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Leader: Engage but beware

When it comes to Donald Trump, the UK government can't afford to be passive.

Donald Trump is governing as he promised he would. The US president was elected on the most reactionary platform of any recent candidate and has introduced his programme with ruthless speed. He has ended funding for international organisations that perform or provide information on abortions, restarted the construction of two oil pipelines (having once dismissed climate change as a Chinese hoax), floated the revival of torture and ordered the building of a wall on the border with Mexico. Of all the president’s acts, the most egregious was his ban on refugees and citizens of seven Muslim-majority states entering the US.

Mr Trump’s immigration policy is immoral and reckless. The United States, like all developed countries, has a duty to shelter refugees. America has a proud history of welcoming the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free”. Mr Trump’s stance is the antithesis of this enlightened vision. That he signed the order on International Holocaust Remembrance Day betrayed either his ignorance or his callousness.

Refugees already undergo the strictest background checks of anyone entering the US: admission typically takes between 18 and 24 months. Mr Trump contends that further limitations are required to shield his country from terrorism. Yet while banning people from Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen, he has left unaffected those from Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates – countries that hosted the 11 September 2001 hijackers but where the president has business interests. Of the 800,000 refugees admitted since the attacks, just five have been found guilty of involvement in terrorism – none of it on American soil. Mr Trump’s decision to discriminate against Muslims is a propaganda gift to Islamic State. The terrorist group asserts that the US is the enemy of all believers, rather than merely jihadists. Mr Trump’s position risks validating this claim.

The United States is a country built by immigrants and has long thrived on their contributions. Mr Trump’s executive order is an act of economic, cultural and diplomatic self-harm. It is also almost certainly unconstitutional, violating the prohibition against religious discrimination. Yet the president’s decision to defy a judicial ruling on deportations shows his disregard for established norms.

The constitution was designed precisely to constrain autocrats such as Mr Trump. But though he entered office with the lowest approval rating of any president, the institutional restraints on him are limited. In addition to the White House, the Republicans control Congress and two-thirds of governorships and state houses. Mr Trump’s first Supreme Court appointment will ensure a conservative judicial majority.

For these reasons, there is a heightened responsibility on allies of the US to challenge the president’s behaviour. Theresa May was criticised by many for her initial failure to condemn Mr Trump’s immigration ban. Yet the Prime Minister is in an invidious position. She has resolved that the UK must maintain working relations with the US (a stance seconded by Jeremy Corbyn) in the hope of influencing Mr Trump for good. The new reality of Brexit – an outcome that Mrs May opposed – places a further premium on such alliances.

However, confronted with Mr Trump – an unprecedented threat to the post-1945 liberal order – the UK cannot be passive. Although the US has granted dual nationals, such as the great Olympian Mo Farah, an exemption from the ban, Britain must continue to protest against the treatment of others. It cannot allow the prospect of a post-Brexit trade deal to reduce its foreign policy to simple self-interest. The UK’s standing is not served by the country being seen as a “vassal state” (in the words of the French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron).

More than 1.6 million people have signed a petition against Mr Trump’s planned state visit to the UK. If he comes, the president should not be accorded the privilege of addressing MPs and peers at Westminster Hall (only eight people, including Charles de Gaulle, Nelson Mandela, Barack Obama and Aung San Suu Kyi, have had that honour).

The US president’s contempt for a rules-based international order risks inaugurating an era in which the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must. Britain must use every tool to bind Mr Trump to the established order. Yet, as the government does so, Mrs May should remember her own diplomatic advice and “engage but beware”. 

This article first appeared in the 02 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, American carnage

Photo: André Spicer
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“It’s scary to do it again”: the five-year-old fined £150 for running a lemonade stand

Enforcement officers penalised a child selling home-made lemonade in the street. Her father tells the full story. 

It was a lively Saturday afternoon in east London’s Mile End. Groups of people streamed through residential streets on their way to a music festival in the local park; booming bass could be heard from the surrounding houses.

One five-year-old girl who lived in the area had an idea. She had been to her school’s summer fête recently and looked longingly at the stalls. She loved the idea of setting up her own stall, and today was a good day for it.

“She eventually came round to the idea of selling lemonade,” her father André Spicer tells me. So he and his daughter went to their local shop to buy some lemons. They mixed a few jugs of lemonade, the girl made a fetching A4 sign with some lemons drawn on it – 50p for a small cup, £1 for a large – and they carried a table from home to the end of their road. 

“People suddenly started coming up and buying stuff, pretty quickly, and they were very happy,” Spicer recalls. “People looked overjoyed at this cute little girl on the side of the road – community feel and all that sort of stuff.”

But the heart-warming scene was soon interrupted. After about half an hour of what Spicer describes as “brisk” trade – his daughter’s recipe secret was some mint and a little bit of cucumber, for a “bit of a British touch” – four enforcement officers came striding up to the stand.

Three were in uniform, and one was in plain clothes. One uniformed officer turned the camera on his vest on, and began reciting a legal script at the weeping five-year-old.

“You’re trading without a licence, pursuant to x, y, z act and blah dah dah dah, really going through a script,” Spicer tells me, saying they showed no compassion for his daughter. “This is my job, I’m doing it and that’s it, basically.”

The girl burst into tears the moment they arrived.

“Officials have some degree of intimidation. I’m a grown adult, so I wasn’t super intimidated, but I was a bit shocked,” says Spicer. “But my daughter was intimidated. She started crying straight away.”

As they continued to recite their legalese, her father picked her up to try to comfort her – but that didn’t stop the officers giving her stall a £150 fine and handing them a penalty notice. “TRADING WITHOUT LICENCE,” it screamed.

Picture: André Spicer

“She was crying and repeating, ‘I’ve done a bad thing’,” says Spicer. “As we walked home, I had to try and convince her that it wasn’t her, it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her who had done something bad.”

She cried all the way home, and it wasn’t until she watched her favourite film, Brave, that she calmed down. It was then that Spicer suggested next time they would “do it all correctly”, get a permit, and set up another stand.

“No, I don’t want to, it’s a bit scary to do it again,” she replied. Her father hopes that “she’ll be able to get over it”, and that her enterprising spirit will return.

The Council has since apologised and cancelled the fine, and called on its officials to “show common sense and to use their powers sensibly”.

But Spicer felt “there’s a bigger principle here”, and wrote a piece for the Telegraph arguing that children in modern Britain are too restricted.

He would “absolutely” encourage his daughter to set up another stall, and “I’d encourage other people to go and do it as well. It’s a great way to spend a bit of time with the kids in the holidays, and they might learn something.”

A fitting reminder of the great life lesson: when life gives you a fixed penalty notice, make lemonade.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.