When I first saw this clip earlier today, I was inclined to dismiss it. After all, plenty of people make the mistake Hillary Clinton does in this interview with BBC Radio today. The interviewer asks the former Secretary of State to gauge the strength of the “special relationship” between the US and the UK, and offers a rather insipid answer that applies to nearly all of our allies in the West. But it’s the apparent ignorance of the UK’s political parties from a woman who served for four years as America’s chief diplomat that got the buzz (via TWS and NRO):
BBC: So how special is the special relationship?
CLINTON: It is so special to me, personally, and I think it is very special between our countries. There’s just a — not just a common language — but a common set of values that we can fall back on. It doesn’t matter in our country whether it’s a Republican or Democrat, or frankly in your country whether it’s a Conservative or a Tory. There is a level of trust and understanding. It doesn’t mean we always agree because of course we don’t.
In case you don’t get the joke, the Tories are the Conservatives in the UK. Their other major political parties are Labour and Liberal Democrats, which means this is another way in which the comparison is a bit inapt. That confusion shouldn’t surprise anyone who recalls this gem from then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton shortly after assuming that position in March 2009:
“I have never understood multiparty democracy.
“It is hard enough with two parties to come to any resolution, and I say this very respectfully, because I feel the same way about our own democracy, which has been around a lot longer than European democracy.”
Let’s not forget that most Western democracies use parliamentary systems with three or more major parties, including our two closest allies, the UK and Canada. So does the system we set up in Iraq. They’re not terribly exotic or difficult to understand at all, at least not functionally, although they may take slightly more work to study than the US two-party system. At the very least, they’re easy to recognize.
On the whole, though, I figured that fumbling on Conservatives vs Tories was a momentary and extemporaneous brain fade more than a display of actual ignorance. The answer itself is strange even apart from that. The BBC didn’t ask why the relationship was special to Hillary Clinton, but what the status of the relationship was between the US and UK. Clinton begins with a weird celebration of the special relationship as being super-special to herself, and then describes it in terms that are about as generic as one can possibly imagine. “Common set of values … level of trust and understanding,” as if that doesn’t describe nearly every close alliance in history between nations. It all but declares that the US-UK alliance isn’t special at all; I doubt that answer gives any confidence to most of the BBC’s listeners.
National Journal’s Alex Seitz-Wald thought the comment should have drawn more attention than it did, especially in the British press:
Surprised British press seems uninterested in Hillary's "Tory" gaffe. Seems notable for someone running on int'l chops.
— Alex Seitz-Wald (@aseitzwald) July 3, 2014
Maybe they’re just used to the fact that Hillary Clinton doesn’t understand multiparty democracy, and/or doesn’t apparently recall that the UK has such a system.
Update: Edited the final sentence for better clarity.