By MIKE JOHNSON [email protected]
Mike Johnson is a freelance journalist who worked in the Algarve for more than 20 years. He now lives in Plymouth in the UK and comments on world topics which fascinate him.
It has become a tradition that, following the inauguration of a new American President, there is feverish diplomatic background activity to ensure that the first official visitor to the White House is the current British Prime Minister.
It was, therefore, no real surprise that Gordon Brown should have been the first on this occasion, despite a rather uneasy feeling that President Obama, having already demonstrated that he was no slave to tradition, might see things differently.
As it turned out, just as Tony Blair had tip-toed into the Oval Office eight years ago, to meet the newly-inaugurated George W Bush, so Mr Brown strode purposefully forward to be greeted by the world’s most powerful man. There, however, the similarity ended. Mr Blair had already been in office for three years and Britain was still under the spell of New Labour. Mr Bush had just been through a bruising election campaign, where his popularity with the American people was still in doubt.
It’s also a tradition that the British guest brings a present for the President. Way back in 1880 Queen Victoria had given a rather special desk to the new President Hayes. It had been carved from the timbers of HMS Resolute, a ship used by Britain to suppress the slave trade in the 19th century. The desk is still in the Oval Office after all these years, whereas a bust of Sir Winston Churchill, an offering from Tony Blair to President Bush, was already boxed up by White House staff, ready to be returned to England.
Mr Brown brought with him a pen-holder, carved from timbers of HMS Gannet, a sister ship of the Resolute. He will hope that this gift will remain on the President’s desk, to be admired by subsequent visitors, rather than just hidden away in some cupboard. That was surely the fate of the gifts from John Major to President Clinton – a Surrey County Cricket Club cap and three umbrellas.
Mr Brown was on a three day visit, during which the most important – or public – events were to be a press conference following the first official meeting of the two leaders, and a joint session of Congress, where the British leader would outline his vision of global co-operation. Only four prime ministers had previously been accorded this honour – Tony Blair, Margaret Thatcher, Clement Atllee and Churchill.
The press conference proved to be a strange affair. After the preliminary statements by the two men, both looking rather uncomfortable, the questioning soon turned to Mr Brown’s domestic problems back home. After a couple of these, President Obama brusquely ended the conference, saying later that he, himself, had important domestic issues to address. Mr Brown looked somewhat nonplussed.
The next day’s speech to Congress was a different kettle of fish. Mr Brown was on much surer ground. He launched into a glowing tribute to the ‘special relationship’ which is said to exist between Britain and the United States. This was, he said, “a partnership of purpose, renewed by every generation to reflect the challenges we both face.” These ranged from the defeat of fascism in the Second World War and the subsequent re-building of the international order, to the current partnership to defeat terrorism.
The main tasks ahead, as Mr Brown sees them, are to restore global financial stability, to tackle global climate change and to defeat global poverty, hunger and disease. It was significant that he emphasised the word ‘global’, as it is in dealing with world issues that Mr Brown is most comfortable. He looked pleased to be able to put behind him such matters as the British banking scandals, unemployment and other trivia – at least for three days.
On the whole, Congress received his speech well and accorded him 17 standing ovations – some onlookers counted 19. It was, as a friend watching it with me on television remarked, rather like Easter Mass in her Catholic Church – all ups and downs. There was only one policy statement which was greeted in stony silence. That was when the prime minister spoke of the need to end national protectionism. Representatives remembered President Obama’s recent plea to ‘buy American’ – echoing Mr Brown’s ‘British jobs for British workers’.
Order was restored in the next breath, however, when he pledged to rid the world of tax-free havens. This was greeted by the biggest cheer of the day. He followed up by announcing that HM The Queen was to bestow an Honorary Knighthood on Senator Edward Kennedy for his services to UK/American relations and to Northern Ireland. Mr Kennedy, the 77-year old brother of President John F Kennedy, is currently being treated for a brain tumour.
Although Mr Brown referred to him in his speech as ‘Sir Edward Kennedy’ and as ‘a great friend’, he will not be able to call himself ‘Sir Ted’, as he would no doubt love, as the honour is purely symbolic. It has already drawn sharp criticism from some quarters. The political journalist, Andrew Roberts, reminded readers of The Daily Mail that ever since the senator’s ancestors left County Wexford for Boston, the family has nursed ‘a deep resentment’ against Britain.
Others remember that it was Mr Kennedy who had cosied up to the Republican Sinn Fein leader, Gerry Adams, at the height of the IRA’s murderous campaign in Northern Ireland and the British mainland. It is also ironic that, days after the announcement, two British soldiers were shot dead outside their barracks, 16 miles from Belfast. The dissident republican group, the Real IRA, has claimed responsibility for the attack, the first on British troops in 12 years.
Gordon Brown is now back in the real world, facing domestic issues, with his popularity in the opinion polls at a record low. It’s a sad fact that no amount of ‘grand standing’ and popularity across the Atlantic, or stardust rubbed off President Obama, will improve his chances of winning the next General Election, whenever it comes.