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Page last updated at 22:14 GMT, Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Washington diary: Special relationship?

By Matt Frei
BBC News, Washington

In the days after 9/11, I found myself in Jerusalem talking to a prominent British diplomat.

Gordon Brown and Barack Obama take questions form the media in the Oval Office of the White House, 3 March 2009
Mr Brown and Mr Obama broadly agree on how to fix the economy

"The world, Matt, is a jumbo jet", he whispered.

"The Americans are in the cockpit and First Class. Everyone else is in Economy and we are in Business with the possibility of an upgrade."

We had been drinking a fair bit and I wondered whether he was being serious. But the image seemed appropriate and it has stuck in my mind ever since. It explains a lot.

The fatal attraction of Tony Blair for George Bush was partly based on a still-bewildering personal chemistry but it was also underpinned by the pragmatic calculation that only Britain could steer America away from its own excesses.

"We are the Athens to their Rome," was the other way some of the more misty-eyed British diplomats liked to put it.

Natural Atlanticist

In the end, Britain's experience of the special relationship has of late been more akin to that of a vexed passenger in First Class, knocking politely on the hermetically-sealed cockpit door, while the crew ploughed on obliviously.

Rome on the whole ignored Athens, despite the fact that Tony and George shared everything from Colgate toothpaste to a commitment to spread liberty with force.

Well, it is 2009 and we are back on the global jet. But the plane has been downgraded to an old DC 10 run by a budget airline, fending off bankruptcy.

Gordon Brown looked as nervous as someone on a first date in his meeting with the president

There is only one class and you have to pay for the peanuts. The cockpit door is firmly bolted and the pilots are inside. In a coma perhaps. And now we are ALL banging on the door, desperate to find out whether we are about to crash and burn or land on the Hudson River, Sully-style. It is called the state of the world economy.

Gordon Brown, with his much-vaunted passion for crunching numbers, is like one of the passengers offering to fly the plane if they can ever break down the cockpit door. But he cannot do it, of course, without the charismatic guy in seat A1 - Barack Obama.

Admittedly, Mr Brown has good credentials for rebooting the special relationship. He is and always has been a natural Atlanticist. He prefers holidays on Cape Cod rather than Capri. His earnest Presbyterian manner would fit comfortably into the American tradition of public service.

Then there is the craven side. Barack Obama enjoys approval ratings in Britain that are even higher than in the country which elected him. Not for the first time European popular opinion has swung from revulsion to adulation.

The prime minister, who is diving in the polls almost as fast as the stock exchange, appears to be attempting to recharge his batteries with some Obamafuel.

Teenage crush

Perhaps Mr Brown is hoping that face time with Barack Obama will remind the world that it was the British Prime Minister who first came up with the plan to inject capital directly into ailing banks. He was lauded by no lesser eminence than the Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman in his column in the New York Times.

But that was October 2008, when the Dow was still flirting with the 10,000 point watershed, when projections were that the American and British economies would stagnate but not shrivel like a prune.

We are in a different place now. Panic has been replaced by the constant thud of despair and high pitched anger.

George W Bush stands next to a bust of Winston Churchill given to the White House by the British government in 2001
Mr Obama has returned a bust of Winston Churchill to the British

Mr Brown and Mr Obama may share the same views on how to fix the economy, but the British Prime Minister cannot escape the fact that he was the man who predicted that the cycles of boom and bust had been relegated to the dustbin of history even while he was presiding over the very system that would prove him wrong.

As Chancellor of the Exchequer for the decade of boom he has, whether he likes it or not, become an accomplice in the bust. He is damaged goods.

Even if by some miracle the economy recovers later this year, the green shoots of optimism will not be felt in time for the next British general election.

In the meantime, the media has been combing through the diplomatic language like medieval monks examining a biblical parchment.

How significant is it that the Obama administration had briefly relegated the special "relationship" to a special "partnership"? You could argue that a partnership is even stronger than a relationship.

But then - oh horror of horrors! - why has Barack Obama sent the bust of Winston Churchill that graced the Oval Office of his predecessor back to London? When Winston is put in a box the portents are not good.

Lighten up already! This obsession smacks of a teenage crush.

Gordon Brown looked as nervous as someone on a first date in his meeting with the president.

Unrequited infatuation

If the Obama White House is trying to water down the special "whatever", they are doing London a favour.

There is something tawdry about a relationship that has been, frankly, more of an unrequited infatuation than a real bond between consenting adults.

The Athens-to-Rome nonsense has also distracted Britain from the real task of figuring out exactly what kind of relationship it should forge with the countries whose neighbourhood it happens to share by an accident of geography - Europe.

That is because one way in which the "special relationship" might come in useful for the Americans would be for Britain to use its clout in Europe to prevent the continent from tearing itself apart in a rising fury of recriminations sparked by the economic crisis.

The Hungarians, Czechs, Poles and Slovenes want to be bailed out. The Germans say Nein. The Irish guarantee all their bank deposits, creating a flight of capital. Spain is on the verge of bankruptcy. France is pulling up the draw bridge.

The European Union is twitching like an octopus suffering a seizure, while Britain is looking on with the startled stare of a deep-sea fish.

Back on the ill-fated airliner, the passengers have a choice of movies. The Brits still insist on "Fatal Attraction". The Obama lot has moved on to something a bit more up to date: "He's just not that into you!"

Matt Frei is the presenter of BBC World News America which airs every weekday on BBC News, BBC World News and BBC America (for viewers outside the UK only).


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