The real meaning of the UK’s hot debate over Trump visit

Does the British parliamentary debate that took place tonight have a real chance of blocking Donald Trump’s proposed state visit to the United Kingdom?

To find a good answer, look back three years ago to an introspective interview Conservative MP Rory Stewart gave to The Guardian newspaper. It remains one of the most perceptive articulations of power in modern Britain. “In our situation we’re all powerless,” he said. “The secret of modern Britain is there is no power anywhere. … The politicians think journalists have power. The journalists know they don’t have any. Then they think the bankers have power. The bankers know they don’t have any. None of them have any power.”

Answers about real political impact in Britain are always lost in the mists of an unwritten constitution, and in ongoing battles between newspapers, politicians and the “non-political” civil servants who survive administration after administration. Politicians make speeches that they believe newspapers want to hear. Newspapers write editorials that they believe readers want to read. Financial elites and low-education voters accuse each other bitterly of setting the agenda. Civil servants complain about the lot of them.

They are all wrong. If anything, the political temperature of this increasingly marginal nation is set externally: by migrant crises, by Middle Eastern conflict, and now, by an unpredictable US President. Monday night saw British parliamentarians debating a motion they couldn’t vote on, about a US President they can’t change, and a trip they can’t cancel. All to please a few newspapers and a few voters. It is the definition of powerlessness.

How did we get to this point? To start with the basics: in 2011, in a hasty attempt to catch the rising tide of populism, the Conservative administration introduced a new initiative, which mandates that official online petitions garnering more than 100,000 signatures should be debated within the House of Commons.

A petition proposing that Trump’s invitation be revoked has well surpassed that limit, with over 1.3 million signatures.

A debate, however, doesn’t mean a vote. And “within the House of Commons” doesn’t mean in the Palace of Westminster’s formal Commons debating chamber. So tonight’s discussion took place among MPs who bothered to show up to an ancillary chamber, Westminster Hall. Westminster Hall is ancient space: Charles I, Guy Fawkes and Thomas More were put on trial here. So it’s befitting a prominent debate of great moment.

But gathering here means taking a mini-vacation from real government business, which is always debated in the 20th-century, purpose-built Chamber. At the end of tonight, no formal vote was recorded, and the whips were not enforcing mandatory attendance to avoid a possible government defeat. It doesn’t change anything — just gives MPs a chance to put their views about Trump on the public record.

That didn’t stop Americans from taking an interest in the vote, and the smart aleck reaction among British commentators was to dismiss that interest. It won’t make a difference in law, they scoffed. And only a foreigner could fuss about our little local ritual.

But ritual matters in politics. It’s clear from the seriousness with which many MPs are taking the debate that Britain is at a major crossroads in its relationship with the United States, as much of the country recoils at Trump’s political revolution — and a small but significant group agitates to replicate it here in Britain.

Americans shouldn’t worry that tonight’s tussle between British MPs is about to cause a major diplomatic storm by disinviting a UK ally, but they should listen carefully to what was said this evening in the thousand-year-old Westminster Hall.

The government itself is in a bind. The Observer reported recently that Conservative ministers have grumbled at the speed with which Prime Minister Theresa May offered Trump his state visit. Conservative MP Crispin Blunt spoke for many in tonight’s debate when he criticized the move, but noted that withdrawing an invitation already proffered would cause a diplomatic crisis that might embarrass the Queen even further. In briefings to British papers, Theresa May’s office has blamed the Queen for issuing the invitation; the Queen’s office has blamed the Prime Minister.

Indeed, nothing exemplifies the power vacuum at the heart of the British political system like the disagreement over which body is actually responsible for issuing state invitations. The Queen, as head of state, plays host, but in line with the democratically necessary convention that leaves executive decisions in the hands of the Prime Minister, she’s hardly been the personal impetus behind state visits by previous controversial figures.

Most political insiders — including Blunt, in his speech tonight — agree that Prime Minister May offered to announce a state visit in order to secure the first invitation to Trump’s White House. So perhaps power in Britain still really lies with the President of the United States.

The ritual Trump denunciations — and endorsements — uttered by MPs tonight mask another problem of power in Britain. Conservative MPs, in particular, seem more scared of their voters than usual. They’ve seen anti-establishment movements sweep the United States, France and southern Europe. Many who privately regret the invitation extended to Trump speak of wanting to distance themselves from “London elites” and liberals leading the charge against him.

Yet voters consistently poll as feeling less powerful, less heard in Westminster than ever. For now, their anger is still defused between a populist left — who led protests against the Trump visit outside Westminster Hall this evening — and a reactionary right. But fear of their reaction at the polls drove posturing speeches from both Labour and Conservatives this evening.

A formal debate which has no legal consequences may look like a joke. But it’s a metaphor for the increasing irrelevance of Britain’s political power-brokers. It is not Donald Trump, but Hillary Clinton, who looms large as a warning about where that leads.

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