06 June 2019
Labour in disgrace.
By Robert Kilconner
Lots of people do not care for Mr Trump or his politics and it is their right to protest on the streets against his visit. Protests of this sort often involve abuse, satire, mockery and lots of noise. In a free country all those elements are permissible and visiting politicians just have to put up with them.
For those in public positions it is rather different. That is not because they feel less strongly but because, rather than blindly following their own preferences, they have a duty to those who they represent. So they need to consider the consequences of what they say rather than just surrendering to the pleasure of expressing their anger and frustration. That is obvious in the case of the Royal Family who have an important role in Britain’s diplomacy and a responsibility for ensuring that their behaviour reinforces the Government’s objectives. It is also true, however, for lesser functionaries including the leaders of political parties. The better of them will regard themselves as having a duty to the public at large, but even those who are more factional clearly have a duty to their own supporters. It is worth measuring some of the protests against Mr Trump’s visit against this duty.
Before doing so, however, we need to think about why there was a state visit at all. America is a very important ally but recently the alliance has come under pressure in a number of ways. That is not because of their internal politics, which is certainly very different from ours, but because there are places where their approach clashes with ours in areas which are important to us both. The most obvious is climate change where their withdrawal from Paris puts us all on the road to disaster. Then there is the dispute over Huawei where we may well have to exclude the Chinese company from our G5 programme or be shut out from the five eyes intelligence network. Those are obvious clashes but there are other areas which concern us too. Their trade war with China threatens the world economy. Brinkmanship with North Korea risks a nuclear resolution. You will think of others. The upshot is that we are in the awkward position where an ally which is crucial to our security shows signs of going rogue in a number of respects.
What to do? We certainly don’t want to make enemies of them or for them to withdraw the protective shield of NATO. That would mean leaving Europe at the mercy of other powers unless indeed, as seems unlikely, it found the money to pay properly for its own defences. The only viable route then must be to change their minds, get them to come round to our view on climate change for example. How is that best done?
Any commercial negotiator will tell you that there are number of approaches to persuasion and that the choice has to be tailored to the individuals concerned. Sometimes one needs to get in close and use charm – perhaps the line which Prince Charles took when discussing climate change with the President. Sometimes you need to shout about the issue to make it clear that you’re not going to go away. Both are perfectly legitimate strategies. What you will not find in the textbooks, however, is the suggestion that it is a good idea to abuse or denigrate the other party personally. That is hardly going to move them in your direction.
With that in mind it is worth looking at the words of our shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry about Trump; “He is a sexual predator, he is a racist, and it’s right to say that.” It would be invidious for the Shaw Sheet to comment on the first two statements but the third is clearly wrong. This woman is shadow Foreign Secretary and hopes to represent Britain in many negotiations to which the US will be a party. How could it be in anyone’s interest for her to abuse the President in this highly personal way? Had she criticised his stance on climate change or his dealings with China, one could see that forthright comments on things which concern us might be the best policy. But this? Even if true, what would it have to do with us? The sad truth is that Thornberry is saying something which could jeopardise the national interest because she thinks it will please her own party and increase her chances of re-election. There is no other explanation. She is an intelligent woman.
Meanwhile her leader has not distinguished himself either with a curiously fluctuating approach. He began by refusing to attend the banquet, fairly mild as insults go. Then he asked for a meeting with the President which was refused. Then, having established that he is a great guy who will speak to anyone, he accuses the President of spreading hatred and racism. He may think that but even if it is right what possible good results from saying so?
Many different leaders come to the UK and we often disagree with them, particularly on subjects such as human rights. When that happens the public may protest but we expect our politicians to judge their comments in a way designed to bring about the best results. Emily Thornberry and Jeremy Corbyn have let us down.