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Wednesday, 12 September, 2001, 16:00 GMT 17:00 UK
Spotlight on 'Special Relationship'
Prersident George W Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair
Blair will stand shoulder to shoulder with Bush
Nick Assinder

The so-called "special relationship" between Britain and America has always been defined by one thing - conflict.

Winston Churchill first used the phrase to encourage America to join the second world war.

The relationship wavered over the Suez crisis but was hugely strengthened in both the Falklands and Gulf wars.

And now, in the wake of the New York and Washington atrocities, that relationship, and the benefits it brings to both sides, is once again to be tested in conflict.

Tony Blair and George Bush may not be political soul mates, but their personal relationship is about to be re-cast.

Former Prime Minister Winston Churchill
Churchill first spoke of the special relationship
The prime minister has insisted the attack on the US was also an assault on the entire democratic world.

And his warning that there will be "significant" British fatalities, and that the UK will also be amongst the terrorists' targets, underlines the reality of that statement.

He is ready to stand "shoulder to shoulder" with the President, but has so far refused to spell out exactly how that support will manifest itself.

Libya raid

When President Reagan wanted to use US bases in Britain to bomb Libya in 1986 - in retaliation for the Berlin discotheque bomb which killed three US servicemen - prime minister Margaret Thatcher unhesitatingly agreed.

The first most MPs and the public knew about it was after the warplanes were in the air.

Former Prime Minister Lady Thatcher
Thatcher sparked row over Libya bombing
The operation was a limited success and was widely seen as an attempt to kill Colonel Gaddafi. He survived, but his baby daughter was killed in the bombing.

The raid sparked a serious political backlash in Britain, but Mrs Thatcher stood firm in her support for the President's actions and her part in them.

The bond between the two leaders was probably the closest since that between Churchill and Roosevelt.

Anyone who saw them operating together could see this was a political and personal match made in heaven.

New authority

Tony Blair and Bill Clinton also clearly enjoyed a special relationship, both politically and personally.

But the rapport between the prime minister and Republican George Bush is minimal.

Yet Mr Blair may soon find himself facing exactly the same request from the White House as the one asked of Margaret Thatcher.

How he responds to that - and all the indications are that he will want to agree - will set a new seal on his ties with the President and could give him new authority with Washington.

The fact that he is also one of the most experienced and electorally successful Western leaders is likely to add to that authority and earn him a special place on the world stage during this crisis.

But this will be a hugely testing time and Mr Blair is bound to face demands from MPs to spell out his intentions during the special Commons debate on Friday.

There will be voices cautioning against precipitate action and there will be some warning that he should not simply follow America's lead when it comes to reprisals.

New alliance

And there will be severe doubts raised over any action that could put British lives at risk.

After the Libya raid, Gaddafi rebuilt his links with the IRA and helped arm them and he was also at the centre of the Lockerbie bombing.

What the prime minister clearly wants to do is to be in the lead in forging a new alliance between other counties, including the major European states and Russia, to take combined action against whoever is deemed responsible for the atrocities.

If any such action is contemplated he will want to be sure the intelligence gathered from the likes of the CIA and MI6 is sound and that there will be no threat to innocent civilians.

But these are momentous decisions and carry huge potential risks, not least to his own standing and popularity.

So far - as the world still struggles to comprehend the full enormity of the attack, and attention is rightly focussed on the human tragedy unfolding in the US - these decisions have not had to be made.

But that time will certainly come.

Chris Patten, European Union External Affairs
"We need unprecedented levels of cooperation"
See also:

12 Sep 01 | UK Politics
Blair warns of British victims
12 Sep 01 | UK
UK on high security alert
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