IN MARCH 2001, the once youthful but now veteran Tory politician William Hague gave a speech at a Conservative Party conference in which he banged the anti-European drum. In March 2003, he gave another speech, in Parliament, in which he warmly endorsed Tony Blair’s support for the American invasion of Iraq. In July 2010, he spoke once more, this time in the celebrated Locarno Room at the Foreign Office. But his tune had changed: like Prime Minister David Cameron, now–Foreign Secretary Hague has intimated that he seeks to distance Britain from reflexive support for Washington, and he says that, in a new multipolar world, he wants to move more generally from an obsession with the “blocs”—the United States, Europe and the Middle East—to forge fresh links with such emerging powerhouses as India, China and Brazil.
What a difference a few years make! Not only has Hague’s career turned out in ways he did not foresee, and certainly didn’t intend, the world has quite tilted on its axis. Few things have been more affected by those changes than British foreign policy, in particular the connection with the United States, often called the “special relationship,” whether the phrase is apt, or even has any meaning. After many vicissitudes, this relationship reached an apotheosis of sorts when Tony Blair took a largely unwilling country into the Iraq War, for a variety of motives, but above all because of a belief that he ought to support the United States in all its actions. Although Blair didn’t quite say “their country, right or wrong,” that was the clear implication of his position—and Hague’s at that time.
It may have been the implication of the British position for more than half a century. And that supposed special relationship increasingly looks like the grande illusion of British foreign policy, logically false and founded on a complete misunderstanding: a relationship which was special mainly in that only one side knew it existed. By now even Hague seems to understand this.
Having become an MP in 1989 while still in his twenties, Hague served briefly as a junior minister and then a cabinet minister in the dying days of the last Tory government under John Major. When the Tories were routed by Tony Blair and his New Labour Party in the 1997 general election, Major resigned immediately as party leader and Hague was elected in his place. His task was thankless, as Blair rode the high crest of a wave of popularity which many British people now look back on with a collective blush. Hague’s response was to move the party to the Right, with a renewed Euroskepticism, as it is called, though the honorable word “skeptic” doesn’t deserve to be appropriated for sour and sterile hostility to the European Union. “Talk about Europe and they call you extreme,” Hague said sarcastically in that 2001 speech. “Talk about tax and they call you greedy. Talk about crime and they call you reactionary. Talk about asylum and they call you racist.” Well yes, and there was an unmistakable streak of demagogic xenophobia bordering on bigotry running through the Tory party at that time.
What’s more, it didn’t work. Shortly after those words were spoken, the Tories were led by Hague into another election, and were again heavily defeated. Hague not only resigned the leadership but departed from front-bench politics for the time being to devote himself to making money and writing books, both of which he did to some effect. He’s an able man—an Oxford “First,” like Cameron—and his biographies of William Pitt the Younger, prime minister at the end of the eighteenth century, and the English abolitionist William Wilberforce are worth reading.
It was thus as a backbencher that Hague spoke on March 18, 2003, in support of the invasion of Iraq; his speech now seems a period piece. “Munich” has been used to justify every military intervention from Suez to Vietnam to Iraq, and Hague seemed to acknowledge the danger of this when he agreed that “analogies with the 30s can be taken too far,” but then spoiled it by saying that “in some of the opposition to the Government’s stance there is a hint of appeasement.” More than that, Hague’s case was that it was “part of our national interest to act in concert with the United States of America in matters of world peace and stability.”
Seven years later, those are words which any British politician would hesitate to utter. The consequence of such acting in concert has not been a success. British troops withdrew from Basra in southern Iraq in late 2007, with little to celebrate and with much American acrimony. This July it was announced that the British would pull out of the Sangin area of Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan by the end of the year, again with little to celebrate, and Cameron has said that he wants all our troops home by 2015 at the latest, which as it happens may be the date of the next election.Image: Pullquote: Although British and American politicians, including Obama, still intone the words “special relationship” nearly fifty years after Acheson queried the phrase, it looks more foolish all the time.Essay Types: Essay