John Bercow (above), the Speaker of the House of Commons, the lower chamber of the British Houses of Parliament – the other chamber being the House of Lords – has said that he is “strongly opposed” to President Trump addressing the combined Houses of Parliament should his planned State Visit to the UK go ahead. The House of Commons, which is the body made up of the country’s elected Members of Parliament (MPs), will debate on the 20h of the month whether the President’s State Visit will go ahead. This follows Prime Minister Theresa May’s visit to Washington last month, at which she invited the President, on behalf of the Queen, for a State Visit to the UK later this year. This has caused anger throughout the UK with some 1.8 million people signing a petition on the Parliament website calling for the State Visit to be cancelled. The petition doesn’t call for him to be banned from entering the country as Head of State of the United States, only that the “the Queen should be spared the embarrassment” of having to host his visit. As so many people have signed the petition, it’s question had to be considered by the House of Commons. This does not necessarily mean that a debate will follow, but in this case it will be debated by the MPs. It is unlikely that the House of Commons will withdraw the State Visit invitation, but it will highlight the anger and opposition to a State Visit from within the Commons and around the country.
Theresa May (above with President Trump) has saddled her horse alongside the new President, hoping to secure continuing good relations with the United States, a favourable trade deal with the U.S. after Britain withdraws from the European Union in a couple of years, and with the intention of being a go-between between the European leaders and the new President. This latter hope disintegrated last week when the E.U. leaders made it clear what they thought of Donald Trump. As for a favourable trade deal? Well that seems increasingly unlikely given Trump’s pronouncements on “America First”, which doesn’t suggest he will willingly give favourable trade deals to Britain or anywhere else. As for good relations? Well they are already strained after barely two weeks of a Trump presidency with his controversial policies and executive orders. It seems difficult to understand how they will get any better, even if we do have Trump over to dine with the Queen and address Parliament. Does Donald J. Trump have the mental capacity to understand the significance of such a State Visit? As Mr Bercow said today, addressing Parliament is not “an automatic right” but an “earned honour.” President Trump has done nothing yet to remotely have earned such an honour.
Mr Bercow, who controls the House of Commons, has been Speaker since June 2009. He is also the Conservative MP for Buckingham. Prior to becoming an MP in 1997 he was considered a hardline right-winger. However, upon becoming an MP and later the Speaker as well he has moderated his views. At one point it was thought he might defect to the Labour Party, but he remains a Conservative MP having retained his seat since 1997 and, most recently, at the 2015 General Election. He election as Speaker was deeply unpopular in his own party, but he achieved the office with the support of the other parties in Parliament. He survived an attempt from his own party to have him removed from the office in 2015. He is also the first Jewish Speaker.
Mr Bercow is one of three so-called “key-holders” to the Houses of Parliament, so his opposition to Trump speaking there could be crucial. The BBC’s political correspondent went as far to suggest that his statement had effectively vetoed Trump’s chances of addressing Parliament. The other two “key-holders” are the Speaker of the House of Lords and the Lord Great Chamberlain. These three people control the Houses of Parliament, including Westminster Hall where visiting Heads of State generally address Parliament if they are given that honour. The current Speaker of the House of Lords, Lord Fowler (the former Conservative minister in Thatcher’s governments, Norman Fowler) is expected to make his own statement tomorrow. Mr Bercow in his statement, which was roundly applauded by many MPs after he made it, said that:
“Before the imposition of the migrant ban, I would myself have been strongly opposed to an address by President Trump in Westminster Hall,
“After the imposition of the migrant ban I am even more strongly opposed to an address by President Trump in Westminster Hall.
He also pointed out that he would be involved in any invitation for the President to speak to the Royal Gallery:
“I would not wish to issue an invitation to President Trump to speak in the Royal Gallery.
“We value our relationship with the United States. If a state visit takes place, that is way beyond and above the pay grade of the Speaker.
“However, as far as this place is concerned, I feel very strongly that our opposition to racism and sexism and our support for equality before the law and an independent judiciary are hugely important considerations in the House of Commons.”
Mr Bercow had made his remarks in response to a point of order by the Labour MP Stephen Doughty. He had organised an early day motion, signed by 163 MPs, calling on the Speaker to withhold permission from the Government for an address to Westminster Hall. Meanwhile, the leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, has called for the State Visit to be postponed while Tim Farron, the leader of the Liberal Democrats has said that Trump is “not welcome,” and MPs representing the Scottish National Party (SNP) applauded the Speaker’s comments. As no formal plans for any State Visit have been laid out yet, including whether he will address Parliament, it would not be impossible not to include it in any State Visit. It seems to be a general feeling in the country that the invitation to a State Visit by Theresa May was a little premature, with Trump having only been President for less than two weeks when it was made. The timing was also seen as insensitive in light of Trump’s attacks on women and immigrants and refugees in particular through his executive orders on abortion funding and the travel ban. Many feel that Trump should justify such an honour before getting such an honour. Many feel that it gives a deeply unpopular and controversial President legitimacy as a world leader when he has done nothing to prove that he has the capacity to run his own country let alone be the leader of the free world. Should his State Visit go ahead he will be met by some of the largest-ever political protests in the UK’s history. Planning for these protests are already in the planning. The Government itself insists that the State Visit is going ahead, though no details have yet been arranged.
Some MPs were disheartened by Mr Bercow’s comments, complaining they were too political for his position as Speaker, a position that is meant to be one of neutrality. Others said that it wasn’t a given that Trump would even wish to address Parliament. Previous Presidents haven’t always done so, including Presidents Reagan and George W. Bush. One Government source said of Trump’s planned visit: “The indication is he wants high-visibility visits with key members of the royal family.” Mr Bercow was certainly straying into party politics which is a breach of his role. According to the so-called Bible of the Houses of Parliament, Erskine May:
“The chief characteristics to the office of Speaker in the House of Commons are authority and impartiality.
“Confidence in the impartiality of the Speaker is an indispensable condition of the successful working of procedure.
“He takes no part in debate either in the house or in committee.”
Nevertheless, his comments today have gone down well with many MPs, mostly those on the opposition benches and representing party’s other than Mr Bercow’s Conservative Party. The veteran Labour MP, Dennis Skinner, who is famous in the House of Commons for his put-downs and mocking of Government policy, raised after Mr Bercow’s comments to say simply: “Well Done.” Labour MP Yvette Cooper had more to say:
“President Trump is continuing his assault on the democratic values that the British parliament holds dear – undermining the rule of law, the independent judiciary and a free press, and encouraging racism and misogyny.
“By all means have meetings with President Trump in parliament or anywhere else, but he should not be accorded the special privilege of an address in the heart of our democracy. The Speaker is right, we can’t go along with this just because Theresa May was overhasty in her invite.”
Stephen Doughty MP said:
“I am delighted that the Speaker has listened to members from across the house regarding our deep concerns that Donald Trump not be honoured with an address in Westminster Hall or elsewhere in the Palace of Westminster, after his comments and actions on women, torture, refugees and the judiciary.
“Our parliament stands for liberty, equality and independent scrutiny of government. It is vital we stand up for those principles not only here but across the world. Mr Speaker has made that crystal clear today.”
The leader of the Liberal Democrats, Tim Fallon, said:
“The prime minister might wish to kowtow to the nasty misogynist that now sits in the Oval Office but no one else does. We do not want him to speak to us. He is not welcome. Trump should be under no illusion. We are snubbing him.”
It seems clear that should Donald Trump visit the UK on a State Visit and/or he addresses the Houses of Parliament, then he is going to face considerable opposition from both the public and from within Parliament, with the possibility that many MPs may boycott such an address. I find it deeply offensive the the British Prime Minister should attempt to give Donald Trump legitimacy when she is fully aware – and proclaims to be opposed to – his misogyny, racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, and xenophobia. President Trump’s whole agenda seems to be based on attacks on the very principles of democracy: freedom of speech, freedom of press, equality, justice under the law, due legal process, the rule of law, and freedom of the judiciary. President Trump in just eighteen days in office has managed to attack all of these principles. Furthermore he ridicules, ignores, or shuts down anyone who shows him opposition – from journalists in the White House press room to millions of women who march on the streets against his policies. He has appointed lackeys, yes men, white nationalists, pro-life hardliners and other unsavoury characters into positions of power and influence. And, most disturbingly of all, he demonstrates over and over again his complete inability to take criticism and his inability to accept that he can be wrong. Mr Trump has lived his life in a privileged bubble where no-one tells him he is wrong, where his decisions are praised by all around him even when they are disastrous, where he can drive companies into bankruptcy yet never admit he was to blame (or that it ever happened), and where his ego and vanity rules – whether in suing or threatening to sue anyone who says something about him he doesn’t like, whether in surrounding himself with gold, models and the trappings of superficiality, or whether in believing that he is the best and the greatest at everything he puts his tiny little hands to. Is this really the type of man we want addressing the mother of Parliaments, or the man we want the Queen to have to treat as an honoured guest? I think not.
Update: Tuesday 7 February 2017 – Reactions to Speaker John Bercow’s opposition to President Trump addressing Parliament
It was inevitable that there would be a lot of reaction – both positive and negative – to John Bercow’s comments yesterday that he would oppose and block President Trump from addressing Parliament should he come to the UK for a State Visit. The office of Speaker of the House of Commons is supposed to be above party politics, with the neutrality of the office being the centrepiece of the Speaker’s ability to officiate over the often squabbling MPs in the chamber. For many his comments were a clear breach of that neutrality. The communities secretary, Sajid Javid, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme:
“Anyone who knows the Speaker will know that he speaks his mind. But he doesn’t speak for the government,
“The government is very clear: President Trump is the leader of our most important ally, he’s elected fairly and squarely, and it’s manifestly in our national interests that we reach out to him and we work with him, and he visits us in the UK.”
The former culture secretary, John Whittingdale, told Sky News that Bercow wanted “as much publicity as possible” and should have instead talked privately to Theresa May.
“It was a performance, it was John Bercow playing to the gallery and I think it was damaging to the national interest. I think it is regrettable that he did it.”
While Crispin Blunt, the Conservative MP who chairs the foreign affairs committee thought he had overstepped the mark:
“[He] has no idea whether he will be speaking for a majority of the House of Commons, and this is why Speakers do not express their opinion.
“That’s the entire point, otherwise they can’t remain neutral and above the political fray.”
James Duddridge, a former junior Foreign Office minister told Sky News:
“[It was] wholly inappropriate for the Speaker of the House to enter the fray on this issue.
“He wasn’t doing the job as the Speaker and he’s gone down severely in my estimation.”
Others argued that he was being hypocritical in targeting President Trump when he has welcomed the likes of Chinese President Xi Jinping, and the Emir of Kuwait. Conservative MP Nadhim Zahawi said that he should explain this contradiction to the House of Commons, adding:
“I think the Speaker was unwise to speak out.
“He prides himself on his neutrality, to speak for the whole of parliament, and I think to become the story is a bad place to be.
“[He] opens himself up to the accusation of hypocrisy”
Others were more supportive of the Speaker making a stand against President Trump. The leading Labour backbencher, Yvette Cooper, said on Today:
“This is our closest ally, a country that we have worked with and should continue to work with, that is currently walking away from democratic values, as opposed to us building alliances with countries across the world who we are trying to move towards democracy and towards human rights.
“We could talk about problems with China, we could talk about problems with a whole load of countries, and you would be right to do so. But none of this, I think, gets away from the fact that what is happening in the United States is unique in western democracy and should be deeply disturbing for all of us. We should be prepared to make a stand.”
The Independent journalist, Owen Jones, was also supportive of the Speaker saying that the US president’s views must not be normalised and that he speaks for Britain. Owen Jones suggests that Trump’s “sexism, racism and attacks on the independence of the judiciary disqualify him from a parliamentary visit.” Mr Jones reflects the fear that Trump’s sexist and racist comments would become normalised through a process of labelling them as simply controversial, rather than as racist or sexist. Through this process, “the most powerful man on Earth would help send the fights against discrimination of various hues hurtling back decades, because it would become harder to identify it, let alone call it out.”
Owen Jones believes Speaker Bercow is right to stand up to Donald Trump and not normalise and give credibility to his repulsive behaviour by allowing him to address Parliament:
“Trump has spoken about women in the most derogatory terms possible, has smeared Mexican immigrants as rapists and criminals, demanded a blanket ban on Muslims, and appointed as chief strategist the former editor of a far-right website. His sexism and racism are objective facts. The sky is blue, the Earth is round, Trump is a racist and a sexist. When we start arguing that his racism and sexism are open to debate, that to label him as such is to compromise objectivity, we strip both words of their meaning. This is already happening. The emboldened bigots of the western world believe they can speak and act with impunity, and nobody can challenge them on it. This must stop.”
Owen Jones says that the Government’s attempts to “make this country Trump’s lapdog” helps to “normalise and legitimise him.” Mr Bercow’s intervention shows that this will have consequences and that Donald Trump “is no normal president.”
Update: Saturday 11 February 2017 – Plans for Trump to address Parliament abandoned?
The stand taken by Speaker John Bercow against President Trump addressing Parliament on a UK State Visit seem to have paid off. According to the Independent in London, a State Visit is to take place during the summer recess of Parliament and that this will mean Trump will neither address Parliament or will give MPs the opportunity of snubbing the President by not attending if he had made an address. The Independent’s sources state this is the “preferred option” of the Government. Details of the State Visit are still in planning but they suggest that the visit will stretch from a Thursday to Sunday in August or September and will include an audience with the Queen.
It seems that Trump has shown an interest in playing golf with the Queen! This seems unlikely as the Queen is 90 and probably not keen to take part in his publicity stunts for the camera. The Independent suggests that plans may include the President playing a round of golf on a private nine-hole course in Scotland while the Queen watches. How thrilling for Her Majesty? A more traditional tea with the Queen is also said to be one of Trump’s wishes, and much more likely to be suitable.
The presence of President Trump in the UK will cause mass protests wherever he goes, and it seems that the plans for the State Visit will limit the number of public appearances to reduce the opportunities to directly protest at the President. In light of Trump’s early decisions in the White House, most notably the Muslim travel ban, many are calling for the trip to be cancelled. This is not going to happen. The Prime Minister Theresa May is committed to her desire to cosy up to the new President in her attempts to get a trade deal with the United States post-Brexit. She said of his visit:
“The United States is a close ally of the United Kingdom. We work together across many areas of mutual interest and we have that special relationship between us.
“I have issued that invitation for a state visit for President Trump to the United Kingdom and that invitation stands.”