Presidential election: Why the UK-US Special Relationship should be back in good hands – Christine Jardine MP

There is perhaps no time in the year when we feel closer to our allies in the United States than Remembrance weekend.

Barring any last-minute drama, Joe Biden looks set to become US President in January (Picture: Paul Sancya/AP)
Barring any last-minute drama, Joe Biden looks set to become US President in January (Picture: Paul Sancya/AP)

In the more than 240 years since our formal political ties were severed by the American War of Independence, the ‘Special Relationship’ has ensured that we have been each other’s strongest allies in conflicts from the First World War to the Gulf.

There have, of course, been times when our common language, culture and familial ties and belief in the sanctity of democracy have created the false impression that we are closer than in reality.

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But never has the gulf seemed so huge, or the behaviour of an American politician seemed so incomprehensible, as in this past week.

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There have been previous occasions when the behaviour of the 45th President challenged our concept of Americanism and whether the Special Relationship persisted.

His attitude to Nato – an organisation which emerged from our joint efforts in the Second World War – his exit from the Paris Climate Agreement and attitude towards women all contributed to massive protests in London during his official visit.

But last week was something else.

Around 11pm in the UK on Thursday evening, we saw the President for the first time in 36 hours.

During that time, former Vice President Joe Biden had made two statesman-like speeches in which he called for calm, asked for patience, and told the watching public that he had attended briefings on Covid and the economic crisis.

Against the background of his increasingly likely election to what many still regard as the most powerful elected office in the world, it was immensely reassuring.

Here was a possible President-elect whose demeanour and attitude reflected what we cherish in that special relationship.

What followed from Trump was quite different.

In an astonishing rant filled with unsubstantiated claims of electoral fraud, accusations of interference by Democrat politicians and a call for Supreme Court intervention which paid no heed to the constitutional separation of powers, Trump destroyed the last vestige of any respect he might have had.

CNN anchor Anderson Cooper was so taken aback he offered as analysis: “We see him like an obese turtle on his back, flailing in the sun.”

His colleague Jake Tapper, in the immediate seconds after the speech, offered the aptly succint: “What a sad night.”

Internationally renowned journalists, recognised for their professionalism and impartiality, driven to expressing unprecedented condemnation.

Had it not been for the commentary in the hours that followed, sleep-deprived viewers could have been forgiven for thinking they dreamed up an astonishing 15 minutes of rhetoric.

Reading from his papers, the 45th President’s opener was more like a satire sketch show from the fringe than an address to the nation by a world leader.

“If you count the legal votes, I easily win,” he claimed.

He stumbled from lie to hyperbole and back again, peppering his monologue with random facts which did his argument no good.

Did you know this was the year of the Republican woman? Democrats in Georgia were blamed for the result there, despite all the officials being Republicans. He was making it up on the spot.

For those of us who lived through the presidencies of Nixon and Clinton, the concept of a US leader having a loose relationship with the truth is not new.

But it was the tone, implication and underlying invocation to reject the result which was most alarming.

Later that evening, “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” called on Republicans who had not already done so to denounce Trump. He even went as far as to label him a fascist.

It’s a term which is often bandied about carelessly but its use in this case seemed both deliberate and appropriate.

Scary enough in itself as Trump’s performance was, even more frightening is the number who still seem to believe that what he says is true.

People who seem desperate to cling to the mistaken belief that this is the man who can deliver the will of the people over the will of the elite.

I fear they are looking to the wrong American.

And in the midst of all the anger and accusations, a historic moment was almost missed.

In a year when the Black Lives Matter movement highlighted the continuing and unacceptable inequity on both sides of the Atlantic, a glass ceiling was about to be broken.

By Biden’s side in each of his speeches was his running mate, surely destined to be the first woman to be Vice President. Kamala Harris. A woman of colour.

On one hand, we witnessed one of the most disappointing episodes of US electoral history, while on the other we could cherish the promise of one of its most significant signs of progress.

Everyone who exercised their democratic right, everyone who counted votes or had anything to do with keeping election night running should be celebrated.

And in the end there was hope. The Special Relationship may be safe and come January, when this country will need every friend it can muster, Washington may again provide our solace.

Joe Biden has pledged to be a president for all Americans. I do not expect any relationship with a Biden/Harris White House to be without its occasional hiccup and disagreement.

Even the best of friends will have their differences.

But in a week which memorialises some of the most testing times in our shared history, we may at least be able to reflect that the ‘Special Relationship’ is again in trusted hands.

Christine Jardine is the Scottish Liberal Democrat MP for Edinburgh West

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