The British need for American adulation is not one of the more seemly parts of our national psyche. At some level, all too many of us seem to treat the US as the nation-state equivalent of our teenage friend, to which we are determined to be the “cool mom” or “best friend”.
That relationship is never going to be a symmetrical one. The US regards the UK as a solid geopolitical ally and a pretty good place to go on holiday and largely doesn’t think of us the rest of the time. So it’s perhaps not surprising that swathes of the UK’s political and columnist class have absolutely lost all of their sanity over the visit of Joe Biden to the UK and, crucially, Ireland.
Former DUP leader Arlene Foster, whose party managed to create the gridlock that continues to stall the return of the power-sharing administration in Stormont went so far as to say that Biden “hates the UK”.
Come on Arlene, even you must know that charge is ridiculous – Biden’s administration had been helping supply pressure to resolve the Northern Ireland protocol standoffs and in maintaining the Good Friday Agreement. His record as a senator supports the same. Foster appears keen in pushing the UK into gridlock – Biden is trying to cut through it.
The award for the wildest Joe Biden take though must go to the Mail’s Dan Wootton, who earlier this month managed to write perhaps the most unhinged three sentences any British columnist has managed in a decade.
They have to be seen in full to be believed, and concern a brief joke made by the president in 2020:
“Mr. Biden, a quick word for the BBC,” the British Bashing Corporation’s New York correspondent Nick Bryant hollered.
“The BBC? I’m Irish,” Biden replied with a threatening glare, before breaking out into a demented grin.
That obvious disdain, which I am prepared to call out as both monarchy-and-Britain-hating, has continued throughout his presidency.
If you watch the actual clip, the entire exchange takes about three seconds, is an obviously jokey response to a shouted question when the president was on his way somewhere. And yet that blink-and-you-miss-it moment apparently included time for someone to “holler”, and then Biden to offer a “threatening glare” and a “demented grin”. More than that, Biden’s supposed animosity to the BBC is taken as evidence of being anti-British – despite Wootton dubbing it the “British Bashing Corporation” just moments before.
The UK’s strange neediness towards America and its political leaders turns quickly into backbiting when we’re not feeling the love as much as we feel we should. Wootton’s tirade eventually ends up centring on Biden’s decision not to attend the coronation of Charles III next month, but mid-burble has to awkwardly admit that no US president has ever attended the coronation of a British monarch. And Biden is sending the First Lady – ie his wife – rather than some deputy undersecretary of agriculture and fishing. You’ve really got to dig deep to see it as a snub.
The White House press office was left in the slightly mortifying position of having to say on the record that the US president does not hate Britain – the country he had literally just been in on an official presidential visit.
Biden went on to visit places with personal significance, but ones that also were extremely close to the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland – that such locations can get sign-off from the president’s stringent security detail is a low-key way of highlighting those benefits. It is almost certainly true that Biden is as much English as he is Irish – but it’s also completely irrelevant. In the US, and particularly in the north-east, American Irish is a strong identity (and one claimed by far more people than could plausibly have that heritage). It is good for local politics, for fundraising, and is a real cultural lodestone. There is nowhere in the US where English heritage is noted and celebrated in anything like the same way.
Americans tend to think of themselves as the people who rose up against a colonial power – not the descendants of the political winners of a civil war between colonisers. English heritage makes America’s already complex history all the murkier. Irish heritage is much less loaded.
The US has been a consistently helpful ally to both the UK and Ireland through the Brexit process, largely through high-level interest in avoiding a return to the Troubles. That is the kind of support that matters, not whether or not the president one day visits Basingstoke.
The delusion has got particularly spicy with parts of the right that seem to project on to Donald Trump a non-existent love of Britain that never manifested in his policies. Trump had little interest and no gift in foreign policy and his lavish British state visit delivered nothing. If that is the kind of friends the right wing commentariat wants, it simply shows that they are – in the words of Logan Roy – not serious people.
The ultra-needy friend is a desperately hard person to like: “Am I annoying you? People have said I’m annoying so it just makes me freak out about it, sorry” – it might not be their fault they’re so anxious, but they do become difficult to spend time with.
Joe Biden is the US president, not anyone’s cool friend. We shouldn’t care too much whether he likes another girl more than he likes us – can we not just focus on the policies, just this once?