Why I feel sadness amid the joy at Joe Biden's victory
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Joe Biden's triumph is a source of great celebration, but it also adds to the sadness I feel about the UK's self-imposed decline, says ALASTAIR CAMPBELL
Sometimes, it is in emotion that deep truth is spoken. Anyone who, like me, was glued to CNN from Tuesday to Saturday last week, will have seen such a moment when former Obama official Van Jones broke down in tears as he explained why Joe Biden ousting Donald Trump meant so much to him.
It was with emotions running similarly high that another long-standing member of the Obama team, former spokesman Tommy Vietor, weighed in, when Boris Johnson finally got round to issuing a fairly mealy-mouthed message of congratulations to Biden and Kamala Harris. “Shapeshifting creep” - his description of the PM - is a wonderful phrase. It captures well Johnson’s character, his “have cake and eat it” approach to life and politics, his commitment to making whatever move might be required to get out of whatever hole he has dug for himself.
I later had an exchange with Vietor and asked whether “creeping shapeshifter” would have meant the same thing. As a fellow loather of much that Johnson is and stands for, I was keen to get him to elaborate on the shapeshifting creep theme for The New European. He clearly felt he had said enough, knowing that though Johnson is low down the new administration’s list when it comes to their assessment of his character, politics, or likeability, the UK remains an important ally, and though personal relations at the top of government are always important, relations between nations go beyond that.
“We will never forget,” Vietor’s comment on Johnson’s message went on, “your racist comments about Obama and slavish devotion to Trump.” And they won’t. But nor will they let them define the relationship.
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What Tommy Vietor tweeted, high emotion or not, is the truth of how the Obama team and the Biden team see Johnson. When Biden said some time ago he viewed Johnson as a political and physical clone of Trump, echoing the “Britain Trump” label applied by the narcissistic sociopath-in-chief, that is the truth of how he is viewed in the land of his birth. When he points to the threats he believes Johnson and Brexit pose to the Good Friday Agreement, that is a serious politician pointing to a serious concern about a big issue that he really, really cares about.
I was in touch through last week with other members of the Biden camp, including the one who was responsible for my consistent post-close of poll confidence that Biden was going to win - check Twitter feed and Instagram posts if you don’t believe me - even in those dark few hours when it was clear this was no landslide, and it looked like Trump might be doing better than expected.
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“Am I wrong to panic a bit?” I texted in the early hours of Wednesday morning UK time, as the betting markets – oh, by the way, this election was the biggest betting market of all time - shifted massively for Trump.
“You’re wrong to panic AT ALL,” came the reply. “We’ve got this. Popular vote – big! Michigan and Wisconsin, definite. Pennsylvania will be big for Biden, believe me. Nevada and Arizona looking ok. We might take Georgia. Relax.” Of course it was impossible to relax, given how much was at stake, but I did at least have the strong sense that I was being told something rooted in fact and data. And my God, what a relief it will be to have a government in the US prepared to base decisions on fact and data, not the fantasy and wishful thinking that fuel the claims, boasts and policies of populists such as Trump and Johnson.
There is of course a small part of me that would love Biden to rub Johnson’s nose in it, and announce a European tour comprising Brussels, Paris, Berlin, Dublin and Carlingford. But the president-elect having called on everyone to listen to our “better angels”, I recognise that would be bad for Britain and so I will instead be pleased that we will finally have a grown-up back in the White House, who will put to one side what he thinks about Johnson, and ensure the UK is treated with respect and due consideration.
So when Biden gets round finally to seeing Johnson, whether on an early trip to Europe, or at the G7 which it is the UK’s turn to chair, or the climate conference in Glasgow, he will indeed focus on what unites us, rather than allow the clear personal assessment of Johnson to get in the way.
But Johnson needs to understand he is starting from a bad place. And Britain needs to understand we have been hugely weakened by the twin planks of what amounts to a Johnson foreign policy – Brexit, and the so-called “special relationship” with the US. I say so-called because though it exists, certainly in historical terms, and on security and intelligence, and on language and more broadly on culture, it is not static.
Part of what has made it special in recent years has been the UK’s role in the European Union. We have chosen to remove ourselves, and that weakens us in two of the most important pillars of foreign policy; we are self-evidently weaker in Europe given we will no longer be in the EU; that weakens us hugely with the US too. And no amount of warm words, even from a president as warm as Joe Biden, will disguise that.
“I’m Irish,” he quipped to a BBC reporter asking him for a word while on the campaign trail early in his run for the White House. The clip went viral last week, as the world waited for results. It was a spur of the moment thing, promoting poor Nigel Farage to tweet that it revealed Biden’s hatred of the UK. It revealed no such thing. Unlike Farage and Trump, Biden is not a hater. He is a lover. And he does love Ireland. He is the 23rd president to have Ireland in his ancestry, most of it defined as “Scotch-Irish”. But perhaps only Andrew Jackson, America’s seventh President, born two years after his parents emigrated from County Antrim to South Carolina, and John F Kennedy, the first president raised as a practising Catholic, get close to Biden in terms of how much the Irish background means.
This will play a part in the US-UK relationship, and again Brexit – which Biden views as bad news for the UK, Europe, and the US, in that order – plays a part in this. It means that there are two good reasons why the Irish government view will hold greater sway in Washington than would normally be the case for such a small country – the emotional one, and the practical one, born of the fact that Ireland is still in the EU. No wonder there was such a celebration of the Biden win in Ireland.
The tragedy is that so far as Brexit is concerned, for which there would appear to be no longer a majority, and whose supposed benefits even its main perpetrators no longer bother to claim, it is too late to stop the madness. Our politics has thrown in the towel. But at what Biden calls this moment of inflexion, it is worth reflecting on just how much weaker we have made ourselves, that we are no longer the main go-to ally of the US, and we are leaving the one political body even remotely capable of competing in geopolitical terms with the US and China. It is not just economic madness but diplomatic and strategic madness too. If the madness had not gone so far, a sensible country would change course, now, and fast.
Biden’s win was a moment of joy for so many around the world. But it also adds to the sadness at the decline we, the UK, have chosen.
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