Poster for Anglo-American Exposition at White City, 1914
Arm in arm for another century? Poster for Anglo-American Exposition at White City, 1914. Photo ©

Wikimedia Commons, public domain and adapted from the original.

May 2019

As the UK prepares for Donald Trump’s state visit, the evidence suggests that the phrase ‘special relationship’ means little to Americans, but that the cultural ties that underpin it are stronger than ever – and that they transcend politics.

Long-term Culture and Short-term Politics

A recent parliamentary round table considered the state of the ‘special relationship’ between the UK and the US in advance of President Trump’s state visit next week. Guests hosted by the British Council discussed the Council’s report ‘A Special Relationship?’, which explores the attitudes of young Brits and Americans towards each other’s countries. The report revealed that the phrase ‘special relationship’ has almost four times as much traction in the UK as in the US, and not much in either, but that the underlying cultural closeness between the two countries – based on shared values and mutual attraction – is real and as strong as ever.

The report revealed that the phrase ‘special relationship’ has almost four times as much traction in the UK as in the US, and not much in either, but that the underlying cultural closeness between the two countries – based on shared values and mutual attraction – is real and as strong as ever

According to social media analytics between 2016 and 2018, two thirds of American social media mentions of the UK were concerned with culture, while less than a fifth concerned politics. The current and past actions of governments on both sides of the pond were only the 16th most important factor in determining how attractive young people in each country found the other. This was particularly striking given that the analysis was conducted in the immediate aftermath of controversial votes (the Brexit referendum and the US Presidential elections of 2016).

Respondents surveyed for the report also revealed that they found the other country the most attractive place to study overseas (compared to the other G20 countries), the most attractive for making personal connections, and the most attractive partner for trade and business.  Interestingly, 69% of young Americans considered the UK to be a global power – placing it above all other countries except China – and ranking it number one in the world for ‘being a force for good’, and having a free press, fair justice system, and strong institutions, as well as world-leading arts and culture. They also ranked the UK first for being a strong democratic society and for valuing individual liberty. 

Everything in Common – Except Language

Attendees highlighted two interesting facts brought to light in the reports about Americans’ views of the UK: that they were more aware of Adele than they were of Brexit, and that Hogwarts was tops of the list of the most popular British educational institutions by social media mentions. 

Leigh Gibson, British Council Country Director for the US, introduced the research, highlighting that while young people - particularly in the US - do not use the term ‘special relationship’, they do acknowledge the concept behind it. There is a feeling of goodwill and cultural closeness between both countries, underpinned by deep ties of history, language, and cultural values that lie largely outside politics. In turn those ties are underpinned by close day to day links via popular culture, education, and personal connections. She added that the US is a large, influential, and sophisticated country with strong historical ties to and a multitude of long-standing, often complex, relationships with the UK. But that there are many issues and global challenges of shared concern to both countries, where cultural links can and do have a significant and positive impact. She argued that it is in the interests of both countries to support platforms for collaboration and partnerships between policymakers, academics, and perhaps most importantly ordinary young people. 

Courtney Austrian, Minister Counselor for Public Affairs at the US Embassy, agreed that Hogwarts is a strong ‘brand’ in the US, and that J K Rowling has been successful in elevating the attractiveness of the UK. Similarly, interest in the royal family has peaked as a result of ‘The Crown’ and the marriage of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. She pointed out that young Americans are also increasingly interested in (association) football. 

Data that the Embassy team had gathered about British perceptions of the US showed that 46% of respondents think the ‘special relationship’ is strong. According to these figures, 52% of Brits think the US is a good place to study and 58% think the US is a good place for doing business. There is also a keen sense of the importance of military collaboration between the two countries. The UK and US already work together closely on their approaches to working with China and Russia, and the survey found that British people thought they could work together more closely on the environment and new technologies. 

Other guests discussed the impact of shared culture, in particular pop music - which is a big offer to the world from both sides that happens without the need for any policy interventions. 

Exchange in schools and universities also already happens on a regular basis between the UK and US organically. In former Soviet Union countries, the US spends a lot of money on these types of exchanges, but this is not a priority for the US Embassy in the UK, due to the huge number of programmes that happen already, and the pre-existing shared ties of language, history, culture, and values. 

It was noted that the political situation in either country does not impact of students’ interests in studying there (although there is some concern on the part of British students about gun violence in the US which may be correlated to a small dip in British students studying in the US). It does however remain a challenge for US universities to encourage a wider and more diverse range of UK students to apply. It was suggested that they could do with more support in accessing UK state schools and publicising the many scholarships available for students based on household income. The Fulbright scholarship programme is trying to address this through partnering with Sutton Trust in the UK. Meanwhile, the British Council is working to attract US students to the full range of the UK’s universities, through working with student counsellors to offer tours of a range of institutions. Other issues making it more difficult for prospective UK students in the US include the current exchange rate and the length of study (undergraduate degrees normally take four years and master’s degree programmes last two years). There is also an issue around the balance of international research funding targeting the developed and developing world, which some thought had an impact on how US and UK researchers can work together. 

Attendees highlighted the importance of not only building relationships between people in London, New York and Washington, but also around the rest of the UK and the ‘fly-over states’ of the central US. The US Embassy will for example be bringing the US Air Force band to the south of England to lead the up-coming D-Day celebrations. The Fulbright Scholarship programme is also looking at how it can encourage UK students to study in central states. And the British Council runs programmes like IAESTE (the International Association for the Exchange of Students for Technical Experience), which provides opportunities for students from Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland to do paid industry placements overseas, including in the US.

There are many UK and US students and alumni based outside either country in, for example, China or Singapore. It was recommended that policymakers and cultural relations organisations could look at how they can bring students and alumni together in other countries to build the relationship there. 

The ‘special relationship’ has been described as a ‘cornerstone of the modern, democratic world order’. At a time when that rules-based international order is considered by many to be under threat, there is a renewed interest in the relationship

The ‘special relationship’ has been described as a ‘cornerstone of the modern, democratic world order’. At a time when that rules-based international order - which the US and UK alliance played such an important part in establishing after the Second World War - is considered by many to be under threat, there is a renewed interest in the relationship. The question of whether it really exists is therefore arguably now more important than being simply a perennial British political neurosis. 

Oscar Wilde famously said: “"We have really everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language", and guests agreed that we should never take the relationship for granted. It was suggested that there is still a long way to go in terms of understanding each other’s culture and that neither nation should never feel satisfied that they have finished the job. 

Nevertheless, it is clear that the relationship between the two countries remains extremely close, and that it is based on long-term culture more than short-term politics. In both countries, young people are pushing against pressures to look inwards and connecting with each other through shared culture. Two thirds of young Brits surveyed by the British Council (for Next Generation UK) said that they have an international outlook, and the evidence shows that the US is one of the other countries most attractive to them. This should be celebrated. 

They may not have much use for the phrase ‘special relationship’, but people on both sides of the pond remain wedded to the shared cultural links that make the US-UK relationship such a special one.

Siobhan Foster-Perkins, Head of Parliamentary Relations, British Council

See also