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Britain’s status anxiety

If British Prime Minister Gordon Brown were hoping that his visit to Washington this week would reverse his sagging fortunes, he was likely sorely disappointed. David Rothkopf’s prediction that Brown’s political career would not survive the crisis is starting to look like a smart bet. But if Barack Obama’s crappy gift and decision to forego ...

If British Prime Minister Gordon Brown were hoping that his visit to Washington this week would reverse his sagging fortunes, he was likely sorely disappointed. David Rothkopf’s prediction that Brown’s political career would not survive the crisis is starting to look like a smart bet. But if Barack Obama’s crappy gift and decision to forego a Rose Garden press conference only helped reinforce Brown’s somewhat pathetic image, it was the British press corps that really twisted the knife. For Tory and Labour partisans alike, Brown’s trip was a feast of schadenfreude.

As the Spectator’s Alex Massie noted, "There’s nothing Fleet Street likes more than a good old-fashioned series of cock-ups producing a complete shambles. No other country’s press would, I think, enjoy this sort of thing so much but there you have it: the British pressman, marvellous and monstrous."

The glee with which British scribes pounced on Brown was especially notable since, as the Guardian‘s Oliver Burkeman somewhat grudgingly admitted, his speech to Congress wasn’t all that bad and as Politico‘s baffled Josh Gerstein reported, the White House meeting really wasn’t as awkward as the Fleet Street scribes made it out to be.

Furthermore, the visit has been interpreted not just as a sign of Brown’s decline, but of the collapse of the entire "special relationship" between Britain and the United States (which Press Secretary Robert Gibbs impolitically reffered to as a "partnership" last week).

The Times’s Tom Baldwin sniffed that Brown had been "listened to with a measure of indifference" by an administration that "remains overwhelmingly focused on the American electorate to the exclusion of anything else." The Independent‘s Matthew Norman took British status anxiety to new heights with his modest proposal that Britain should seriously consider becoming the 51st state in order to be taken a bit more seriously.

All in all, British commentators seem a little confused about how they think their PM should be treated by his American counterpart. George W. Bush and Tony Blair’s official visits were always friendly and well-orchestrated affairs. But seeing the two leaders palling around in Crawford didn’t exactly endear Bush to the British public, and got Blair labeled as "Bush’s lapdog" or worse.

The British press and public may have detested Bush’s cowboy unilateralism, but they can’t say he didn’t at least put on a show of taking their country seriously. In Obama, they’ve found an U.S. president who seems to simply not consider Britain a very high priority. Bet they never thought they’d miss all that brush clearing.

 Twitter: @joshuakeating

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