The Special Relationship

The 'special relationship' is often dismissed, but there is history behind it.
Macmillan and Kennedy spoke regularly throughout the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Home » Articles » The Special Relationship

The so-called Special Relationship with America is frequently dismissed by both politicians and the media as a myth, even a joke. Yet the basic truth is that Britain and America are bound together more closely than either is to any other ally, with the two countries sharing nuclear weapons technology and taking the leading roles in NATO during the Cold War and into the modern era.

Most important of all, the close intelligence ties between MI6 and the CIA, and especially between the NSA and GCHQ, have provided politicians on both sides of the Atlantic with the same intelligence, leading inevitably to similar assessments on the way forward and ensuring that Britain has been America’s most reliable ally through a series of conflicts from the Second World War right up to the present day, with GCHQ providing a large chunk of the intelligence on Ukraine.

But this role should never be taken for granted. Critics often point to moments when a US President has ridden roughshod over Britain, most notably citing Eisenhower forcing the British retreat during the 1956 Suez Crisis. But British Prime Ministers have been just as prey to putting what they perceived to be national interests above those of the Special Relationship.

Eisenhower and Nasser in 1960.

In the wake of the trauma surrounding Brexit, neither Rishi Sunak nor Keir Starmer is likely to make the same mistakes as Ted Heath and John Major, both of whom set out from the start to have a closer relationship with Europe. Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s National Security Adviser, said that Heath left the President feeling like “a jilted lover”, while Major banned any use of the term “Special Relationship”. Given that his own relationship with Bill Clinton was itself fraught, there were inevitable problems. Ray Seitz, the US Ambassador to the UK, lamented Major’s “careless” treatment of the relationship, leading Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd to warn in a carefully worded briefing paper that it “may have suffered some neglect because of our necessary preoccupation with Europe”. Hurd stressed that the defence and intelligence ties between Britain and America were “the central planks of the Anglo-American relationship” which remained “critical to our interests worldwide”.

Boris Johnson rightly echoed Hurd’s sentiment when he warned his ill-fated successor Liz Truss to “stay close to the Americans”. The world is now in a very dangerous place. British governments, whether Labour of Conservative, should ignore the cynics. The British press spent months claiming Kennedy was either ignoring or walking all over British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis and the subsequent negotiations over Britain’s independent nuclear weapons when in fact the reverse was true.

When Kennedy took over as President, Eisenhower who had spent a lot of time and effort very publicly rebuilding the Special Relationship in the wake of the Suez debacle, briefed his successor on how important the joint collection of intelligence was and how valuable an adviser he had found Macmillan to be on world affairs. As a result, there was a very close relationship between the British Prime Minister and Kennedy, who saw Macmillan as an elder mentor and telephoned him every night during the week of the Missile Crisis. While MI6 officers visiting Washington were briefed in detail on the US intelligence.

Similarly, during the nuclear missile negotiations, Macmillan took a very firm line with Kennedy on the need for Britain to have its own independent nuclear deterrent and the mutual trust between them ensured the President overruled his advisers to provide Britain with Polaris missiles.

President Joe Biden’s relationship with Britain has been problematic, not least as a result of his Irish heritage and the concerns over the Northern Ireland Protocol, and it is far from clear how he or a future president might react. It will need a careful approach and the development of the kind of mutual trust and respect that existed between Churchill and Roosevelt, Kennedy and Macmillan or Thatcher and Reagan to work out the difficulties involved.

But given the multiple challenges thrown up by the Chinese and Russian assaults on the world order, not just in Europe and Asia, but in Africa too, where Russia’s Wagner Group ‒ or whatever it will now be called ‒ will remain active, and the Chinese “Belt and Road Initiative” will continue to be busy building influence in worrying ways, the Real Special Relationship, based on those close ties between Britain and America’s intelligence agencies will have to remain focused and strong.

Michael Smith is the author of The Real Special Relationship: The True Story of How the British and US Secret Services Work Together, published by Simon and Schuster.

Why not take out an annual subscription to Aspects of History for under £10?