Sure, turning down an invite to a banquet for Donald Trump is little more than gesture politics. But throwing a banquet for Donald Trump is gesture politics on a grand scale to begin with, and of the two, I know which gesture I prefer.
Jeremy Corbyn’s decision to stay in and wash his hair that night, perhaps opting for a modest takeaway falafel wrap in preference to the multiple courses of haute cuisine dished up on these occasions, has inevitably brought huge quantities of incoming flak. The most histrionic denunciations gleefully list the “dictators, despots and despicable groups” with whom the he previously has chowed down.
Not only that, but a future Corbyn-led government will have to engage with the US administration, whoever is running the show on the other side of the pond. So how can the Labour leader possibly fail to don his best penguin suit and join hundreds of other guests as they raise a glass to the guy from the White House?
Well, for a start, there is no obligation whatsoever on him to do so. Corbyn is still the leader of the opposition, not yet prime minister. Until he does get the keys to Number 10, he can meet or not meet anybody he damn well chooses. As he has made clear elsewhere, he is entirely willing to sit down on the other side of a negotiating table with Trump, were that to prove appropriate or useful. But he is not under any duty to join a de facto pro-Trump jamboree. State visits are essentially exercises in glitz, gun salutes and guards of honour, centred on the ra-ra and razzmatazz of a ride down The Mall in a coach or four with Her Majesty the Queen.
The most notorious precedent here is the state visit of well known nice guy Nicolae Ceausescu – incredibly at the behest of a Labour government – in 1978. The television pictures were relentlessly milked for propaganda advantage by the Romanian regime.
Theresa May’s spectacular shindig is an intentional show of approbation designed to allow similar leeway to Trump’s spin doctors. It’s just the very sort of three-ring circus that will serve to detract media attention from the Mueller Report and the surrounding clamour for impeachment. The week in which the US watered down a United Nations resolution condemning rape in war is probably not a good week in which to hand President Trump a public relations coup. Nor is any other week, come to that.
Shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry said as much on Twitter, branding the guy in the White House “a disgrace to his office and a threat to our world order”. She was speaking for millions of Britons who will not welcome Trump’s presence in this country. Given how open the disdain is, playing along with the charade of a warm welcome would simply be a waste of Corbyn’s evening.
Getting along with the US will be no problem whatsoever if Bernie Sanders triumphs in the race for the White House next year. The so-called special relationship would simply be that bit more special. Nor would the election of a more centrist Democrat, or even a reasonable Republican, pose any particular challenge.
And if Trump does secure a second term, such nuts and bolts business Britain and the US need to transact can be handled on ministerial visits to Washington, or by diplomats, trade negotiators and other relevant bureaucrats. Few in Labour would now wish to see a return of the obsequious sycophancy that characterised Tony Blair’s trips to Dubya’s dude ranch, once so frequent that they earned him the nickname of the Right Honourable Member for Texas North.
Finally, criticisms of Corbyn’s hugely controversial meetings with Sinn Fein and Hamas are by now well rehearsed, and dragging them into the latest bust-up brings nothing new to debate. But in a world dominated by the United States of America, the symbolism of talking to representatives of Irish republicanism and the people of Gaza says as much about a politician as the symbolism of not talking to Donald Trump. And while the right will excoriate the idea, the left sees a symbolism that reveals a politician determined to stand on the side of the oppressed rather than the side of the oppressor.
If that’s gesture politics, let’s have more of it.
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