When Boris Johnson revealed that he banned the term from the Foreign Office under his tenure, I was taken aback. His given reason was that it made the UK seem “needy.” To my American ears the phrase conveys no such thing; if anything my patriotic pride was slightly wounded. Why would a British politician, especially a Conservative who would become Prime Minister, prohibit a reminder that the relationship between our two countries was special?
Whitehall’s decision to forgo any formal or ratifiable agreement is a testimony to the hypnotic power of “special relationship” priorities, and to the belief that partnership with the United States, however defined, transcends all other questions. As the USAF commander in Britain had remarked in 1949: “Never before in history has one first-class power gone into another first-class power’s country without any agreement.”
The understanding then clicked: To some Brits, evidently Boris Johnson among them, the term implies British subservience, an unwelcome reminder the sun now sets on the British Empire, largely because the US would not abate the British continuing to defend it. The central analogy Hitchens employs throughout the book is what he calls “Greece to their Rome.” That is, as the Romans eventually surpassed the Greeks, while maintaining certain similarities with them, so did the Americans surpass the British. Hitchens writes (in 1989) that the Brits have remained sensitive on this subject ever since.
But I don’t sense among American circles much triumphalism on this issue. If anything the urge to reassert the special relationship remains strong, both politically and culturally. The phrase may sound needy to some British ears, but to Americans it is a source of comfort.