Sometimes reality can be quite different from reputation. Jacob Rees-Mogg, Conservative MP for North-East Somerset, comes with a reputation for election campaigning in his Bentley (with his nanny) and being dismissed as “David Cameron’s worst nightmare” by a Sunday Times journalist. The reality, when he came to speak on the Special Relationship between Britain and America as part of the BRLSI Economics Group’s contribution to the Perspective on America series, was one of the most entertaining and informative history/politics lectures we’ve had at BRLSI (and we’ve had some good ones).
A History graduate, Mr Rees-Mogg began with some history, quoting Edmund Burke’s view, in 1775, that America’s War of Independence was the pursuit of “liberty according to English ideas and principles”, an attempt to perfect the English constitution. This ‘constitutional continuity’, Mr Rees-Mogg said, was the foundation of the Special Relationship.
As this was a BRLSI Economics group event he’d been asked to talk about money, and did – 8.6% of UK imports are from America, but 14% of UK exports are to it (a rare trade surplus), while Britain has a staggering £3.16 trillion of capital invested in the USA, reciprocated with £3.04 trillion of U.S. investment here. This tight inter-binding he put down to two things; our common language (dismissing G. B. Shaw’s statement that the two countries are divided by one as ‘enormously quotable but fundamentally wrong’) and, equally important, common law, the two-way feeling that if you buy assets in the other country you’ll pretty much know where you stand.
Perhaps surprisingly, Mr Rees-Mogg saw the Special Relationship as heading for its lowest ebb at what many consider its finest hour, World War II. America’s late entry into World War I had, he said, been understandable, since it was less than clear who was at fault, but in 1939 there was no doubt who was the aggressor, or that a Nazi-dominated Europe wouldn’t be in America’s interests – yet America hesitated, and when it did come in came at a price, seemingly determined to bankrupt Britain and end its Empire. The actual nadir was the Suez crisis in 1956, when Prime Minister Eden lied to the Americans and they, in retaliation, took their own worst option, destroying Britain’s authority in the region and by extension their own.
The Cold War drove the partners back together again, closer than ever as Britain became America’s ‘unsinkable aircraft carrier’ off the coast of Europe. Personal friendships between Macmillan and Kennedy, and later Thatcher and Reagan, helped the process but in Mr Rees-Mogg’s view this only reflected what had always been the case, that the elites of both countries valued the Relationship more than the populist media, especially America’s.
The Relationship survives, we were told, not just because of all those trillions, but because of a ‘commonality of feeling’ that sees Britain and America, along with Canada, New Zealand and Australia, involved together wherever there’s ‘something difficult’ going on in the world. Jacob Rees-Mogg made no secret of his support for it, even if, as he admitted during Q&A, America doesn’t necessarily see it as a partnership of equals. ‘Special and pragmatic’ sums it up, from Britain’s perspective at least.
The moral of the afternoon – never judge a politician by his clippings, although Mr Rees-Mogg, whose father William was a distinguished editor of The Times, no doubt knew that already.