You may have heard in the news that this week the Speaker of the House of Commons, The Right Honourable John Bercow, has voiced his objections to inviting President Trump to Parliament. Since doing so, the media – and Parliament – have been in uproar. To give international readers a sense of the gravity of the situation, at the time of writing an MP has tabled a no-confidence motion against the Speaker. All this has merely added fuel to the firestorm of debate raging over the President’s planned state visit to the United Kingdom, and whether or not allowing it to go ahead would clash with British values and the national interest.
The primary argument against President Trump’s planned visit is that to invite him is to tacitly condone his actions and opinions. A good proportion – probably a majority – of Britons do not see the President in a favourable light (though that proportion may be diminishing), as suggested by the wide-ranging protests occurring in the UK after the President’s inauguration. The Speaker indeed suggested that he would not wish to invite President Trump to Parliament due to alleged “racism” and “sexism”; similar views have been expressed regarding the President’s broader state visit to the UK.
This argument is extremely compelling, especially to one such as myself who generally disagrees with most of President Trump’s actions, stated opinions (whether he actually holds those opinions is anyone’s guess) and general demeanour. I admit, I would not feel it to be a particularly proud moment in our nation’s history to see the Queen shaking hands with Mr. Trump, nor to see him striding through the halls of Parliament.
However, after much deliberation, I have come to the conclusion that the state visit should still proceed, and that the Speaker should also invite the President to Parliament.
The overwhelming reason is the national interest. I cannot see it as wise to snub the Leader of the Free World and President of the most powerful nation on Earth only a few weeks into his tenure. We have four years of Mr. Trump in the White House (assuming nothing goes awry) and it would not be wise to antagonise him right at the start, especially over something that in the grand scheme of things is fairly trivial (I refer to the act of the state visit, not his domestic actions). This is especially true in the wake of Brexit. Cynical as it may seem, with the UK breaking away from the European Union it needs all the friends it can get, especially if negotiations turn sour. Trump may not be particularly palatable, but he is still the President of the United States. A snub against him is a snub against what is possibly our greatest ally and a major trading partner. As unfortunate as it may be to admit it, we need the U.S more than the U.S needs us.
Furthermore, it may be worth looking at the affair in a different light. We are not inviting Donald Trump to the White House – we are inviting the President of the United States. There is a fantastic quote from HBO’s Band of Brothers: “salute the rank, not the man”. I think a similar view should be taken in the context of the state visit. We are inviting the President, who is the head of state of the USA. However unpalatable the man is, we cannot ignore – or snub – his official rank and title. The Queen has officially met many rulers from various unpleasant regimes, most of them far more openly odious than Trump. Not only would it be hypocritical, but it would be foolhardy to suddenly draw the line at the coming visit of the President of the United States, possibly our greatest long-term ally.
On a more domestic note, I would add that despite what Owen Jones says, Bercow is not “speaking for Britain”. As previously mentioned, while it seems a majority of Britons do not view the President positively, that does not mean all of them do so – nor does it mean that most Brits do not wish him to visit, or that they entirely disagree with all of his policies. I do not think it is controversial to say that many of the hopes and fears that launched Trump into the White House mirrored those that led to Brexit. Rightly or wrongly, Trump has been identified with UKIP and the current wave of anti-establishment populism in the United Kingdom. To snub him might be taken badly by a lot of Brexiteers, at a time when we really do not need any more areas of conflict in politics.
To finish, a few words on the Speaker’s actions this week. I actually have seen and heard the Speaker in the flesh recently, and have a lot of respect for him and for his work in Parliament over the last few years. However, I believe he has overstepped the mark. While I am sure he is sincere in his stated opposition to President Trump’s actions, I also wonder if he is grand-standing somewhat. He strikes me somewhat as a man prone to vanity and theatricality, and I have my suspicions he may be giving in to these urges in his recent actions, which are rather hypocritical. After all, he has himself invited several of the aforementioned heads of state to Parliament, including ‘Paramount Leader’ Xi Jinping; inviting the Chinese head of state but not the President of the USA seems rather undiplomatic, to say the least. He certainly has the right not to do so, as the Hansard Society notes; however actively stating his opposition seems unnecessary and is drawing attention to an issue that could have been quietly dropped.
We need to wake up to the fact that, whether we like it or not, Mr. Trump is in the White House, and will probably be there for at least four years. The national interest is not served by snubbing him over a fairly inconsequential formal affair – I’m sure the British government and the Trump administration will eventually clash over something, but they shouldn’t do so over this.