A waxwork opens an embassy

January 13, 2018 0 Comments

Like many people – or at least like many non-Londoners – I was only dimly aware that the American government was building a new UK embassy in London, when Mr Donald J Trump kindly drew our attention to its imminent opening. According to a recent tweet it seems Mr Trump was planning to come and do the honours himself.

Unfortunately, his research has uncovered some unpalatable facts about the new Embassy. First, it appears it wasn’t really needed, since the US already possessed ‘the best located and finest’ embassy in London. Second, it was sold for ‘peanuts’ and replaced by a building costing $1.2m – a deal that offends Mr Trump’s refined sensibility about what constitutes a good deal. In fact, this is apparently a ‘bad deal’. Third, the selling was done by the administration led by Mr Trump’s predecessor, Mr Barack Obama, about whom Mr Trump, for some reason, has, as our American friends say, ‘issues’. And fourth, to cap it all, the new embassy is in ‘an off location’. My dictionary doesn’t help me with the meaning of ‘off location’, but it’s clearly not a term of approbation.

Donald J. Trump
✔ @realDonaldTrump
Reason I canceled my trip to London is that I am not a big fan of the Obama Administration having sold perhaps the best located and finest embassy in London for “peanuts,” only to build a new one in an off location for 1.2 billion dollars. Bad deal. Wanted me to cut ribbon-NO!

Now, some suspicious minded people have speculated – even Mr Sopel of the BBC, who should know better – that Mr Trump cancelled his planned trip to our country for another reason, namely that he was terrified of large-scale protests by Britons against his presence here. There are two difficulties with this theory. A man who is the head of state of the most powerful country in the world is hardly likely to quail before a few hundred malcontents bussed in from around the country to shout and wave placards. And secondly, unless we assume Mr Trump is capable to telling untruths to the public, we should surely take him at his word. The new embassy really must be something of a disaster, with which a President of high ethical standards should not be associated.

Being an inquisitive sort I thought it might be diverting to investigate the new US embassy a little further. Is our friend Mr Donald J Trump correct in his criticisms, and justified in avoiding any ribbon-cutting? (I have noticed, by the way, that Mr Trump often resorts to the use of capital letters in his tweets – a practice I believe is known as ‘Shouting’. In this tweet, ‘NO!’ is certainly a very definite expression, if not actually a Shout.)

The first thing I noticed is that the US government purchased the site of the new embassy in 2008. Since Mr Obama was not elected President until 2009 he could not have been responsible for making the decision to move. The lease of the old building in Grosvenor Square was sold by the Americans, for an unknown sum, to a Qatari investment company in November 2009, so it’s possible that ‘the Obama Administration’ was responsible for agreeing the ‘peanuts’ price. However, the value of the site was restricted by the fact that the old embassy had been designated a Grade II listed building: it could not therefore be razed and replaced with a tasteful Trump Tower. So perhaps a ‘free market price’ wasn’t possible anyway. Estimates of the price fetched vary, according to the BBC, between £300m and £500m – hardly ‘peanuts’.

So why did the Americans want to move from Grosvenor Square in the first place? As Mr Trump says, it was a prime site on the north side of the river, near to Parliament and Whitehall. The simple answer is one which Mr Trump, to judge from his pronouncements on such subjects as Mexican walls and Muslim transport bans, should be able to appreciate: security. After the events of 11 September 2001 it was feared that, despite extra security measures, the building was too vulnerable to determined terrorist attack.

Another factor may be at work. Grosvenor Square will always be associated in the popular mind with the great demonstration in March 1968 against the Americans’ war in Vietnam, when 10,000 people gathered in Trafalgar Square and marched to the square, where violence broke out. For a whole generation the embassy building became a symbol of American imperialism and American violence, and the folk memory has never entirely faded.

The new site, it’s claimed, is more secure. It’s in Nine Elms, Vauxhall, on the riverside and well-defended, like an Edwardian castle, with a moat (and presumably a panoply of other, post-medieval defences). Whether this counts as an ‘off location’ it’s hard to know. Perhaps our friend Mr Trump is like one of those mythical north London taxi drivers who refuse to take customers south of the river, where monsters and criminals roam.

Mr Trump fails, uncharacteristically, to offer his opinion on the quality of the new building. His American diplomats seem positive: ‘a modern, welcoming, safe and energy efficient embassy for the 21st century’. The architectural competition was open only to US architects – ‘America First’ was not invented by Mr Trump – and a Philadelphia firm won the contract. The building is a simple cube. Three sides are embroidered with filigree-like twisted plastic sheets in a very 2010s style that’s likely to age quickly. It’s surrounded with what the Americans call an ‘urban park’. Architectural reviewers have been quite impressed with the inside, which departs from the golden norms established by Mr Trump for his hotels. They praise the building for its ecological soundness.

But what is the new embassy for? Somewhere was needed to house the 800 staff (what do they all do?), and for the huddled masses applying for their visas. But why was it necessary to spend over $1bn – which makes the embassy the most expensive ever built anywhere in the world? The answer, of course, is that it’s intended to express raw power and domination. Even in a digital age, a visible, visitable fortress is still needed to show us Britons and Europeans which is the country that really counts in the world.

This isn’t how the US diplomats put it. In the ground-breaking ceremony in November 2013 the then Ambassador, Mr Matthew Barzun, said, ‘Today is for celebrating a new facet of the special relationship. The US and UK have long been partners in development across the globe.’ The current ambassador, Mr Woody Johnson, called the new embassy ‘a signal to the world that this special relationship that we have is stronger and is going to grow and get better’.

This talk is, of course, nonsense. What the diplomats are up to is echoing back to us the delusional belief of the British elite since the 1940s that we enjoy a ‘special relationship’ with the US, one that grants us access and influence unmatched by any other country. What’s interesting is that the US embassy feels it has to reinforce this message, at exactly the time that Mr Trump, in his actions and words, has finally stripped away any pretence that the UK features any higher in US estimation than, say, Lithuania or Greece. He has surely done us a great favour by revealing this long-concealed truth, and helping us to a more realistic view of ourselves in the world. (All we need now is a similar relaese from the current enchantment that Britain is somehow not part of Europe and can safely ignore it.)

I’m sorry Mr Trump is not coming to open his new embassy. I was looking forward to meeting him, together with my placard. But I can understand his reservations about what he will not be opening. It’s somehow fitting that Madame Tussauds transported their waxwork of Mr Trump to Nine Elms – a highly convincing replica of the man, in alpha male gorilla mode – to lend his absent presidential dignity to the new building.

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