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Analysis
Reigniting the special relationship

Reigniting the special relationship

US should take notice of UK election

by David Callaway in Washington

Mon 27 Apr 2015

During the UK general election of 1997, as Labour leader Tony Blair fought to unseat John Major and his Conservatives, an ambitious correspondent for the London Evening Standard traveled to Iowa, ground zero for US presidential election campaigns, to ask voters a simple question: Who is the British prime minister?

None knew Major. A few took a stab with Margaret Thatcher. And one instead offered the bigger picture. 'I don't know. But when the aliens land, and they will, you Brits will be glad to have the good ole US at your backs to protect you.'

Such is the diversity of political discourse within the US electorate. As well as a heartland view of Churchill's 'special relationship'.

A generation later, the 2015 general election in Britain is still regarded with indifference outside Washington and New York, weighing in on the attention scale somewhere between Donald Trump and the Cricket World Cup.

Part of it is the comparatively brief nature of the 38-day British campaign cycle. Here in the US, we've already begun slinging mud for November 2016. Part of it is a backsliding of the special relationship caused by two unpopular wars and a global financial crisis. And part is simply the lack of charisma of both Prime Minister David Cameron and Labour leader Edward Miliband. Say what you want about Hillary; you either love her or hate her.

Miliband burnishes some US credentials, having spent time in Boston and declaring himself a Red Sox fan. But his awkward public persona cuts him an elitist technocratic figure. Cameron, while more polished, is also seen as elitist in American eyes, a B-rated, British Hollywood movie villain.

It's a shame Americans can't generate more enthusiasm for political campaigns outside their orbit, because the next ruling party in the UK will help shape three international issues that we should care deeply about: Middle East turmoil, global financial regulation, and the future of the European Union.

Cameron's victory threatens a country referendum on Europe, and an ensuing probable relegation of Britain to the sidelines of history as the continent reshapes to the next generation. Any US administration would be deeply against a British pull-back in Europe. Miliband's victory would presumably move the UK closer to Europe, if only in theory.

Miliband's scuttling of Cameron's proposal to assist a US military intervention in Syria, while hailed at the time two years ago, in retrospect now lends to Obama's regrets not to pursue a plan before the Islamic State arose. Cameron would prove the more staunch ally in the Middle East turmoil.

Neither is seen as a friend of the City of London, so vital to Wall Street interests in Europe and around the world, though Cameron probably gets that nod as well.

And as a wildcard, given the enduring American love affair with the Royal family, Cameron would likely be less inclined to throw a wrench into any royal succession schemes, if they would occur during the five years of the next party rule.

In short, the special relationship has not been at its best since Reagan-Thatcher, though Clinton and Blair had a brief fling. Hard work is needed to repair it, though the foreign and economic policies of both countries remain misaligned on all three key issues, not to mention Israel.

Americans were more attuned to last summer's Scottish referendum, which had a bit of revolutionary flair with which they could identify.

But on the tough questions Britain must deal with of austerity, inclusion at the EU leadership table, regulation of global banks, Middle East involvement, and the growing opportunities and threats of technology, Americans seem somewhat oblivious to the importance of the 7 May election to this country's own interests.

It will likely take a more pressing threat, in the form of terror or real financial crisis, to re-ignite the special flame both countries share. When it does, who occupies 10 Downing Street will suddenly matter a great deal.

David Callaway is editor in chief of USA Today.

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