Joe Biden, Boris Johnson
Andrew Naughtie, The Independent
Presidential-prime ministerial relations are an obsession in the UK, for journalists and historians at least. Reagan and Thatcher dancing in the White House, Blair and Bush standing shoulder-to-shoulder against nonexistent weapons of mass destruction, Theresa May uneasily holding Donald Trump’s hand so he could hobble down a gentle ramp: from intimacy to diplomatic lockstep to excruciating awkwardness, the symbolism of these relationships matters.
As Joe Biden and his entourage descend on Britain for his first visit, what are the chances that another great partnership is taking shape?
Well, it’s not completely out of the question, surely. Biden himself apparently referred to the unique and enduring rapport between the Oval Office and Number 10, deploying the words “special relationship” on the phone with Boris Johnson earlier this year. The phrase is sometimes mocked as self-aggrandising British cliché given the obvious direction in which power and influence flow, but apparently it was Johnson who bristled at Biden’s words; The Atlantic quoted an aide saying he told Biden it sounded “needy and weak”.
Johnson, a New Yorker by birth, has premised his political persona on the idea that Britain can still play a leading part on the world stage. Amicable relationships are all very well, the logic goes, but only to the extent they flatter and enhance British power rather than channeling or curtailing it.
His model in all this is Winston Churchill, or at least, the defiant Second World War version of him beloved of fawning biographies and saccharine “inspirational quotes”. Less so, perhaps, the postwar Churchill who became deeply concerned that the UK was being shunted out of the “big three” by the duelling US and USSR.
His regret at Britain’s lack of control over the remaking of the international order is well-established, and his efforts to embed the Anglo-American alliance deep in his counterparts’ minds sometimes strayed into the realm of the surreal. “A protoplasm was sexless,” Churchill is supposed to have said to the short-tempered Dwight Eisenhower just before his first inauguration. “Then it divided into two sexes which, in due course, united again in a different way to their common benefit and gratification. This should be the story of England and America.”
That is pure Johnsonian language, but it’s hard to imagine it’s the way Biden sees his counterpart — as the joint descendant of an asexual 18th-century jelly offering him a kind of gratification no one else can provide.
For a start, Johnson’s Churchill fixation (and Churchillian pretensions) were never going to sit well with a president who deeply cherishes his Irish heritage – not in the St Patrick’s Day style Americans are ridiculed for, but with a sincere awareness of the fact his ancestors were forced to leave Ireland in the 19th century “because of what the Brits had been doing,” i.e. depriving the Irish population of a reliable food supply even as they starved in their hundreds of thousands.
The Great Famine aside, Johnson might also reflect on an interview Biden gave to an Irish-American journalist about his Irish heritage during his crash-and-burn first presidential campaign in 1987.
“I’d go up to Aunt Gertie, who had the third floor,” he recalled. “I’d lie on the bed and she’d scratch my back and say, ‘Now you remember, Joey, about the Black and Tans, don’t you?’... After she’d finish telling me the stories, I’d sit there or lie in bed and think at the slightest noise, ‘They’re coming up the steps’.”
It will hardly be lost on Biden that the ragtag militia forces who terrorised his childhood imagination were sent into Ireland by the very man Johnson is so dedicated to venerating, whose statue in Parliament Square has become a culture-war lightning rod — and whose bust Johnson accused Barack Obama of throwing out of the Oval Office as “a symbol of the part-Kenyan President’s ancestral dislike of the British empire – of which Churchill had been such a fervent defender”.
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