Presidential-prime ministerial relations are an obsession in the UK, for journalists and historians at least. Reagan and Thatcher dancing in the White House, Blair and Bush standing shoulder-to-shoulder against nonexistent weapons of mass destruction, Theresa May uneasily holding Donald Trump’s hand so he could hobble down a gentle ramp: from intimacy to diplomatic lockstep to excruciating awkwardness, the symbolism of these relationships matters.
As Joe Biden and his entourage descend on Britain for his first visit, what are the chances that another great partnership is taking shape?
Well, it’s not completely out of the question, surely. Biden himself apparently referred to the unique and enduring rapport between the Oval Office and Number 10, deploying the words “special relationship” on the phone with Boris Johnson earlier this year. The phrase is sometimes mocked as self-aggrandising British cliché given the obvious direction in which power and influence flow, but apparently it was Johnson who bristled at Biden’s words; The Atlantic quoted an aide saying he told Biden it sounded “needy and weak”.
Johnson, a New Yorker by birth, has premised his political persona on the idea that Britain can still play a leading part on the world stage. Amicable relationships are all very well, the logic goes, but only to the extent they flatter and enhance British power rather than channeling or curtailing it.
His model in all this is Winston Churchill, or at least, the defiant Second World War version of him beloved of fawning biographies and saccharine “inspirational quotes”. Less so, perhaps, the postwar Churchill who became deeply concerned that the UK was being shunted out of the “big three” by the duelling US and USSR.
His regret at Britain’s lack of control over the remaking of the international order is well-established, and his efforts to embed the Anglo-American alliance deep in his counterparts’ minds sometimes strayed into the realm of the surreal. “A protoplasm was sexless,” Churchill is supposed to have said to the short-tempered Dwight Eisenhower just before his first inauguration. “Then it divided into two sexes which, in due course, united again in a different way to their common benefit and gratification. This should be the story of England and America.”
That is pure Johnsonian language, but it’s hard to imagine it’s the way Biden sees his counterpart – as the joint descendant of an asexual 18th-century jelly offering him a kind of gratification no one else can provide.
For a start, Johnson’s Churchill fixation (and Churchillian pretensions) were never going to sit well with a president who deeply cherishes his Irish heritage – not in the outdoor-vomitorium St Patrick’s Day style Americans are ridiculed for, but with a sincere awareness of the fact his ancestors were forced to leave Ireland in the 19th century “because of what the Brits had been doing”, i.e. depriving the Irish population of a reliable food supply even as they starved in their hundreds of thousands.
The Great Famine aside, Johnson might also reflect on an interview Biden gave to an Irish-American journalist about his Irish heritage during his crash-and-burn first presidential campaign in 1987.
“I’d go up to Aunt Gertie, who had the third floor,” he recalled. “I’d lie on the bed and she’d scratch my back and say, ‘Now you remember, Joey, about the Black and Tans, don’t you?’... After she’d finish telling me the stories, I’d sit there or lie in bed and think at the slightest noise, ‘They’re coming up the steps’.”
It will hardly be lost on Biden that the ragtag militia forces who terrorized his childhood imagination were sent into Ireland by the very man Johnson is so dedicated to venerating, whose statue in Parliament Square has become a culture-war lightning rod – and whose bust Johnson accused Barack Obama of throwing out of the Oval Office as “a symbol of the part-Kenyan President’s ancestral dislike of the British empire – of which Churchill had been such a fervent defender”.
(Biden has not specifically weighed in on those words about Obama, or about Johnson’s other vile writings, but certain people in his orbit have done, and their loathing is unambiguous.)
To be sure, let’s not forget that Biden himself now lives in a house built by slave labor, a comfortable perch from which he governs a land mass stolen from Indigenous people via plague, violence and deceit. But he is trying to make amends, at least symbolically. He bothered to give a speech on the centenary of the Tulsa race massacre, for one thing, and nominated as his secretary of the interior an Indigenous woman, Deb Haaland. (Haaland has made a point of publicly reminding people that one of her predecessors described his policy towards Native Americans as “civilise or exterminate”.)
Johnson, on the other hand, declines to look the past in the face unless it has its makeup on, and that includes his own past as a trafficker in nationalistic swagger and racist drivel. “The best fate for Africa,” he once wrote, “would be if the old colonial powers, or their citizens, scrambled once again in her direction; on the understanding that this time they will not be asked to feel guilty.”
One more thing: along with Ireland and Delaware, the thing Biden most identifies himself with in public is the American working class. Much was made of this in the run-up to the election and the immediate aftermath, especially given he managed to scrape back a meaningful number of white rust-belt voters who shunned Hillary Clinton.
Johnson isn’t just a blowhard, or an English blowhard, but a posh one. Not all the UK’s fractional class distinctions are always picked up on by outsiders, but the prime minister’s elite pedigree is unmissable. To a man who knows in his bones what the British elite did to his forebears, the sound of Boris’s cavalier bluster must be grating in the extreme.