The reason Britain rolls out the red carpet for Trump? It’s what Britain does | Nesrine Malik


I have bad news for Sadiq Khan. It is entirely British to welcome despots and problematic allies, says Guardian columnist Nesrine Malik

This time it’s a full-blown state visit, rather than the brief smash and grab when Donald Trump insulted Theresa May, beefed with Sadiq Khan, and triggered a domestic mini-culture war because of a blimp. The buildup to this week’s pageantry was trailed on Sky News with an advertisement featuring an animation of that Donald Trump blimp casting a shadow over London with the tag line “He’s back”, with ominous music accompanying it, as if the whole affair were some sort of comedy-horror Ghostbusters movie. We have skipped the tragedy part, of history repeating itself, and gone straight to the farce.

And a farce and a spectacle it will be, fulfilling the social aspirations of Trump and all his grim entourage: to be feted with the high ritual and honorifics reserved for the world’s political elite. Trump will be a guest of the Queen and attend a ceremony to mark the 75th anniversary of the D-day landings. This sort of red carpet invitation has only been extended previously to two US presidents. So why Trump? British politics is febrile; the government is deadlocked and leaderless. Europe, immigration, race and Islamophobia are sensitive sores. Hosting Trump right now, a man who has already given us his own trailer to the visit with opinions on issues from Brexit to “nasty” Meghan Markle is like asking your pugnacious neighbour over in the middle of your family row.

The answer is, this is what the British do. Khan, writing in the Observer, said he thinks it is “un-British” to roll out the red carpet for Trump. I admire Khan for holding the moral fort, but I have bad news for him. It is, in fact, very British – indeed a hallmark of Britishness – that we roll out the red carpet for foreign despots. For a nation so sure of its lofty values and superior place in the world, its arrogance manifesting in the jostling and shadow-boxing around Brexit, Britain comes across all morally relativist, humble and demure when it comes to Saudi Arabia, or the indulgence of white supremacy in the US. Who are we to say what Trump should do about children dying in border detention camps or Saudis being executed for sorcery?

Donald Trump Jr, Melania, Ivanka, Eric and Tiffany all accompany Donald Trump on his visit to the UK. Photograph: Fred Watkins/ABC via Getty Images

British foreign policy towards problematic allies can be officially described as a forked tongue. Condemn and coddle. Jeremy Hunt demonstrated a classic of the genre last year, announcing a commitment to a new post-Brexit “values-based foreign policy”, while in the same breath declaring that Britain would continue arms exports to Saudi Arabia. The journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder was “nothing short of totally and terribly shocking”, he conceded, but pressing the Saudis to change their human rights-abusing ways “would probably be counterproductive”, and lead to “unintended consequences”. This is another cornerstone of British foreign policy, one that scaremongers that if Britain ever did dare to have words with its allies, then there would be chaos, escalation, wars in the Middle East. Britain’s quiet and passive complicity is actually active stability maintenance.

Sometimes we cannot even be bothered with the “condemn” bit, even to save face, and even when British citizens are affected. When Trump’s Muslim ban first came into effect in 2017, the entry restrictions applied to British citizens who were born in, or had the nationality of, the seven countries on the original travel ban list. All Theresa May had to say was that it was an internal matter for the US to determine, and only when pressed did she say she did not “agree with the ban”. Britain has a “pragmatic” foreign policy, you see, one that puts “national interest” before all else; but sometimes the spoils of that national interest are hard to make out.

And really, there is not so much of a distance any more between Trump’s America and Brexit Britain that we can pretend we have to pinch our noses and bear it for the sake of realpolitik. There is a desired new proximity that suggests not only an economic and cultural closeness but political affinity. In his reasons for rejecting Trump’s desecration of Britain’s sacred soil, Khan listed misdemeanours such as “the deliberate use of xenophobia, racism and ‘otherness’ as an electoral tactic”, “lying deliberately and repeatedly to the public” and “picking on minority groups and the marginalised to manufacture an enemy – and encouraging others to do the same”. I must pause here for dramatic effect, and break the fourth wall. I ask you, is this … is this not us?

Nothing in Britain’s long history of celebrating foreign despots, or more recent history of its politics inching ever closer to the ways of those despots, suggests the right to be precious about Trump as somehow not of us. There is a British exceptionalism that mirrors America’s own in its denialism about how both countries ended up where they are, in 2019, detaching from global compacts, internally polarised, and increasingly unsafe for minorities. Just as Trump is not an aberration to the US, rather the culmination and continuation of a political system that minimised the danger of white supremacy, misogyny and the entrenchment of the corporate lobbying system, so Trump’s reception in Britain is hardly an exception.

And it is a hard pill to swallow, but this cynical foreign policy, in all its confusion, self-harm and moral bankruptcy, is one that a significant part of the British public has co-signed at the ballot box. By all means we should protest, make our voices heard during this week’s royal pantomime, and say how much we abhor Trump’s lavish embrace by our rulers on British soil.

But let us not fool ourselves any longer about the country Britain has become, and the country it always was.

Nesrine Malik is a Guardian columnist

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