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Churchill Proceedings – Britain and America: A Special and Essential Relationship

Finest Hour 157, Winter 2012-13

Page 54

By Robert Worcester


Ambassador to the Court of St. James’s The Honourable Louis Susman, in his first formal address after his appointment, told the Pilgrims Society in London: “In war and peace, in prosperity and in time of economic hardship, America has no better friend and no more dependable ally than the United Kingdom.”

And again:
“Our nations are deeply rooted in our enduring values of democracy, rule of law and tolerance; a shared history, culture and language, and a mutual ability and willingness to bring real diplomatic, financial and military assets to the table for joint action to promote and defend our common interests….While the United States of America—and this Ambassador—has many priorities, my principal priority will be to strengthen and nourish this Special Relationship, which is so critical to the United States.”

In a joint article on 24 May 2011, President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron pointed to the close relationship between our two countries, saying it is vital beyond Britain and America:

When the United States and Britain stand together, our people and people around the world can become more secure and more prosperous.

And that is the key to our relationship. Yes, it is founded on a deep emotional connection, by sentiment and ties of people and culture. But the reason it thrives, the reason why this is such a natural partnership, is because it advances our common interests and shared values.

It is a perfect alignment of what we both need and what we both believe. And the reason it remains strong is because it delivers time and again. Ours is not just a Special Relationship, it is an essential relationship—for us and for the world.

On the following day, addressing both Houses of Parliament, after the introductory pleasantries, the first point the President made was this: “Our relationship is special because of the values and beliefs that have united our people throughout the ages. Centuries ago, when kings, emperors, and warlords reigned over much of the world, it was the English who first spelled out the rights and liberties of man in Magna Carta.”1

Pause and think a moment. Here was the President of the United States giving one of the defining speeches of his Presidency, about human rights and the rule of law, and his very first point of reference is his reference to the Special Relationship, with its roots in Magna Carta, sealed at Runnymede on 15 June 1215, nearly 800 years ago.

From the start of the last century, certainly recognised in the 1902 founding of the Pilgrims Society, the Anglo-American Special Relationship has been in force, no matter how often denied in the media and by the occasional politician or diplomat. No two countries have ever before worked together in a passage of world power, handed over with so little acrimony, as economic strength and changing situations and relationships with other nations, especially the Commonwealth, forced the transfer.

For some reason these things go in waves. In the last year of the recent Labour Government it seemed that derision of the Special Relationship was obligatory, almost a litany. Rachel Sylvester in The Times argued that since fewer than 5% of Americans knew who Prime Minister Brown was, “my two countries have fallen out of love.” A television clip showed Obama giving Labour’s Foreign Secretary David Miliband a big hello while simultaneously “snubbing” Brown, and the President’s replacing a bust of Prime Minister Churchill in the Oval Office with one of President Lincoln. Whenever the U.S. was in the news, British media seemed to feel the need to report that the “special relationship” was dead.

It really doesn’t matter much in my view if John Doe in America or Joe Bloggs in Britain have heard of Gordon Brown or not. The strength of the Special Relationship is not measured by the views of a hard-hat from Dayton or a taxi driver in Bradford. The relationship depends on solid bonds in four key areas: diplomatic, defence/intelligence, nuclear and business. These are all in very good shape now, and for the foreseeable future, no matter the number of “inside the beltway/chattering class” stories.

Sir Jeremy Greenstock said as much on News night when Director of Ditchley: “Most current and former British ambassadors, whether they’ve served in America or not, will tell you the same, and that while recognising that Britain is the junior partner, they’d a lot rather Britain to be in alliance with the USA than not.”

There is no question either that Britain’s top military commanders, Navy, Army, or RAF, all endorse the partnership’s importance. They know their opposite numbers; many have served with American forces; and all of them hold the defence relationship in high regard. This is true not only on this side of the Atlantic; it’s also true in America.

There was no stronger advocate of this than the former chairman of the American Joint Chiefs of Staff, the late Admiral William Crowe, himself at one time ambassador to the Court of St James’s. Ambassador Crowe was living proof of the high regard with which both American diplomats and military at the highest level regard the contribution made by Britain—not just to partnering with the United States but also to the United Nations, the Security Council, and to the world.

British universities are respected by American educators, as are British scientists. Among the top 100 world universities the UK comes second only to the USA. We are not as rich, but in the clichéd phrase Britain punches above her weight in education and science, and in demonstrating British values shared with the American establishment. After all, Americans learned those values from its British colonists. So let us define the “Special Relationship”:

What it is: The relationship between two nations.

What it is not: Exclusive.

What it should be: Plural.2

What it does not have to be: Comprehensive.

What it must be: Flexible.

What it is, as defined by the President: Essential.

There are many arguments for it.

Constitutional and Legal: The Rule of Law, the cusp between retributive justice and codified justice, was first expressed in England during the rule of King Æthelbert of Kent, c . 604, recorded in the Textus Roffensus; in the Coronation Oath of Henry I in 1100; and in Magna Carta of 1215, wherein the Rule of Law and Human Rights, if not universal, became, in 1297, the law of the land.

Political: Who here is not interested in the coming American election? Not a one—and this is approximately the fortieth audience in this country, from sixth formers and university undergraduates to Rotary clubs, where I’ve asked that question. I have yet to have a single admission of boredom with American Presidential contests. Why is the British-American All-Party Parliamentary Group the largest cross-party Commons and Lords committee of its type? Why are there people in this country, some four in ten, who express little interest in our British elections, yet say they are very interested in what’s happening in America?

Financial: The USA and the UK are each other’s largest investor country; America is Britain’s top export destination and our second-largest trading partner.

Linguistic: When intrepid voyagers founded the New World’s first permanent English-speaking colony, in Jamestown, Virginia in 1607 (thirteen years before the May flower), there were about two million people who spoke English, almost all in the British Isles and in the Caribbean. Now over a billion speak our language, on the way to two billion by 2020—a thousandfold increase in 400 years.

Cultural: Each of our countries is the other’s biggest market for television and cinema production and distribution. There are more auction houses, more exchanges of theatre, opera, classical and rock concerts, even country and western, than any other two countries. And of course, our two countries are the largest publishers of books, magazines and scholarly articles in English.

Historic: Partly because of cinema, television and books, our peoples take a keen interest in each others’ political, military, and cultural histories. I know one MP who knows more about the American Indian tribes than any American I know, and another person, a judge, who certainly knows much more about the American Civil War than I do.

Educational: The most sought-after educational exchanges, in terms of both students and faculty, are Britain to America and America to Britain.

Journalistic: The elites in the USA and UK are the largest readers of each other’s newspapers.

And now, time to quote Winston Churchill, like so many of his era a product of an Anglo-American relationship: “In the days to come the British and American peoples will for their own safety and for the good of all, walk together side by side in majesty, in justice, and in peace.”3

Former U.S. Ambassador Robert Tuttle said to the Pilgrims in 2009, just before his departure:

President Obama’s first call to a European leader was to Gordon Brown, it went extremely well and it started off with Barack and Gordon, and the President talked about his interest in the continuing special relationship.

We have between 18,000 and 20,000 official visitors a year, counting federal, state and local officials. Some come with a transient point, some come to give speeches, some come to talk to the media. But most of them come and meet with their counterparts in your government. That is how important this relationship is. That is how deep and strong this relationship is, and it is going to continue.

William Hague, when Shadow Foreign Secretary, was more personal, more evocative:

We British politicians love American politics. My wife hates it when we are travelling through America when I say, “Do you know we are going through a county which voted 73% Republican at the last election, and we are about to cross the border into one that is quite marginal in the next election?” She thinks I have completely taken leave of my senses.

Let’s take a minute to review the past 100 or so years. President Theodore Roosevelt rather undiplomatically distinguished between “real” Americans and “hyphenated Americans” (Italian-Americans, Irish-Americans, and so on); Henry Cabot Lodge argued that Americans of British descent had contributed three times as much to American abilities as all the others combined. However chequered Anglo-American diplomatic relations had been in the 19th century, there was a strong feeling among Americans of English ancestry that the two nations shared not only a common language, but common ideals, and that there was a need to assert their Anglo-Saxon heritage.

These sentiments were repeated by many early in the last century at Pilgrims functions. On his return from Washington, at a dinner in his honour on 6 November 1913, British Ambassador James Bryce declared that the friendship of the two countries rested on a “community of language, of literature, of institutions, of traditions, of ideals, of all those memories of the past which are among the most precious possessions of the two nations.” This echoed Churchill’s reminder of shared “law, language, literature” in his famous address on Anglo-American unity at Harvard in 1943.

The first Pilgrims dinner in New York was held at the Waldorf Astoria on 4 February, 1903, the year following the founding of the British Pilgrims, to welcome Admiral Lord Charles Beresford, close friend of King Edward VII, and later a vice-president of the American Pilgrims. Soon after this dinner, King Edward VII and President Theodore Roosevelt gave permission for the Pilgrims to couple the King and the President in a single toast, and it became the custom, immediately after the toast, for the orchestra to play a few bars of “God Save the King” and the “Star-Spangled Banner,” now a custom sadly lost along with the orchestral accompaniment to white tie dinners. For many years the speech of the principal guest was reprinted in The Times, and when it came into being, broadcast live on the BBC.

The Special Relationship has never been without rough edges, as with the reluctance of both Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt to enter into European wars too soon, to the dismay of the beleaguered British. Certainly Churchill not only felt his maternal “special relationship” existed, but between the governments and peoples as well—as did Macmillan.

Rough edges included the tenure of the immediate prewar American Ambassador Joseph Kennedy, who did much to irritate his host country. But the affinity was clear when his son’s thousand-day Presidency strengthened the relationship and softened any lingering recall of the actions and words of his father. The relationship also reached a nadir in 1956 at the time of the Suez Crisis.4

On the other side, continuing the tradition of outspoken “diplomats” was Lord Halifax, who in 1941, when sent to represent Britain in America, described the thought of going to Washington as “odious,” and told Baldwin, “I have never liked Americans, except odd ones [sic]. In the mass, I have always found them dreadful.”5 Later he reported to the King that he found Americans “very much resemble a mass of nice children—a little crude, very warm-hearted and mainly governed by emotion.” Dealing with the Roosevelt administration, he said, was like a “disorderly day’s rabbit shooting.”6

Certainly Churchill did much to cement the special relationship, spending weeks at a time as Roosevelt’s guest in the White House during the war, and treating FDR’s envoys as “one of us.” During and after the war he attended meetings of the cabinet in Washington, and clearly wished the relationship to continue in peace. He instructed his chief scientific adviser as early as 1940 to tell the Americans “everything that Britain was doing in the scientific field,” and joint military operations were as seamless as could be—in intent if not always in practice, given the extraordinary personalities on both sides.

It was Churchill who commented, to Brooke, that there was only one thing worse than fighting with allies, and that was fighting without them.7 In 1932, in the deepening Depression, he had told Pilgrims: “I believe that there is one grand valiant conviction shared on both sides of the Atlantic. It is this: together, there is no problem we cannot solve.”

Churchill took over from Chamberlain in May 1940, and spoke again to the Pilgrims in early 1941:

It is no exaggeration to say that the future of the whole world and the hopes of a broadening civilization founded upon Christian ethics depend upon the relations between the British Empire or Commonwealth of Nations and the U.S.A. The identity of purpose and persistence of resolve prevailing throughout the English-speaking world will, more than any other single fact, determine the way of life which will be open to the generations, and perhaps to the centuries, which follow our own….Therefore we stand, all of us, upon the watch towers of history….8

Sandra Kaiser, former minister-counsellor for Public Affairs at the American Embassy in London, last year spoke on this topic, saying the Special Relationship is “one of those evergreen topics that falls dormant, only to spring up again. Wherever you go back in our shared history, it seems, the Special Relationship has been declared dead and buried—only to resurface, very much alive and well.”

A final word from Churchill. As he was retiring as prime minister in 1955, his advice to his colleagues was twofold: “Man is Spirit”—and “Never be separated from the Americans.”9

Good thoughts then, good thoughts now. But I would add my own advice to our friends in America: Never be separated from the British. In good times and bad, we’re your best friends in the world.

I say no more than Barack Obama did last year when he remarked to newly-elected Prime Minister David Cameron: “The United States has no closer friend and ally than the United Kingdom. I reiterate my deep and personal commitment to the Special Relationship between our two countries—a bond that has endured for generations and across party lines, and that is essential to the security and prosperity of our two countries, and the world.”

Sir Robert Worcester KBE DL is Chancellor and Honorary Professor of Politics at the University of Kent, and founder of Market & Opinion Research International (MORI). The best-known pollster in Britain, he is a frequently quoted political analyst.


1. As quoted by Lord McNally, Minister of Justice, Lincoln Cathedral Magna Carta address, 10 June 2011.

2. It is generally thought that Churchill first described the Special Relationship in his Fulton, Missouri, speech in March 1946 when he spoke of “a special relationship between the British Commonwealth and Empire and the United States.” In fact it was used in November 1945, when Churchill, quoted in The New York Times, said: “We should not abandon our special relationship with the United States and Canada about the atomic bomb….” Both references to the relationship were plural.

3. Winston S. Churchill, Speech to a Joint Session of Congress, 26 December 1941.

4. Caroline Kennedy-Pipe, Society Now, Autumn 2009, 17.

5. Halifax to Baldwin, 20 December 1940, in Martin Gilbert, The Churchill War Papers, vol. 2, Never Surrender, May 1940–December 1940 (London: Heinemann, 1994), 1268.

6. David Dilks, ed., The Diaries of Sir Alexander Cadogan 1938-1945 (London: Cassell, 1971), 401.

7. Author’s review of Fighting with Allies by Sir Robin Renwick, Europe-Atlantic Journal, October 1996.

8. Winston S. Churchill, speech at the Pilgrims Society luncheon for Ambassador-designate Lord Halifax, London, 9 January 1941, in Robert Rhodes James, ed., Winston S. Churchill: His Complete Speeches 1897-1963, 8 vols. (New York: Bowker, 1974), VI 6327-28.

9.  Jon Meacham, Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship (New York: Random House, 2003), 29.

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