What special relationship?

December 7, 2020

The first time Professor Thom Brooks heard about the special relationship between Britain and the United States was when he arrived in the UK at the beginning of his academic career. Hailing from New Haven, Connecticut, the dean of Durham Law School is therefore not convinced the United States is going to come to the UK’s rescue with a sweetheart free trade deal post-Brexit, especially now that Joe Biden is set to take control of the White House. After four years of Donald Trump, the new President-elect will have his work cut out for him getting on top of the coronavirus pandemic at home and strengthening international agreements abroad. In this context, Richard Dawson asks Thom whether the special relationship will be high on America’s to-do list?

In the late 15th century, the existence of the Americas was entirely theoretical.

Classical geographers had thought the world consisted of just Africa, Europe and Asia and believed that lands being discovered by European navigators were simply the Eastern edges of Asia, rather than an entirely new continent.

It was the Florentine explorer Amerigo Vespucci who first realised that what was being discovered was in fact a “Mundus Novus” – a New World.

What followed was the so-called Age of Discovery during which the European colonial powers sailed across the Atlantic in search of glory, gold and God.

The promise of the New World is one that has been driving immigration to the Americas ever since, particularly in the case of North America, which was first colonized by the British in 1607.

By the middle of the 18th century, there were thirteen British colonies in North America. Many people emigrated there seeking greater economic opportunities and religious freedoms.

This was certainly true in the case of Professor Thom Brooks’ ancestors.

Like many Americans, the dean of Durham Law School has traced his family tree back to when they moved from the Old World to the New.

On his mother’s side, the family emigrated from the Netherlands in the 17th century when the Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam was first established on the Southern tip of what is now Manhattan Island.

His father’s side served in Oliver Cromwell’s armies during the English Civil War and were part of the Puritan sect of English Protestants that dominated Britain during the republican commonwealth. They left the country before the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660.

The Brooks (who were actually called Brooke) settled in the New Haven colony in the late 17th century and have been there ever since.

Well, ever since Thom moved from the Connecticut coastal city to the UK in the early 2000s.

The American-British philosopher and legal scholar came to England in pursuit of a doctorate at the University of Sheffield and then moved on to academic posts at Newcastle University, University of St Andrews, University of Oxford and Durham University, where he is now.

He has held numerous visiting appointments at some of the world’s top universities and is renowned for his work on immigration and citizenship.

He is also credited by the Electoral Commission as having been instrumental in changing the ballot choices in the EU Referendum from ‘yes’ and ‘no’ to ‘remain’ and ‘leave’.

Like many international observers, Thom was relieved to see media outlets call the US presidential election for Joe Biden on November 7, coming from behind in the key battleground state of Pennsylvania to beat the incumbent, President Trump.

“It feels like it was light defeating dark in this election,” says Thom. “I feel very good about having someone who is more trustworthy in charge.”

Like him or loathe him, President Trump has divided America while also presiding over one of the greatest crises in its history.

The US has by far and away the largest number of coronavirus cases and deaths in the world, with more than a quarter of a million Americans having died from the disease at the time of writing.

President Trump has also plunged the country into a profound constitutional crisis by refusing to concede the election to Joe Biden, making a series of unsubstantiated claims about voter fraud and filing lawsuits in multiple states.

Thom says: “Trump is undermining the democratic fibre of the country with his claims about voter fraud that have no factual basis.

“It’s damaging for politicians generally to behave in this way because it feeds the view that there’s always a conspiracy, which is not true at all.

“But because he’s the President, there’ll be a lot of people who believe what he says and take him at his word.”

With the public health crisis raging on and a significant proportion of the electorate thinking the election was rigged, the task of uniting what is now the divided states of America has never been more challenging.

“Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have a very difficult opportunity,” Thom confirms.

It is hoped that one of President-elect Biden’s first moves will be to reach across the divide and appoint a diverse cabinet with some Republican appointees to create a more bipartisan administration.

Thom explains: “Having a government that is not only Democrats, that looks more like America and that represents America – that will help with the healing process.”

It is also expected that Kamala Harris, as the first female, first African and Asian-American Vice-President, will have a big role to play in domestic affairs, possibly even co-ordinating the coronavirus response.

Thom believes this is because the Democratic Party will be looking to position her for the presidency in 2024, with Joe Biden unlikely to go for a second term.

“She’s the one to watch,” he says.

The Senator from Delaware will likely come into his own in the field of foreign affairs, something which the world sorely needs after four years of American withdrawal from its global leadership role.

The big priorities for President Biden will be to repair America’s relationships with its allies and to restore some of the international agreements it helped create.

From the World Trade Organisation and the Paris Climate Agreement to the Iran Nuclear Deal and NATO, there’s a lot to be done. The Biden administration may also push for a new trade deal with Asia, something which could be more expedient now that the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) between China, South Korea, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and ten South East Asian countries has been signed.

Thom says: “A wider trade deal makes a lot of sense because Asia is where a lot of the growth is coming from economically.”

With so many set-piece issues to be addressed at home and abroad, we could be forgiven for thinking that rescuing
the UK from a no-deal Brexit with a sweetheart trade deal is not going to be high on the US agenda.

President-elect Biden does not agree with Brexit and has made plain his concerns about what it means for the Good Friday Agreement in Ireland, where his ancestors come from.

But what about the special relationship, I hear you say?

Well, it’s Thom’s view that the special relationship no longer exists in the American psyche.

He says: “The first time I heard that phrase was when I was living in the UK. I remember asking someone, ‘special relationship with who?’

“In the United States, there is absolutely no view of a special relationship and in fact if you ask Americans where their greatest heritage is, they’re far more likely to say Ireland than Britain.

“I think when you hear British politicians talk about the special relationship with America, they’re drawing on a fictional narrative that’s been told over here since the Second World War.

“In America, the history is different. We go back to thinking about the Revolutionary War or more recently, the Vietnam War.”

Even the bridge in Thom’s hometown is a reminder that the special relationship may not be what it seems.

He explains: “New Haven has the Pearl Harbour Memorial Bridge. It’s not called the Churchill Bridge or the Atlee Bridge and that’s because what got America involved in the Second World War was the war in the Pacific, rather than the relationship with the UK.”

It’s been almost two decades since Thom left Connecticut, and now he just tells people he moved from one North East to the other North East.

But moving to the UK has come with its challenges, chief among them applying for permanent residency and citizenship, which Thom found to be anything but straightforward.

“As I finished my PhD at the University of Sheffield, I decided I would stay in this country,” he says.

“When I was applying for permanent residency, I was filling out my application and discovered there was a citizenship test. I looked it up online, I took it and I failed it comprehensively.

“I then started to ask my students various questions from the test and found that even given multiple choice, a lot of them couldn’t get it right either.

“Then I discovered that a lot of the information in the test was actually untrue, mostly because things had become out of date.”

But the thing that frustrated Thom most was that, at the time, politicians from left and right were talking tough on immigration and largely accepting the narrative that it was too easy to get citizenship in the UK.

This frustration formed the basis of both Thom’s academic research and his political activism.

He explains: “It was deeply unsettling to me to see politicians, from whatever party, telling us they took immigration seriously, yet none had noticed that the Home Office was using a citizenship test containing information that wasn’t true about the country.

“I’m all for immigration laws, consistent laws that work, but there had to be somebody out there who actually knew what they were.”

This is a role Thom unexpectedly took on for himself, appearing on television, radio and in print media to expose the widespread ignorance of how the UK immigration system actually worked.

“Being that person in the media to challenge some of the thinking around immigration is something I’m really proud of,” he says.

Thom came to the UK to study philosophy and while a lot of his work at Durham University is now around immigration law, he’s still a philosopher at heart.

One of his favourites is the German idealist G.W.F. Hegel, whose theories can tell us a lot about our current moment.

Thom explains: “The thing that makes someone like Hegel hugely important for times like these is that he was always looking at opposites.

“He would look at two different sides or opposing views and say, ‘they both have a point’, but the trick is to find what brings them together, whether it be about how the state works, how our legal system works or how society works.

“That project of trying to overcome difference and see two sides not as opposites but as different aspects of a wider whole that we have to accommodate – that’s a project for our times.”

With the New World as divided as it’s ever been, it’s a hard metaphor to disagree with.

Professor Thom Brooks, dean of Durham Law School