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The bigot we should have called out on day one

U.S. President Donald Trump and Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson - Credit: Getty Images

Former Commons speaker JOHN BERCOW on the US president, the British politicians who indulged him, and the Trumpian tactics which have spread to the UK.

The chorus of execration of the Capitol rioters, and president Trump’s evil incitement of them, has been loud, eloquent and justified. Global media outlets have simply reflected the overwhelming sense of shock, horror and outrage which decent people will have felt on witnessing the attempted coup by Trump’s thugs. I share 100% that sense of shock, horror and outrage but I can’t say I was surprised.

After all, this despicable, narcissistic and proto-fascist president has been preparing the ground for insurrection for at least the last two months but, in reality, ever since he refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power if he lost. So, every mainstream politician will now agree that Trump, his enablers and the domestic terrorists stand condemned.

Yet cast your mind back to January 2017. Trump had only just been elected after a vicious campaign in which he had ritually abused his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, been exposed for his rank sexism and threatened a crude racist ban on Muslims entering the United States.

The signs that he was no normal American president, but a reckless and irresponsible demagogue, were there for all to see. Despite that, Theresa May was itching to invite Trump to the United Kingdom and to speak in parliament.

Custom has it that such invitations are issued by the Commons and Lords Speakers as an address to MPs and peers is a parliamentary, not a governmental event. I was consulted by the government and expressed vociferous opposition to the idea as Trump had only just been elected and had already provoked widespread consternation at his racist behaviour.

Several Conservative MPs had told me privately that they were opposed to such an address but did not feel emboldened to say so publicly as the prime minister seemed sold on the idea. The opposition parties were overwhelmingly opposed and more than 200 MPs had signed a motion to that effect. I was therefore somewhat put out to read in the media that the government was nevertheless intent on going ahead and I resolved to thwart the plan.

The Labour MP for Cardiff South and Penarth, Stephen Doughty, who had tabled a motion denouncing Trump asked me on a point of order on February 6, 2017, if I would inform him how such visits were organised and, by implication, what my thoughts were on the subject.

I told him that the Speakers issued the invitation, that I would have been opposed before the imposition of the Trump ban on Muslim migrants entering the USA and that, after its imposition, I was even more strongly opposed. I explained that our opposition to racism and sexism and our support for an independent judiciary – Trump had been railing against judges who dared to rule against him – were important factors in my thinking.

A handful of Conservative MPs rushed to condemn me and they were reinforced by the bigot faction in the press who absurdly talked up the idea that 150 MPs would support a motion of no confidence in me. Actually, the number was five, usual suspects long hostile to me. It was said that I was denying freedom of speech, breaching the impartiality required of the Speaker and flouting the convention that visiting presidents were invited to speak in parliament. None of those arguments was valid; all were bogus. A president can always find a podium and a lectern from which to speak.

For Trump, either the White House press conference or Twitter was the usual medium. The issue was not freedom of speech but whether Trump had earned the honour of an address to parliament. It has long been a Speaker prerogative to invite a visiting dignitary to speak. I could not be impartial between wanting to invite Trump and not wanting to invite him! The notion that visiting presidents were invariably invited was factually wrong too. Most were not. Of those who were, president Reagan spoke in the Royal Gallery – in the House of Lords – and only president Obama did so in the most prestigious setting of Westminster Hall. He was the first black president of the United States, popular in the UK and more than two years in office when invited by us.

Ironically, Theresa May’s rather breathless effort to curry favour with Trump gained her no lasting traction. The moment she rightly criticised him for re-tweeting the hateful propaganda of the fascist organisation Britain First the notoriously thin-skinned Trump turned on her.

A running commentary on her admittedly maladroit efforts on Brexit then became standard fare. Other Conservatives queued to laud him. Michael Gove, who has made unction into an art form, rushed to interview him. Jacob Rees-Mogg declared that if he were an American he would vote for him and, not to be outdone, Boris Johnson opined in 2018 that Trump could be a contender for the Nobel Peace Prize! By contrast, Jeremy Corbyn, Vince Cable, the SNP and others recognised Trump as a malign force and called him out for his bigotry from day one.

Of course, diplomacy dictates that governments of countries linked by friendship avoid attacking each other’s domestic policies. Trump doesn’t respect that convention but our government generally does. So I can understand why, despite his industrial irresponsibility and ineptitude on coronavirus, UK ministers, whose own efforts have been undistinguished or worse, declined to criticise. But surely matters of morality, ethics and principle are in a different category.

Trump suggesting moral equivalence between racist protestors in Charlottesville and their anti-racist counterparts was wrong. Period. The British government should have said so. Trump insulting BAME female American critics by saying they should “go back” if they don’t like the US government was racist. Period. The British government should have admonished the bigot publicly. Trump citing lower jobless figures as “a great day” for George Floyd after the man had been killed by the police was off the scale offensive. Period. A British government minister should have said so.

Understandably, in condemning the storming of the Capitol, American leaders have been quick to stress that the rioters don’t reflect the views of their fellow citizens. The answer to that is ‘yes but…’ because the polling shows that 45% of Republican voters support the actions of those who stormed the Capitol. That is a truly alarming fact but there is no escaping it. The outrage of the Trump- inspired domestic terrorism should be followed by a swift day of reckoning. Let’s hope that Trump will be removed from office for violating the constitution. Failing that, Congress should impeach him so that he can never again stand for public office.

In judging Trump, we should deprecate the fact that parts of his playbook have been adopted in the UK. Bypassing parliament. Rubbishing career civil servants. Threatening to clip the wings of an independent judiciary which is the bulwark of our liberties. These are the unmistakable emblems of a cheap populism which is corrosive of good government. It is high time for democrats in all parties to assert and adhere to the basic tenets of a modern liberal democracy – respect for parliament, respect for the rule of law, respect for the accountability of ministers and advisers and, above all, respect for the truth.

In addition to all of the above, there is another virtue that has been all but lost in the volleys of vitriol that we see on social media every day. That virtue is civility of discourse. Playing the ball, not the man or the woman. Trump may depart the scene but, sadly, there are others like him.

The challenge for all of us is to recognise that democracy is not about decibel levels. A point is no more valid for being made more loudly, more often or more abusively. Democrats everywhere should strive to reach agreement on issues to serve the public interest. When we can’t agree, let’s strive in 2021 to disagree agreeably. That would be a welcome change from the high-octane rancour of the last decade.

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