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18 March 2015updated 07 Jun 2021 5:05pm

First Thoughts: The reality of state visits, why Trump shouldn’t be impeached, and Tebbit’s “cricket test”

By Peter Wilby

Before Donald Trump’s arrival, Elizabeth II had hosted 112 state visits. Her first guests, in 1954, were the king and queen of Sweden. But next came Emperor Haile Selassie from Ethiopia, followed in 1955 by the president of Portugal and, in 1956, by Iraq’s King Faisal. Their regimes could not have been described as democratic or mindful of civil liberties, to put it mildly. But though I remember all three visits – in the 1950s, television news covered such occasions even more exhaustively than it does now – I recall no protests whatever.

On the contrary, Selassie, who ran a feudal regime that had only recently ended slavery, was feted as a hero and friend because of his eloquent laments about Mussolini’s invasion of his country in the 1930s and his temporary exile in Bath. A master of international public relations, he introduced a constitution in 1931 that envisaged a move to democracy when “the people are in a position to elect themselves”. Sadly, the people were never quite ready and Ethiopians who insisted they were suffered imprisonment and torture.

Portugal was ruled by the dictator António Salazar, who sent opponents to a concentration camp in its colony Cape Verde. But as prime minister he was not technically head of state and so did not take part in the visit to Britain. We were told that Portugal was our oldest continuous ally, another technicality since it was neutral during the Second World War but announced that since Britain hadn’t sought its assistance, an alliance dating from 1386 remained in force.

King Faisal was said to be a good egg because he was an old Harrovian and, just before his visit, joined an anti-Soviet, Nato-style military alliance with the UK, Iran, Pakistan and Turkey. The Queen later welcomed the heads of the other signatory states, also careless of civil liberties and on only nodding terms with democracy, before the alliance, which did little more than exchange fragments of intelligence, collapsed ignominiously in the 1970s.

State visits are not supposed to signal approval of the Queen’s guests. As those early examples show, they are intended to strengthen geopolitical and economic relations.


Postponing the president

Did Trump’s visit strengthen US-British relations? Probably not. He may be out of office by 2021. A Democratic president may not look kindly on a country that boosted his esteem in the US by honouring him.

Theresa May’s resignation gave the government an opportunity to kick the can down the road. “Mr President,” it could have said, “you will not want to meet a lame-duck prime minister. A loser like her is not the sort of person that a great statesman like you should be seen with.” Why did nobody think of this?


Politicians on bail

Some anti-Trump protesters carried “lock him up” banners. All in good time, perhaps, but nobody, and particularly not the US Democrats, should even be thinking of it now. Though there is ample evidence to support impeachment, most voters think a president’s dismissal should be the electorate’s prerogative. Only a third of Americans supported Bill Clinton’s impeachment in the late 1990s. Though support in 1974 for Richard Nixon’s impeachment – which was eventually pre-empted by his resignation – reached 57 per cent, that had as much to do with the recession that began in November 1973 as with his criminal conduct. Now polls suggest that, while around half of Americans believe Trump is a criminal, only a quarter want him impeached.

Britons, I suspect, hold similar views about how errant politicians should be treated and will not welcome Marcus Ball’s prosecution of Boris Johnson for “misconduct in public office” (ie telling untruths) during the referendum campaign. Though governments have got into the habit of holding referendums to ask silly questions, the voters’ main (some would say only) function in a democracy is to kick the rascals out when necessary. Trying to usurp their power stores up trouble for the future.


No-joke Johnson

Talking of Johnson, my wife and I went to the Park Theatre in north London to see a play called The Last Temptation of Boris Johnson. When we saw another comedy, Brexit the Musical, with Johnson again as a central character, in January 2017, laughter seemed the best way to cope with the referendum result. Now I am not so sure. The new play focuses on the dinner party in 2016 where Johnson, Michael Gove and their spouses discussed which side to back in the forthcoming campaign on EU membership, and then shows the same characters (with Mrs Johnson naturally replaced) at a similar dinner in 2029. It was played mainly for gags, which seemed tired and unfunny. The Brexit vote initially seemed a bit of a lark and most of us expected that Brussels and Westminster would fudge a way out of it. An actor with blond dishevelled hair needed only step on stage to win peals of laughter. But with the country becoming more divided by the day, Johnson ceased to be a joke some months ago.


No team like home

In 1990, the hardline Thatcherite Norman Tebbit coined the phrase “the cricket test”. By cheering India, Pakistan or West Indies in matches against England, he argued, British-born Asians and Caribbeans showed they were insufficiently “assimilated” and failed the test of national loyalty. We should be thankful he was ignored.

What makes the current cricket World Cup so delightful is that, in almost every match, particularly those involving the five Asian teams, each side has thousands of supporters cheering it on. And why not? Football fans across the world who couldn’t find Manchester or Liverpool on a map, never mind trace a family connection, support the cities’ football teams. Why shouldn’t some Britons shout for countries where their parents and grandparents were born?

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This article appears in the 05 Jun 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump alliance