly hoped the status quo would be preserved. In both cases, this was because they feared the alternatives – Brexit or Scottish independence – would leave a weaker, smaller, country less able to play a leading and useful role in the world. That is, far from patronising the UK Obama has this week been honouring it: you are important, he says, and we would prefer it if you did not, in our eyes, diminish your importance.
But who is Obama anyway? I mean, it’s not as though he speaks for the United States. Ted Cruz takes another view on Brexit. So does Marco Rubio. Cruz! Rubio! Well that makes all the difference doesn’t it? It would be funny if it weren’t so sad.
Hence the need to swallow the GOP critique of Obama as a sharply unpopular failure. My Times colleague Tim Montgomerie penned a portrait of Obama’s presidency for this paper this week that is so partial it could have come from, say, Ted Cruz’s speechwriter. Obama – sorry, ‘King Barack’ – has presided over an ‘imperial presidency’ of startlingly negligible achievement. Why, the rise of ‘anti-politicians such as Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump’ is the fault of Obama’s ‘abrasive style of politics’. He didn’t attend Nancy Reagan’s funeral, the cad. A reminder that Obama did little to ‘build ties’ with the American right.
Pull the other one. As this Republican primary season has confirmed, a large part of the conservative base has never accepted Obama’s right to govern. His reliance on Executive Orders to advance his agenda is a mark of Congressional failure, itself the product of the break-down and polarisation of America’s political system in which everything has been redefined as a zero-sum game.
The notion Obama’s presidency has been unusually imperial is so laughable it must be dismissed by any observer with even an ounce of impartiality. The presidency has been an imperial business for at least half a century. And, in the absence of Democrats who will vote for GOP legislation and Republicans who will vote for Democratic legislation, that’s the way it will stay.
There are plenty of grounds for questioning some of Obama’s foreign policy decisions. But too often, especially on matters such as Syria, the objections we actually hear amount to little more than the suggestion he’s not deployed sufficient willpower to find a solution. The belief in the power of American willpower is impervious to precedent, evidence, or reality. It led to Vietnam and Iraq. Obama’s reluctance to grant willpower more battalions is a striking divergence from and perhaps reaction against his predecessor’s record in office. It is, in that respect, an anti-imperial presidency that recognises the limits of even American power.
If Obama’s years in office have disappointed many, that’s partly because his election was accompanied by more optimism than it could reasonably bear. (This was, true, encouraged by candidate Obama). Even so, staving-off a great depression and extricating the United States from two losing wars (as he had promised, rightly or not, to do) could be thought legitimate achievements. So too the passing of an admittedly messy and controversial healthcare bill that had defeated his six immediate predecessors in the Oval Office. For that matter, the opening to Cuba was overdue and it may be – time will tell – that the deal cut with Iran will one day be seen as a significant achievement. These achievements may not be enough but nor are they nothing. He still, after eight years in office, has a positive favourability rating.
But to hear the GOP talk you would think Obama must be the worst President in living memory. It increasingly seems as though a significant portion of the British right agrees. But if I were looking for cues from parties overseas I’m not sure the GOP would be my first choice of inspiration.
Maybe there will be a significant backlash against Obama’s Brexit intervention but since polls suggest seven in ten Britons still quite like the guy I’m not sure this will prove the case.
The cherry, naturally, is the suggestion David Cameron dishonoured himself by asking Obama to use the word “queue” instead of “line” so that British voters would better understand the import of the President’s remarks. In this fashion, we are told, the British government was briefing against Britain. The fever swamps are bottomless, you see, and there are traitors and sell-outs everywhere. Everywhere!
But then one of Obama’s talents has been the manner in which he drives his opponents crazy. That has long been apparent on his home turf; it seems to be true on the British right – or at least a goodly chunk of it – too. As Donald Trump would say: Sad!