Monday marked the 240th anniversary of American Independence from Great Britain. The day our ‘special relationship’ began. And in light of the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the EU, this relationship may be headed for rough waters.
It was Winston Churchill who coined the phrase ‘special relationship’ to describe the UK-US partnership just after the Second World War— and he was literally the product of one with an American mum and a British Dad. But let’s be clear: America spent the first hundred years (at least) defining its laws, culture, and national identity in direct opposition to Great Britain. (You say tomato…) We were United in Anglophobia. And Great Britain viewed their former colony as that loud, embarrassing, petulant child who just won’t shut up. But by the turn of the 20th century, American hunger for its own Empire was mounting as the sun started to set on England’s vast expanse. When the American government secretly helped the British stop the Boer rebellion during the Boer War in 1902, a special relationship was born out of a mutual desire for colonial power.
Today, aside from evoking unpleasant memories of the Bush-Blair Bromance that led to an unjust war, the special relationship has been characterised by the UK acting as a ‘bridge’ between the US and EU. When President Obama visited the UK in April, he urged Brits to remain in the EU. In the wake of Brexit victory—Obama and his administration have publicly stated that the special relationship would ‘endure’. But rumours are already circulating that America has started flirting with Germany as our new EU-in.
Diplomacy aside, there’s been a striking parallel between some of the loudest politicians on either side of the pond: our Trump for your Boris (or should I say Gove), our Bernie for your Jez (as both are still hanging on)—maybe next up it’s our Hilary for your Theresa?
Those living in the UK and US are dealing with mounting internal schisms. In trying to come to terms with how Brexit could happen, it is my understanding that over half the country voted to leave the EU because they thought it would make daily life easier, more prosperous, and more secure. Their terms, however, were wide ranging. Sadly, the vote has legitimised racial and xenophobic hatred that have long been building. The week since Brexit has seen five times the complaints to True Vision (the police online hate-crime reporting site) compared to the same week last year. And this figure discounts unreported incidents. So many of these acts of violence are racially motivated. This ‘frenzy of hatred’ is now in plain sight—undeniable and unavoidable. And now is the time for those in power (and those not in power) to speak—and act—out against such wide-spread hate.
And yet there were others who voted Leave not out of racist spite and hatred, but because it seemed like the best way to make life less hard. Many of those who voted to remain were hoping for the same thing. They hoped that daily life would be safer, more prosperous—their futures more secure. Part of what’s so ugly about Parliament’s sudden transformation into a gladiatorial arena this week is that it highlights the ways in which Brexit was no more than a game for so many politicians. A high-stakes gamble that seems to have gone wrong for everyone. One thing that can unite both sides of the debate is the opportunity people have to remain involved in the country’s future path. Politicians, as we have seen, are rotating through parliament faster than we can keep track. Britain’s relationship with the European Union can be decided by upholding the referendum, by holding another, by the next general election, by protests, appeals, and demonstrations. The greatest danger is complacency.
In my opinion, America has a great deal to learn from this process—particularly in the months leading up to our presidential election. Brexit serves as a warning that a man like Trump can be elected—because no one (even its leaders) foresaw such an upset to the status quo being a success. We’ve seen that when expressions of isolationism, nationalism, white supremacy, misogyny, fear, hate, racism and xenophobia become legitimised—society suffers. However: those who will suffer most are those who are already suffer most. America needs to focus on preventative action—not damage control—while we still can. Men and women on both sides of the pond can utilise this window of instability for progressive change. For better or worse right now, the futures of our two countries are not set in stone. So as we move forward, this special relationship can be based not in pseudo-colonial military strategies, but in shared priorities of rebuilding a more tolerant and equal society with a truly representative government.
But how does this so-called special relationship translate into ordinary life? And will this change due to Brexit? For me, as an American immigrant who has spent the last five years living in Great Britain:
It’s a thousand different accents.
It’s one country who taught another country how to colonise; how to expand through slavery, exploitation, and violence.
It’s one country who taught another country how to demand democracy, freedom, and self-expression.
It’s Mark Twain reading Charles Dickens—and vice versa.
It’s a set of superiority complexes.
It’s shared language and history.
It’s repression and overconfidence trying to understand each other.
It’s an exchange of music for movies.
It’s an uncertain future.
It binds the two places I call home.
And it means something entirely different to every Yank and Brit.