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Notes from a client kingdom

Britain is a sad sunless satrapy of the American empire

Artillery Row

It would take a heart of stone not to be moved by the spontaneous combustion of “fishy” Rishi Sunak’s political career. Last year, and even early in 2022, he seemed the obvious and anointed future of the Tory party. The mysterious drip-feed of information and innuendo about the Prime Minister’s apparently illegal parties seemed to be slickening the way for a Sunakian coup. And yet, here we are. The Chancellor (at time of writing) has seen his political future oh-so-cruelly evaporate, as he too was sucked down by the whirlpool of Partygate. 

The cost of living crisis, and the government’s lethargic pseudo-response, is likewise all too easy to lay at the ultra-wealthy Chancellor’s door. It appears that, until it became public knowledge this year, Sunak’s wife was embarrassingly non-domiciled in Britain for tax purposes. 

One element of this sorry saga yet to fully percolate in the public mind, however, is Mr and Mrs Sunak’s possession of United States “green cards”. It emerged in April that the Sunaks held these documents until 2021, making them permanent residents in the United States. A sitting Chancellor of the Exchequer was understood, at least as far as the Americans were concerned, to be committed to building the rest of his life in the U.S. This is an extraordinary thing for Mr Sunak to have had to admit.

The Chancellor and his wife met while studying at Stanford University, in California. The couple still own a penthouse flat in California, at Santa Monica. They lived in the State for several years before he turned to British politics, and the Telegraph has reported that Sunak has referred to his Californian base as “home”.

Americans worked hard throughout the twentieth century to eclipse Britain

It is not necessary to accuse Sunak here of any kind of deliberately divided loyalties. Indeed, he surrendered his green card after receiving advice to do so during his first trip across the Atlantic as Chancellor in 2021. Yet the revelation is indicative of two unflattering realities.

The first is simply the poverty of the Chancellor’s political judgement. To think it morally or politically possible to be a senior minister of the Crown while maintaining a plan to reside permanently in another country —  not a country to which he has deep ties, as his wife admittedly does with India, where she was domiciled for tax purposes — is horribly misguided. It gives the embarrassing impression that Sunak’s commitment to the United Kingdom, the country he has a share in governing, is a product of his career prospects. 

If things don’t go his way on Downing Street, was the plan always simply to move to a better paying job in the States? It’s a bad enough look to be richer than Croesus while taking part in the ongoing austerity-driven evisceration of the British state, but it’s considerably worse when it looks like you’re planning on jumping ship entirely.

The second is more dispiriting. There is now a significant element of the British elites — not limited to, but certainly including, our politicians — which behaves as the Americanised ruling class of a supine client kingdom. This has been obvious recently in the political realm. As I recently observed, atlanticist Conservatives now argue for a presidential system of government and for a purported separation of Church and State, betraying their party’s historic Toryism. Far too many British politicians have their socio-political imaginary shaped by The West Wing and by self-deluding fantasies of Reaganite liberal atlanticism, abandoning any worldview drawn from British history or the prospect of an organic future recognisably of our own.

Our lobotomised journalistic class bears great responsibility for this. Obsessed with the U.S. culture wars, and possessed of an arrogant monolingualism usually associated with boozy Brits on holiday slowly and loudly demanding directions to the beach, the BBC and major newspapers devote their energies to the minutiae of Democratic primaries or breathless and credulous commentary on whichever social shibboleth is currently being inappropriately adjudicated by their Supreme Court. 

There is precious little serious reporting on France or Germany, and virtually no sustained coverage of anywhere else. The British journalistic classes convey caricatured portrayals of Europe’s Macrons or Merkels, and endless analyses of bathroom policies in Iowa (or wherever).

Through the second half of the twentieth century, there existed two comforting delusions in Britain’s ruling classes. First, that there was a “special relationship” between the United Kingdom and the United States. Second, that we were (according to Harold Macmillan, channelling Horace) the “Greeks” to America’s “Romans”. 

The truth is that, despite (and by means of) wartime alliances, the Americans worked hard throughout the twentieth century to eclipse Britain as the major Western power and, having eclipsed us, to keep us in our place. Everyone knows about Suez, but the wider picture is less well known. The last serious war scare between our countries was in 1896, over a border with Venezuela (Britain blinked first). There was a major Anglophobic streak in American politics after the First World War. 

President Coolidge condemned British policy and pointedly called for U.S. naval superiority over her erstwhile ally on Armistice Day in 1928, the tenth anniversary of the end of the war. Franklin Roosevelt’s son Elliott wrote about his father’s conviction that the European empires posed a greater threat to world peace than Stalin, as well as the President’s abiding suspicion of British “perfidy”. 

Britain has never had her necessary Gaullist moment

The 1941 Atlantic Charter extracted from Britain, before the U.S. was even willing to fight Nazi Germany, concessions the Americans had been demanding of Britain for a hundred and fifty years: freedom of navigation, free trade and the principle of self-determination. Horace was closer to the mark than Macmillan: he recognised that Greece had indeed been taken captive. This realisation should not be the province of imperial nostalgia. That the British Empire was dismantled under American moral and economic pressure is not necessarily a bad thing, certainly not for many of Britain’s former subject peoples. Yet it is unhealthy to deceive ourselves that the end result has not been the reduction of Britain to one of the new imperial hegemon’s European client kingdoms.

Britain has never had her necessary Gaullist moment, a taking stock of who we are, where we have come from, and where we want to go in the world. As a result, we are not the high-minded Greeks of Macmillan’s anaesthetic imagination, but more like the cringing provincial elites who petitioned to erect civic temples dedicated to Rome and Augustus.

There are depressing hints of this reality at the very heart of the British state. Blair’s constitutional reforms were characterised by an Americanised doctrinal preference for the separation of powers — not immediately reconcilable with parliamentary sovereignty —  best illustrated by the creation of a Supreme Court. Recently the Sovereign’s own grandson, a Prince of the United Kingdom, has chosen the Sunakian option of celebrity life in California over quiet retirement in Britain, albeit with the polite fiction of a temporary stay in Canada to dull the shock of royal Americanisation.

There is something decadently late-Hellenistic about the remaining trappings of state in this American client kingdom. Events like State Openings of Parliament and the recent Jubilee, if divorced from a vital and viable British identity, become a fig-leaf of national continuity, covering up our debilitating cultural, political and economic weakness. They serve to hide the ruling class’s atrophying sense of confidence or purpose, as the elite’s old groundings in a wider European culture and a practised Christianity wither away.

A defeatist might be forgiven for looking at the pretentions of Crown and Parliament through the eyes of Constantine Cavafy’s poem “Alexandrian Kings”. The great Greek poet imagines the baroque spectacle of the joint coronations of Cleopatra’s young sons — Caesarion, Alexander and Ptolemy — in the autumn of Hellenistic Egypt, right before its absorption by Rome. The ceremonies are opulent and cosmopolitan, the princelings’ accolades magnificent. Yet the Alexandrian crowds “knew full well what all this was worth, what hollow words were those kingly titles”.

We are not, perhaps, quite there yet. But escaping the sorry fate of the client kingdom requires a refreshed cultural confidence, and jettisoning a ruling class too slavishly devoted to the Caesars across the sea.

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