Well, the polls are in and – not to put too fine a point on it – President Obama has bombed. Last week, disregarding the convention that heads of government don’t intervene directly in the internal elections of friendly states, the president came to London to tell us to vote to stay in the European Union. He didn’t hint or suggest or imply. He told us bluntly that, if we left the EU, we’d go “to the back of the queue” when it came to signing trade deals with Washington.
How did Britain react? Not for the first time, there was a divergence between what the pundits and politicians thought, and what everyone else thought. The journalists in the handsome Foreign Office salon where Mr. Obama made his remarks instantly concluded that he had won the referendum for the Euro-enthusiasts. David Cameron’s aides began to brief that it was all over bar the applause, that they would storm to victory by 60-40 or more.
The next day’s newspapers unanimously predicted a further swing to the Remain side, which had already been enjoying a bit of a bounce. Then, one after another, the numbers started to come in. Of the four opinion surveys that have been published at the time of writing, two put the Remain side slightly ahead, and two put Leave slightly ahead; but all four show a swing to Leave. Ordinary people, it seems, don’t like being told what to do by foreign politicians – even popular ones.
Oh yes: President Obama is popular in Britain. I realize that saying so will irk some American conservatives. Believe me, I have been through the same thing in reverse. For years, American friends, including many who were in no sense on the Left, would tell me, “Aw, man, I love that guy Blair.” To many Brits – indeed, to foreigners generally – Obama is still the telegenic mixed-race candidate who opposed the Iraq war. Nothing he has said or done since has really registered.
But, although people admire Obama, they hate being hectored. The president’s choice of vocabulary – when is the last time you heard an American say “back of the queue”? – made Brits wonder whether he was reciting lines drawn up in Downing Street. In other words, they suspected that David Cameron was using foreign leaders to bully and threaten his own country.
In any case, “back of the queue” is not the sort of thing you say to a friend. Outside the Westminster bubble, the general reaction was: “We’re not at the back of the bloody queue when you need allies in your wars”.
Nor, more to the point, did people believe the president. The US and the EU are currently negotiating a lumbering agreement called the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). Note that it isn’t even called a free trade deal, because it is at least as much about regulation and standardization as it is about liberalization. Because TTIP involves the US and 28 EU states, it is slow and limited. Many European states want to protect their agriculture, textiles, audio-visual sectors and so on.
As Ted Bromund of the Heritage Foundation puts it: “Negotiations with Britain could be completed faster than other pending U.S. negotiations, because the kind of trade treaty the U.S. should seek with Britain is different from the all-encompassing large-bloc Agreements the Administration has pursued in the Pacific and the Atlantic.” The French may have a problem with Hollywood blockbusters. The Brits don’t.
Where the commentariat saw, or affected to see, two national leaders talking about serious matters, the general population saw a racket: The same racket that has led to the tax-free employees of various international bodies telling them how important the EU is. They saw two back-scratching politicians who, though they might represent different countries, form one caste. They resented being told that they weren’t good enough to govern themselves.
There’s nothing wrong with expressing your opinion about another country’s politics. I do it all the time. But people bridled at the idea that Mr. Obama was telling Britain to do something that America would never countenance. What’s that phrase from the Declaration of Independence? “He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction unacknowledged by our constitution and foreign to our laws.”
The following day, Ted Cruz wrote a beautifully judged piece in the London Times, saying that it was up to Britain to vote as it wished, and that if it opted to leave the EU, America should grasp the opportunity to put a genuinely liberal free trade deal in place instead of the corporatism of TTIP. That’s surely how one ally speaks to another.