When a new Presidential administration continually outdoes itself in provoking justified outrage, when each day brings fresh evidence of both the moral obtuseness and the overbearing incompetence of the nation’s elected leader, and when the entire world seems determined to talk about nothing else, what’s a poor blogger to do? The sheer volume of discussion of every facet of the real news story — that being Donald Trump’s continuing inability to act like a President — makes it impossible to keep up with the ongoing story line in its entirety while also guaranteeing that almost any point I want to make has already been made by others more eloquent than I am. It’s hard to remain silent without seeming to minimize the potential consequences of President Trump’s actions, yet it’s hard to speak without either repeating what many others have already said, or else attempting to outdo them in the verbiage of condemnation.
Faced with this dilemma, I am going to focus my attention in this post on one small aspect of the crisis, not because it is the most important — it isn’t — but simply because it is one that many readers may be unaware of and that may provide a fresh perspective that is not easy to find in the American media . As many of you know, I follow British politics fairly closely — or as closely as I can from this side of the pond. On Friday of last week (Jan. 27), British Prime Minister Theresa May became the first foreign leader to visit President Donald Trump since his inauguration. In itself, this is not surprising. The British government values the “special relationship” between the two countries and points with pride at those those conventions of protocol that underscore it.
In the customary joint press conference after the meeting, the Prime Minister was full of enthusiasm for the American-British special relationship, and was particularly pleased (perhaps relieved would be more accurate) by President Trump’s reassurance of America’s ongoing commitment to NATO — an alliance all the more important to the British in view of their recent decision to leave the European Union. (Why Trump ever called that commitment into question is a puzzle best left for another time.)
The Prime Minister also announced at the press conference that she had extended, on behalf Queen Elizabeth II, an invitation to President Trump for a state visit to the United Kingdomand that he had accepted (although no date has yet been fixed). She managed to evade any questions about disagreements between her and President Trump, saying vaguely that she would not hesitate to tell Trump when she disagreed with his actions.
At the time of that press conference, neither the Prime Minister nor the media covering her visit knew what chaos the ensuing weekend would bring. President Trump’s executive order banning anyone from seven specified Muslim countries from entering the country for 90 days was announced a few hours later, and it appears that she was blindsided. (She shouldn’t take this personally, of course; apparently, even the US Department of Homeland Security, which was responsible for implementing the executive order, wasn’t informed of it until after it had been signed.)
In the meantime, public pressure in Britain had begun to build. The British people were horrified at the 90-day exclusion, particularly considering that Christians from the affected countries were to receive priority. The result was a petition calling on the government to withdraw the invitation for a state visit. Some news reports in the American press erroneously reported that the petition sought to ban Trump from the country entirely. That had been the goal of a similar debate about a year ago, but at the time, Trump was only a candidate for the Republican nomination, not the elected President of the United States.
Those who initiated the current petition apparently recognized that Trump’s election made a complete ban a nonstarter. Instead, this petition merely sought to deprive the President of the trappings of a state visit, such as staying at Buckingham Palace and attending a State banquet hosted by the Queen, etc. The relevant part of the petition read:
Donald Trump should be allowed to enter the UK in his capacity as head of the US government, but he should not be invited to make an official state visit because it would cause embarrassment to Her Majesty the Queen. Donald Trump’s well-documented misogyny and vulgarity disqualifies him from being received by Her Majesty the Queen or the Prince of Wales. Therefore during the term of his presidency Donald Trump should not be invited to the United Kingdom for an official state visit.
Given the importance that President Trump attaches to optics, the state visit trappings that the petitioners sought to deprive him of would matter to him a great deal, and it’s hard to imagine him making such a trip without them. Given Trump’s well-known penchant for retaliating against anyone who has offended him, withdrawing the invitation might carry a significant degree of risk to British-American relations.
Under standard parliamentary procedure, Parliament is supposed to consider debating any issue raised by a petition signed by at least 100,000 people. This petition, by the end of the weekend, had garnered 1.6 million signatures, so it would have been difficult to avoid a debate. The debate and any ensuing vote would not be binding in any event, but the debate provided a forum to enable those angered by Trump to vent.
The parliamentary debate took place on the following Tuesday. John Bercow, the Speaker of the House of Commons (who is, by the way, the first Jew to hold that office) managed to keep control of the proceedings with his usual mixture of firmness and humor. The Prime Minister was on an official visit to Ireland (to discuss with Irish officials the implications of Britain’s upcoming departure from the European Union), so Boris Johnson, the Foreign Secretary, stood in for the government. Johnson, who was previously Mayor of London, is new not only to diplomacy but to Parliament. He has a somewhat buffoonish reputation, and his appointment as Foreign Secretary had raised some eyebrows, but at least in this case he stuck close to script. He began by reading a statement of clarification on behalf of the government, which said in pertinent part:
We have received assurances from the US embassy that this executive order will make no difference to any British passport holder irrespective of their country of birth or whether they hold another passport.
Johnson fielded questions as best he could without deviating from his prepared talking points. The various MP’s who spoke or asked questions differed in their concerns. Some were primarily concerned with the exemption for British nationals (i.e., British passport holders who were also nationals or natives of one of the seven banned countries). Others were horrified that the US was excluding people based on religion and wanted a broader sign of disapproval. Dennis Skinner, the radical Labor MP best known for his anti-royalist wisecracks at each year’s State Opening of Parliament, made a fiery speech (the only kind he knows how to make) comparing Trump to Hitler and Mussolini. A couple of speakers noted the coincidental timing of the executive order, which was issued on the same day as the White House statement marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which failed to mention Jews as victims of the Nazis
Boris Johnson kept repeating his talking points: the British government did not agree with this policy; the US has the right to determine its country’s immigration policy; and the relationship between the US and the United Kingdom was of the greatest importance to the UK. It was not an approach Britain’s government would take, but it was within the discretion of a sovereign State to control its borders. One MP asked why Canada had been able to secure an exemption for its nationals faster than Britain, which Johnson not surprisingly, couldn’t answer. Several MPs used the opportunity boast about the multi-religious make-up of their own constituencies.
The next day was Wednesday, when every week, the Prime Minister stands in the House of Commons and, after fielding questions from the opposition leader, then proceeds to answer questions on any subject from back benchers of all parties. Prime Minster May had returned from Ireland and was I her place as usual, demonstrating her impressive mastery of a wide range of subjects. Though the questioning did ultimately get around to other subjects, opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn used his entire allotment of questions to seek further clarification on this subject.
In response to one of Corbyn’s questions, the Prime Minister confirmed that she had received no advance notice of the executive order in question even though she had met with President Trump only hours before he signed it. When he continued to press her, she explained that public criticism of Trump, as advocated by Labor, would “insult the democratically elected head of state of our most important ally.” After pointing out that Corbyn’s preferred policy might have left Britain with insufficient leverage to protect British nationals, she summed up her reply by saying: “He can lead a protest; I’m leading a country.” The Prime Minister, in other words would not act in a manner that she thought would harm British interests, no matter who is President.
The debate ended without a vote, but the fun wasn’t over yet. On the following Monday, in response to a point of order from the Labor benches, Speaker John Bercow who is supposed to be non-partisan, unexpectedly waded into the controversy, noting that, while a decision on a state visit was “above the pay grade of a Speaker,” a decision to invite President Trump to address Parliament in Westminster Hall would not automatically follow. That decision was in the hands of three “key holders”: Speaker Bercow, the Lord Speaker of the House of Lords and the Lord Great Chamberlain. Bercow made it clear that he was opposed to according Trump such an honor. This brought a rejoinder the next day from Lord Fowler, the Lord Speaker of the House of Lords, because Bercow had not consulted with him. Bercow acknowledged and apologized to the Lord Speaker for his failure to consult but he did not indicate any change of position.
What if anything can we learn from the British debate? Should we be concerned about what members of the British parliament or their constituents think of the United States immigration policies? It’s worth noting that the British government that Theresa May leads is Conservative — ideologically closer to American Republicans than virtually any other democratically elected government. If President Trump is unable to get along with Prime Minister May, then we can only wonder whom he will offend next. (Actually, we don’t have to wonder — he has since May’s visit managed to offend Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull of Australia, which has long been among America’s staunchest allies.)
In the complex world in which we live, America needs allies and trading partners. We are far stronger than any other country on earth but not stronger than all of them together. Moreover, part of the reason that the United States is so influential is what political scientists call “soft power”, a significant component of which is admiration for the democratic ideals that are part of the foundation on which our constitutional order rests.
Americans often seem to forget just how important our political process and institutions are to the rest of the world. The isolationism that guided us in the nineteenth century is obsolete, and no election can change that fact. We refer to our President as the leader of the free world, but we ignore the responsibility that comes with that power. When Americans elected Donald Trump as President, we sent a message, however unintentional, that we were no longer prepared to shoulder the burdens of world leadership unconditionally. The rest of the world is now trying to figure out just what we meant by that message — and frankly, so are we. Perhaps contemplating the parliamentary furore that Trump has stirred up in Britain can remind us of the responsibility that comes with power.