We can’t say we didn’t know John Bolton was a snake before we took him in
Trump’s national security adviser is in Britain to exploit UK weakness for US self-interest and absolutely nothing more
Donald Trump’s favourite party piece on the 2016 campaign trail was to read aloud the words to a song called “The Snake”, written, ironically enough (more irony coming shortly), by a civil rights activist called Oscar Brown.
It is itself based on one of Aesop’s fables. An elderly woman takes in a dying snake, nurtures it back to health, and it repays her for her kindness in the final verse by, to her considerable disappointment, fatally biting her.
“Oh shut up, silly woman, said the reptile with a grin/ You knew damn well I was a snake before you took me in.”
All over America, Republican crowds took momentary breaks from their chants of “lock her up” and “build the wall” to go wild at this. It has not gone unnoticed, in the years since, nor did it at the time, that America would not be able to say it hadn’t been warned.
Here was its openly racist president-elect, indulging in conspiracy theories, pledging a Muslim ban, bragging about sexual assaults he had committed in the full knowledge he was wearing a microphone and being recorded for a television show.
America cannot say it didn’t know he was a snake before it took him in.
And so we turn our attention to the arrival in London of US national security adviser John Bolton. Bolton is best known for a moustache that looks like a merkin made from Boris Johnson’s back hair. He is less well known, but known nonetheless, for being quite possibly the only person on planet Earth still happy to claim that the Iraq War was a good idea. He will probably, in the fullness of time, do it again for the same reason regarding the Iran War, which, at time of writing, he hasn’t been able to start just yet.
Bolton has been meeting with Liz Truss and various others, to start rolling the pitch for the big, beautiful US-UK trade deal. There are, Bolton, reckons, all sorts of “mini-deals” that can be done with the UK, within a year of Brexit, sector by sector: cars, certain agricultural products, that kind of thing.
Of course, all of this will very much be in the UK’s interests, and any suggestion that we should have known damn well Bolton was a snake before we took him in is entirely without merit.
What would be the point, for example, of digging up the old clip of him when he was George W Bush’s ambassador to the UN, banging on the table, berating the other ambassadors, and screaming at them that the UN only exists to serve the United States’ interests? “The only question, THE ONLY QUESTION!” he howls, jabbing his index finger into the desk in front of him. “THE ONLY QUESTION for the United States is, ‘What’s in our national interest?’ I’m sorry if you don’t like that, but that is the fact.”
Furthermore, there’s probably not too much point dwelling on the words of Trump’s now commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross, who, in 2016, described Brexit as a “god-given opportunity” for other countries to take the UK’s business. Frankfurt... Dublin... Cyprus... all of them were told, explicitly, by the very person now setting out the terms of any US-UK trade deal, that now was the time to be ruthlessly restricting their own regulations to take business away from the UK.
That the 81-year-old Ross made his billions in what is known in financial services as “distressed debt” before taking the call from Trump is also no cause to panic. Distressed debt is exactly what it sounds like. Businesses in vast debt and great distress call in people like Ross, a sort of significantly less good looking Richard Gere from Pretty Woman, who then tend to emerge millions richer from someone else’s misery.
None of this, of course, is sufficient cause for Liz Truss, the new international trade secretary, not to gleefully post pictures of herself shaking hands with Bolton, announcing “early progress” on the US-UK free trade agreement.
Johnson and co seem to think that the prospect of a US-UK free trade deal will make the UK’s threat of leaving with no deal more likely, and so, in Downing Street’s thinking and absolutely no one else’s, will incentivise the EU to offer us a deal. A deal, by the way, that Johnson has already said will require “the abolition of the backstop”, something the EU will not, and essentially cannot, do.
That mini UK-US trade deals will require the UK to diverge from EU standards, and so make a deal with the EU harder, not easier, and so make the prospect of no-deal Brexit greater, not weaker, is another blindingly obvious reality that it is easier for the UK to ignore, for now.
Oh well, who are we to complain? As someone once said, we knew damn well he was a snake before we voted him in. Except, of course, that we didn’t.