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Tuesday, March 13, 2012 

The falsity and ritual of the "essential" relationship.

Much of politics is thoroughly pointless. The centre point of our parliamentary democracy, prime minister's questions, is a weekly exercise in miserable theatre, the very lowest rhetoric (you knifed your brother in the back!) and planted feeble jibes at the opposite party. On occasion some very worthy causes are raised but these are always dealt with behind the scenes, if at all. Similarly, you can hardly begrudge the wider public attitude towards politics when the very shows they are invited to take part in, such as Question Time, are almost always interminable, all the more so since the coalition took power, as it often means there are two all but identical party hacks on the panel completely agreeing with each other. Add in the obligatory professional attention seekers who always take the fifth seat, whether it's David Starkey, Mad Mel or Alastair Campbell, and the number of hastily switched channels as soon as David Dimbleby appears must be close to incalculable.

Neither of these rituals or any other you can think of compare though to the spectacular inanity that is the official state visit. Very occasionally they move from the pointless to the obscene, such as when the Saudis or other authoritarians come to the visit, the red carpet rolled out for some of the most venal and vile individuals on the planet, but mostly they just demonstrate that stifling protocol and appearances matter as much as they ever have.

Rather than attempting to cool down this falsity, if anything it keeps becoming more and more layered. There is absolutely no reason whatsoever for David Cameron to go to Washington this week, let alone take George Osborne and William Hague along with him, not to mention the whole scrum of media following in their wake. All of the policies supposedly to be discussed tomorrow could have been settled over the phone or video conference, as we are told Cameron and Barack Obama often communicate; instead, we're being treated to sights that can never be unseen, such as Obama and Cameron having to look as though they're making small talk as they board a helicopter taking them to a basketball game. This is of course to demonstrate that both are just such ordinary, down to earth guys and to prove it they'll be giving an interview at half-time.

As is also now set down in stone, one or both of the leaders will have to give their name to a ridiculous newspaper article (written usually by a chief spin doctor, the real author of a Bill Clinton "piece" during the Blair years having been a certain A Campbell), setting out just how close the relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom remains. Rebranded from being "special" to being "essential", perhaps because the very meaning of the former has changed, it goes unremarked that Obama has been fairly liberal in who he says America has an extraordinary relationship with, with both French and Israeli leaders told they are the true apple of the world superpower's roving eye. In reality, the only relationship that matters is the one with Israel, such is the now phenomenal power of the lobby, propped up by a mixture of neo-Conservative zeal, fundamentalist Christian dogma, with many evangelicals believing Israel will be the literal site of the battle of Armageddon and the massive success of AIPAC in getting prospective politicians to agree to support Israeli policies. If David Cameron were to tomorrow lecture Obama in the way that Benjamin Netanyahu has now twice done, it's a fair bet that he wouldn't be invited back any time soon.

For as previously noted, regardless of the role we've played in both Afghanistan and Iraq, the US could have easily done both alone. Cameron and Obama's joint article ends with the statement that together they believe there "is hardly anything we cannot do", yet the entire piece is made up of things that we've in fact done or are doing as part of partnerships, organisations or wider alliances. The only part where this isn't the case is in the mention of extra care for military veterans, something we wouldn't have to be putting so much aside for if we didn't keep involving ourselves in needless conflicts, or alternatively knew when to cut our losses. Obama and Cameron are not fools: they both know that our continuing blundering in Afghanistan is likely to eventually make Iraq look like a success story by comparison. Both though keep listening to the advisers and military spokesmen who haven't had a clue since the outset, the end result being the needless deaths of the six British servicemen last week, and the massacre by the American soldier at the end of it.

If there was really anything that we couldn't do together, such as provide a positive vision of the future that doesn't involve almost perpetual conflict, then there might have been some mention of a push for movement on a settlement between the Israelis and Palestinians, something all but forgotten now that Iran's alleged nuclear ambitions have taken precedence. The truth is that we can't even agree on a joint response to the recession, although this isn't especially surprising when the two parties in the coalition can't either. The Guardian's leader says that Cameron hasn't gone out of his way to "pursue an Atlanticist foreign policy", which is accurate up to a point, the point being that it was ourselves who were pushing for intervention in Libya whereas Obama had to be convinced, while we haven't ruled out joining in an attack on Iran. Our foreign policy has in practice not changed one jot since the days of the first Gulf War.

We clutch to the coattails of America for the reason that our politicians seem to think we have to for the sake of image and history. The French may have been ungrateful ever since the day after the liberation of Paris, but at least they're confident and comfortable in having plotted their own course. Our leaders meanwhile continue to pretend that we mean something to the Americans beyond our usefulness as a fig leaf, while even that is increasingly being regarded as more trouble than it's worth in terms of our unjustified high opinion of ourselves. Like with the pointless rituals of politics, it's time we realised that when we have nothing to offer we should offer nothing. Change and reform though is not for those who insist upon it for everyone else.

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