Progressive Futures

Theresa May’s courtship of President Trump is a betrayal of British values

30 January 2017

The prime minister’s trip to Washington was a lousy gamble and risks undermining, rather than bolstering, British interests

Charlie Cadywould

For many of us, the recent coverage of Theresa May’s visit to the White House was stomach-turning. Here was our Prime Minister, our representative, cosying up to a man who stands against many of the values we hold dear.

For May’s supporters, this trip was an admirable act of pragmatism, putting any personal distaste aside for the good of our country. If we played our cards right with the Donald, he might just not abandon Nato. He might look favourably on us and grant us that elusive trade deal. The new president’s capricious personality, his thin skin, gave May a verbal tightrope to walk in this bizarre act of political courtship.

The decisions prime ministers make have very real consequences, and sometimes our leaders have to hold their noses for the greater good. In this case, there were no good choices, only bad and very bad ones. The myth of ‘taking back control’ was exposed once again: having turned our backs on our friends in Europe and faced with hard economic realities, May clearly felt she had little choice but to get up close and personal with Trump.

However, on this occasion Downing Street got it wrong. This trip was a lousy gamble and a missed opportunity.

Where’s the deal?

Let’s examine the prospect of a deal. Remember that nothing can come into force until we leave the European Union, which is not likely to be until 2019, near the end of his first term. Trump is prone to changing his mind every few days, largely depending on who he’s talking to, and who he’s just been talking to. The idea that a hypothetical commitment to a trade deal now will mean anything in two years is laughable.

There are also many reasons to think it unlikely that the UK could secure a trade deal that works for both parties, and that is politically viable in the UK (imagine if a trade deal really did allow American corporations to carve up the NHS). There is Trump’s ‘America first’ rhetoric, the fact that he sees all America’s trade deals of the last 20 or 30 years as bad deals for the US, and that he seems perfectly willing to use a combination of protectionism, arbitrary corporate punishment and special favours to reach his preferred outcomes.

It’s also unlikely that a worthwhile deal could be reached within the lifespan of a Trump presidency.  Trade deals with the US typically take around three and a half years to implementfrom the first round of negotiations. There are good reasons on top of those mentioned above, such as the size and complexity of the UK economy and the concurrent extrication from the European Union, to believe that a deal could take much longer.

Finally, there is no guarantee Trump will even last the full term. The bookies currently put it at evens that he won’t. He entered the White House with the lowest approval rating ever; a third of voters already back impeachment. His administration’s willingness to ignore a federal court’s decision to suspend deportations suggests it will not shy away from a fight for control over constitutional checks and balances. Failure to follow correct procedure, dodgy business activities, conflicts of interest, more evidence coming to light over his links with Russia: any and all of these could end in impeachment.

What does the world think?

Many commentators – including Trump himself just a few months ago – believe the US’s global power and influence is on the wane. Yes, the UK government should seek a trade deal with the US and seek to engage it in European security affairs, but not at the expense of our other foreign policy objectives.

Just as many in the US are pointing out now, friendly state and non-state actors in the Middle East are some of the most important allies in the fight against global terrorism. The battle for hearts and minds in the Arab world is crucial too. Instead of cosying up to Trump, the prime minister could have gone to Turkey a few days earlier and made a version of Obama’s 2009 Cairo speech, outlining her determination for the UK to forge its own distinct path of engagement and partnership with the Muslim world.

Moreover, leaders, businesses and citizens in many emerging economies – from which the UK will also be seeking trade deals – will have recoiled in horror at Trump’s campaign and subsequent actions as president. As the US shuts itself off from the world, the UK has an opportunity to exploit the markets it leaves behind. When Faisal Islam gave the prime minister the opportunity in Turkey to condemn Trump’s immigration controls, she should have remembered that the rest of the world was listening too.

Symbolism matters

The decision to leave the EU – and the political chasm it has opened up – has forced us to rethink what Britain is, what it means to be a citizen and our place in the wider world.  If the UK is to hold together, we need to focus on what unites us. The inauguration of Donald Trump could have been a moment to do just that.

In a Pew Global survey conducted last year, 85 percent of UK respondents said they had no confidence in Donald Trump. Just one in 10 would have backed him against Hillary Clinton. With the exception of the ‘continuity Farage’ wing of the UK Independence party, wherever you are on the spectrum of British politics, there is a reason to dislike Trump: liberals detest both his lack of tolerance towards religious minorities and his lack of respect for basic democratic norms and human rights. Socialists and social democrats detest his economic and social policies that will supercharge pre-existing inequalities in American society. Conservatives detest his administration’s tendency towards crony capitalism ahead of free markets and free trade. Environmentalists (“climate change is a Chinese hoax”), security hawks (“Nato is obsolete”), feminists, even religious conservatives – I could go on.

Donald Trump’s election was a rare moment that could have brought all these diverging voices together. Had May taken a different tack, she could have taken the opportunity to truly speak, not for the 48 per cent or the 52 per cent, but for the nation. She could have spoken up for inclusive British values of ‘democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance for those of different faiths and beliefs’. If they mean anything, if they are worth teaching in schools, then surely it is not too much to ask that our prime minister stands up for them on the world stage?

History will judge

It is crucial that the UK secures the best trade deals it can. Pragmatism and cool-headedness are important. But being on the right side of history matters. Trump has shown no sign of letting up on his radical, divisive agenda, and it only end one of two ways. Either the Republic wins, succeeds in tempering his radicalism through checks and balances, impeachment or electoral defeat, or it falls. He is clearly willing to ignore court decisions, and to use debunked conspiracy theories about voter fraud to disenfranchise millions of Americans.

If the former comes to pass, then cosying up to the early, radical version of this administration is likely to be of little help when we really do need that trade deal. How many friends in the Democratic party – who could well take back Congress in two years – has the UK government just lost? If the latter, we will have allied ourselves to a dangerous, arbitrary dictatorship. Trade deals with countries that don’t respect the rule of law are not worth the paper they are written on.

History will judge Theresa May, but so should we. She represents us citizens abroad, and by failing to condemn Trump’s actions she has legitimised them on the world stage. She has sold our souls for a few social niceties and vague verbal commitments we can’t take to the bank.

Image credit: Ms Jane Campbell / Shutterstock.com