When historians someday study Anglo-American relations in the early 21st century, they will find a useful allegory in the saga of the Winston Churchill bust. This is the tale of a smallish sculpture by Jacob Epstein that has come to be a simulacra of the so-called Special Relationship. Tony Blair’s government presented the bust to George W. Bush in 2001, a gesture that later helped pull Britain into the war in Iraq in 2003. For the next five years, the name of Churchill was invoked whenever somebody needed to justify that disastrous intervention. When Barack Obama was inaugurated, the bust was very soon replaced by a head of Martin Luther King, Jr. Winston was given to the British Embassy in Washington. Hawkish Altanticists, on both sides of the pond, saw Obama’s move as a great insult. The British, for all their stiff upper lip, are easily hurt. Eight years later, when Obama rather bossily told Britain to stay in the European Union or go to the “back of the queue” for trade talks, patriotic Brits prickled. Boris Johnson, a leading Brexiteer, accused Obama of Anglophobia.
Then, on January 20, Donald J. Trump took charge. Suddenly, the Special Relationship, which seemed finished after the Iraq debacle, was alive with possibilities. Almost instantly, Churchill’s head reappeared in the Oval Office. The British right and the Brexiteers rejoiced. It was, apparently, the former United Kingdom Independence Party’s Nigel Farage who persuaded Trump to put the bust back—at least that’s the story according to Farage. The speech with which the Donald had it delivered impressed the British and fed the already popular idea that the 45th President might be just the friend that Brexit Britain needs as she tries to disentangle herself from the European Union. We know that Donald Trump loves Brexit, which he considers to be the hors d’oeuvre to the main course of his movement’s victory in the U.S. The day after the E.U. referendum, Trump flew to his golf course at Turnberry, in Scotland, and told the grumpy Scots that Britain would be first in the trade queue under his administration.
After November 8, the Anglo-Trumpist comity only intensified. Yes, Wilbur Ross, the incoming commerce secretary, had made some disparaging noises about Britain’s position in the world—but that was before he was nominated to Trump’s Cabinet. All the other signs indicated that the incoming U.S. administration was highly sympathetic to Brexit, and antithetical to Brussels. At this writing, Ted Malloch is tipped to be nominated by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (once confirmed) as U.S. ambassador to the European Union. Malloch is a descendant of Theodore Roosevelt and a robust conservative who thinks that capitalism is failing because of the decline of Christianity and that Brexit was one in the eye for the decrepit European and globalist elites. When Britain’s Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson went to New York, he met Jared Kushner, Trump’s seemingly ubiquitous son-in-law, and Trump’s chief advisor Steve Bannon. The pair stressed to Johnson how quickly a U.K.-U.S. trade deal could be reached. Trump then agreed to an interview with Michael Gove, another leading Brexiteer, for the London Times and told him that an agreement could be made “very quickly.” In the same interview, he said that the E.U. was “basically a vehicle for Germany” and that other countries would leave, and he warned Angela Merkel that he would slap tariffs on German imported cars.
The message from Team Trump is clear: As far as America is concerned, European federalism is out; bilateral deals between nation-states are in. Trump could be, as Ted Malloch suggests, Brexit’s “white knight.”
As I write Theresa May is preparing to go to Washington to meet the new President. It is obvious that she and Trump need each other. She is eager to give Europe a sign that Brexit Britain is a force to be reckoned with. He is desperate for affirmation that he is ruler of the free world, and Britain can help with that. Many believe that Trump, like his Scottish mother, loves the British monarchy—“she loved the ceremonial and the beauty, coz nobody does that quite like the English”—and so it is thought that we have some leverage, what with the arrangement of Trump’s visit to the Queen later in the year.
The British do tend to overestimate how impressed foreign dignitaries are by our traditions and history. Trump tells us he loves us, but then he says that to all the countries. He knows that Brits are easily won over with flattery and small gestures—for instance, the replacing of a statuette in the Oval Office. He knows, too, that we need America more than America needs us, and it is not in his nature to give a generous deal that disadvantages him in any way. For now, however, May needs all the diplomatic leverage she can muster. She must therefore impress Donald. Maybe she could offer to put a full-sized statue of him in 10 Downing Street.