To misname a British chancellor once may be regarded as a misfortune; to do so twice looks like carelessness; to do so three times bespeaks contempt.
With humble apologies to Oscar Wilde, this paraphrase does describe the situation adequately. For it was exactly three times in a short speech that President Obama referred to George Osborne as Jeffrey, thus confusing him with the popular soul singer.
Though acknowledging one’s own ignorance is never easy, I’m man enough to admit that until the incident Jeffrey Osborne had not exactly been popular with me. In fact I had never heard of him, which is both a necessary and sufficient definition of a celebrity.
In a further exercise of humility I have to accept that my musical tastes have no far-reaching geopolitical significance. However what may have such a significance is that in Obama’s world a pop singer clearly figures more prominently than the British Chancellor of the Exchequer, Her Majesty’s minister second in rank only to the PM.
Do you suppose that was Obama’s subtle hint that even Jeffrey Osborne could make a better chancellor than George? If so, I’d be in perfect sympathy with the implication, but alas the real reasons for such forgetfulness are probably less praiseworthy.
Say what you will of the previous generation of British politicians, but one can’t recall American presidents referring to our chancellors as Henry Macmillan, John Callaghan, Rob Jenkins or George Howe.
Somehow foreign visitors to our shores tended to remember the Christian names of their counterparts. If they don’t do so now, it’s because they don’t feel such names are worth remembering, nor Britain worth respecting.
Hence American presidents won’t take a bow to the Queen, which in Britain is regarded as a violation of elementary etiquette. Fair enough, Americans stand proud in the world and feel no need to observe quaint foreign customs, especially those of no democratic provenance.
Yet all recent American presidents, and certainly Obama, go out of their way to observe Islamic or Far Eastern greeting rituals. Never mind that they look silly doing so – some customs can’t be flouted on pain of being accused of cultural insensitivity.
True enough, Britain’s standing in the world isn’t what it was at the time of Will Churchill, Hank Macmillan or even Mary Thatcher. Yet it’s still marginally higher than Burma’s, which doesn’t prevent Obama from holding his palms together in front of his chest and taking a bow when meeting a Burmese politician.
The relationship between our two countries may be special, but not in the usually implied sense of mutual admiration and respect. What’s special about it is that America has replaced Britain as the world’s leading empire – and a long lifetime after this flip-flop occurred Americans still have the urge to rub British noses in it.
Britain, on the other hand, shows every sign of the Stockholm syndrome by falling in rather obsequious love with her vanquishers. Hence the urgent need to play poodle to America under all circumstances, and certainly whenever the Americans get the urge to laser-guide some democracy onto a recalcitrant land.
The arrangement isn’t exactly reciprocal for Americans feel no corresponding obligation whenever Britain goes to war. Hence Eisenhower preventing Franco-British victory at Suez or Reagan refusing to cooperate with Britain during the Falklands War (America eventually did help with some satellite intelligence, but only because Defence Secretary Caspar Weinberger acted on his own initiative).
Quite the opposite: Americans, or rather American politicians go out of their way to treat senior British officials in a rather offhand manner. Hence George W. Bush with his ‘Yo, Blair!’ or Obama tucking Dave into bed in a fatherly fashion. It’s not just Dave but Britain that’s well and truly tucked up.
The present slight could well be deliberate: a show of disdain for Europeans in general and Britain in particular is mandatory for any American politician. It’s worth several electoral brownie points for someone like Obama to be seen by the folks Stateside as a real ‘merican who can treat them foreigners like skivvies.
Perhaps the next step ought to be for Barack Hussein to assign to British politicians his own names, those he can remember. You know, the way aristocrats of yesteryear used to call every new butler James regardless of what his real name was.
May I suggest Elvis for the Prime Minister, Ray for the Chancellor and Chuck for the Foreign Secretary? Or perhaps Moe, Larry and Curly, as in the Three Stooges, would be an even better mnemonic.
That way the message will come across loud and clear, as will the true nature of the special relationship.