When I was growing up in London in the 1970s and 1980s, it was fashionable among those on the left to talk about how a denuded UK had essentially become the United States’ 51st state. The implication was that a post-imperial, cash-strapped, diplomatically and militarily diminished Britain had essentially ceded its foreign policy and a large part of its sovereignty to the dictates of the U.S. In 1986 the New Model Army band even wrote a song titled “51st State” about Thatcher’s U.S.-controlled Britain, mockingly referencing the “star-spangled Union Jack.”
At the huge annual Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament rallies that my parents would take my siblings and me to, speakers frequently portrayed Britain as a (very) junior partner in a dishonorable enterprise that spread U.S. military adventurism into the far reaches of the globe. These were, after all, the dark days of the dirty wars in Latin America, the death squads of Suharto’s Indonesia and Ferdinand Marcos’s Philippines, and the violent state repression in Apartheid South Africa, all of which occurred with at least a nod and a wink from D.C.
Today, however, three years into the Brexit saga, with Britain engulfed in political chaos, Trump and his team are treating the country less as the 51st state and more along the lines of how the Soviet Union used to treat its abused satellites in Eastern Europe: as a peon, a country that exists at the beck and call of the master, a vassal whose leadership is expected to take any and every humiliating gesture thrown its way.
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Trump’s ludicrous state visit to the U.K. this week, in which he essentially forced Theresa May to offer up the royal family as a prop for his self-aggrandizing fantasies, showed exactly how vulnerable Britain now is. Trump flew in and promptly created a protocol-shattering shit-storm.
Before Air Force One even landed, the president was indulging in a particularly juvenile round of tweets against Sadiq Khan, London’s progressive mayor, who, by virtue of the fact that he is Muslim, has long attracted Trump’s wrath. And in an interview with the Rupert Murdoch-owned Sun newspaper, he endorsed the arch-Brexiteer Boris Johnson to succeed the hapless Theresa May as prime minister while also insulting the Duchess of Sussex, Meghan Markle. Once on U.K. soil, he ostentatiously met with Nigel Farage, the far-right public face of Brexit, whose newly formed political party took nearly one-third of the vote in the U.K. in the recent European Parliament elections; and just as ostentatiously announced that he had refused to meet the Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn.
Regarding the latter, it seems that the desire to avoid a meeting was mutual. At the time that Trump was announcing that it was he who had decided not to meet with Corbyn, the Labour leader was actually busy addressing the estimated 75,000 protesters who had taken to the streets of central London on Tuesday afternoon to protest Trump’s presence in the metropolis.
While Trump declared that if a post-Brexit Britain wanted a good trade deal with the U.S. it would have to open up the National Health Service (NHS) to American-style competition and, presumably, privatization, Corbyn was telling the huge crowd that no such predatory deal ought to be on the table.
But the very fact that Trump felt so emboldened to interfere in British politics, and to assert American economic prerogatives even over the NHS; that he felt free to disregard diplomatic niceties with the country that sees itself as the closest partner of the U.S. shows the ugly realities of a Britain now unmoored from its European allies and increasingly reliant on its relationship with a carnivorous Trumpian U.S.
Britain is at a crossroads. The European Parliament vote delivered two utterly incompatible verdicts on the political immobilization that has incapacitated the country’s governing apparatus.
On the one hand, the center-right Conservative vote collapsed, with most of it shifting over to Farage’s new Brexit Party, a largely single-issue party that favors a Brexit-at-all-costs approach. In a fragmented political landscape, with the proportional representation system that is used in European elections allowing a multitude of parties to gain representation, and with only a little more than a third of eligible voters actually casting ballots, Farage’s party came in first — albeit with only 32 percent of the vote.
That 32 percent was, however, enough to catapult Farage into the forefront of domestic politics. A week is, of course, a long time in politics, and a year an eternity, but if a general election were held tomorrow in the U.K., it’s entirely possible the Conservative party would be eclipsed by a surging Faragist movement among its “Little England” grassroots. It’s even conceivable, though unlikely, that a man as extreme as Farage could somehow find his way to become if not prime minister then at least a kingmaker on the right.
Yet, there was also a flip side to the European elections: The combined vote for the Brexit Party, the Conservative Party, and the smaller anti-EU parties didn’t come close to reaching 50 percent. And explicitly pro-EU parties, who want a second referendum and hope to ultimately keep the U.K. within the European Union, are surging: The Liberal Democrats got 20 percent, the Greens got 12 percent and the centrist Change UK got 3.4 percent. In Scotland, the Scottish nationalists, who have largely captured the pro-EU vote in Scotland, dominated.
That leaves Corbyn’s Labour Party, which tried to fudge the issue by campaigning against the sort of Brexit that May’s government tried to get through Parliament, in favor of closer ties to Europe — but with no position on whether or not it backed a second referendum that would provide an exit ramp to Brexit. According to one poll, however, 75 percent of Labour supporters oppose the concept of leaving the EU, and an even higher percentage support the idea of a second referendum.
Slice and dice the EU results in the U.K., and of the 37 percent of the electorate who bothered to vote, a small majority overall seem to have backed Remain candidates and parties, despite Farage’s party finishing first.
And thus, the crossroads.
Trump is betting on a hyper-nationalist future, in which Great Powers form ad hoc alliances with minion-states, with secondary powers essentially degraded to the status of subservient territories. He is gambling that he can take advantage of Britain’s political chaos to help install a fervently anti-EU leadership, with Farage as a Quisling-like character hovering over the whole process. In the name of clawing back “sovereignty” from Europe, Farage and the others will, if they succeed, end up catapulting the country over a No-Deal cliff-edge. In the process they risk entirely alienating Britain from its neighbors across the English and Irish channels and the North Sea, and rendering it instead dangerously reliant on a mercurial U.S. leadership. Might Britain soon find itself having to sell off bits and pieces of the NHS to American companies in exchange for the slim pickings of a trade deal that, as his behavior toward Mexico shows, Trump may or may not even honor?
Whatever Donald Trump and Nigel Farage say, however, there’s no indication that a majority of Britons actually want this outcome. The nationalists on both sides of the Atlantic would love Britain to crash out of the EU with no deal on October 31. But, make no mistake, such an outcome would be catastrophic, and would leave Britain entirely to the tender mercies of Trump and his might-is-right advisers.