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Friends with benefits

David Cameron agrees with Barack Obama on the fact that Britain stays with Europe. And the US president repays the favour by not deporting a British interviewer, writes Farrukh Dhondy.

columns Updated: Jan 20, 2013 22:10 IST

The American expression 'butt out', meaning mind your own business, has been flying both ways across the Atlantic recently.

The British coalition government announced its intention to renegotiate its treaties with Europe. A vociferous section of the Tory Party is in favour of total withdrawal from Europe. Their junior partners in the coalition - the Liberal Democrats - want to stay. Prime Minister David Cameron is attempting to solve the dilemma by promising the public a tough renegotiation of the terms on which Britain remains in Europe followed by a general referendum on those terms.

He is aware that three million jobs in Britain are directly dependent on membership of Europe and on its markets, the chief outlet for British exports. The case for staying in Europe has never been properly put. The loudest voices in the debate talk about 'not being dictated to by Brussels' and about the 'sovereignty of our own parliament and courts'. These are mantras that have an instinctive appeal over any statistical demonstration that such a divorce from Europe would result in a disastrous division of virtually inseparable assets and heavy alimony in the loss of trade.

Enter Barack Obama. His assistant secretary for European affairs, Philip Gordon, visits Britain and announces that the US, with its special relationship, wants Britain to lead European policy by staying in. Gordon also had the cheek to warn against holding the promised referendum on the subject, something that 82% of the British public say they want. He said that referenda forced countries and populations to be inward-looking and Anglo-American interests would be served by broader visions and horizons.

Gordon's comments were not widely welcomed in Britain. Tory politicians in large numbers asked him and President Obama to 'butt out' of British affairs.

Over the 20th century, as America has come to assume that it is the senior partner in the Anglo-American relationship, the British have resented following its leads. Its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to which the Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair readily allied himself, remain largely unpopular. The cultural import of fast food chains, internet formats, habits and language together with the dominance and pervasiveness of Hollywood in the narrative consciousness have invaded and colonised Britain. The influences are eagerly accepted and yet resented.

There are those, such as Deputy PM Nick Clegg, who acknowledge America's right to pronounce in its own interests. Big Brother has to be watching you. Didn't the Nehru government of India in the 50s and early-60s take some leads on planning and alliances from the Soviet Union?

Cameron can't admit to his party, which is committed to a referendum on Europe and would agree to leave if they had a parliamentary majority vote, that he agrees with Obama and the Americans.

In an ironic reciprocity, Obama is reluctant to say that he agrees wholeheartedly with a British citizen who is a prominent interviewer and personality on CNN TV and who has expressed unequivocal views on gun control in the US.

Piers Morgan used to be the editor of the British Daily Mirror, a by and large Labour-leaning newspaper that was and remains the healthy antidote to Rupert Murdoch's The Sun. Morgan left The Mirror and went to America to take up the offer to present an interview format on CNN. The screen presence, available throughout the world, coupled with his charm and abilities such as they are, gives Piers celebrity status and the sort of influence over public opinion that goes with it. Such influence is not quantifiable. No one knows if people take any notice of the opinion of newscasters or TV interviewers.

Even so, in the wake of the Sandy Hook school gun massacre in the US, Piers ventured on his programme to say that it was time that the US gun laws were radically reformed. He was interviewing members of the pro-gun lobby who said in reply to his queries that the US required more not fewer guns; that teachers, preachers, movie-hall ushers, petrol station attendants and anyone in a position of authority in an institution should be armed so that the good guns could overwhelm the bad guns. Piers said this was a stupid argument.

A hundred thousand protesters signed a petition which they presented to the White House demanding the deportation of the interfering Englishman.

Piers subsequently invited the framers of the petition onto his show. One of them screamed at him and accused him of wanting to deprive Americans of their guns so that Britain could recolonise the United States. Piers seemed aware that the Second Amendment to the American constitution, which enshrines the right of US citizens to carry guns, originates in the anti-colonial war of American Independence when, say, a remote republican farm would be attacked and occupied by a troop of King George III's redcoats. Piers pointed out that he wasn't attacking the American constitution. He was simply of the opinion that the 12,000 deaths a year by shooting would be reduced if the availability of guns was restricted.

The White House has rejected the petition to deport Piers Morgan. God bless America.

Farrukh Dhondy is an author, screenplay writer and columnist based in London
The views expressed by the author are personal