By Peter Young
Since it is unusual for the US mainstream media to carry much news about Britain on a regular basis, I am always on the lookout for items from across the pond that might be of interest to readers of this column.
This week I need to have had no such concerns. President Trump’s state visit to Britain, as well as his attendance at the D-Day 75th anniversary commemorations to pay tribute to the thousands who gave their lives during the Normandy landings and beyond, received comprehensive US and British press coverage – and, in such circumstances, that was perhaps unsurprising given almost everything he does or says is considered newsworthy.
Many in the media were doubtless looking for drama surrounding the visit and were ready to pounce on any expected gaffes. If so, they will have been disappointed since, to the relief of the organisers, the whole trip went off almost without a hitch and with no great shocks despite his customary straight talking and a string of presidential tweets having a go at various unfortunates who had displeased him in one way or another. These included hurling insults at the Mayor of London and calling the opposition Labour Party leader a ‘negative force’.
He also took an opportunity to comment that Brexit was needed for Britain to have its own identity and he was enthusiastic about a US/UK trade agreement, promising a ‘phenomenal’ deal, while talking as well about British domestic politics during conversations with contenders for the Tory leadership following the resignation of Prime Minister Theresa May whom he praised warmly.
Surprisingly, the threatened public protests against his presence on a state visit seemed to be more low-key than anticipated despite the grotesque Trump baby blimp flown over Parliament Square. So, overall the three-day visit - including some limited discussion of policy issues and attendance at a D-Day commemorative event in Portsmouth in southern England as one of the places from which the Normandy invasion was launched - was considered a success. Nonetheless, it might be interesting to look briefly at the some of the after-effects.
As an unconventional and flawed figure with a combative personality who, in the opinion of many, is unfit to be US president and leader of the free world, Mr Trump was bound to attract criticism before and during his visit because, as everyone knows, he is a divisive and controversial figure who provokes fierce reactions. Some people in Britain regarded it as a disgrace to roll out - literally - the red carpet for him with a full ceremonial welcome including marching bands and 21-gun salutes together with a grand state banquet at Buckingham Palace followed by other high profile events. Others, however, maintained The Queen’s invitation was as much about the office of the presidency as the current incumbent and that it was appropriate to receive the representative of Britain’s oldest ally and to nurture the famous special relationship with all due pomp and pageantry.
In his own direct and irreverent way, Mr Trump boasted about having connected well with The Queen, calling her a ‘spectacular and incredible woman’. Some American observers described her as Britain’s secret weapon who is seen as embodying an elegance and grace of a bygone era and who appears to be one of the few people who can inspire awe in him because of her experience, longevity and acquaintance with so many of his predecessors.
For her part, Her Majesty reminded him of the significance of post-war international institutions and the rules-based world order and stressed the importance of multilateralism and co-operation in safeguarding the hard-won peace. This was a vital message to a leader who always puts America first; for example, as well as pulling out of the Paris climate change agreement and the Iran nuclear deal he is at odds with the UK over its dealings with the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei which the Americans consider is too close to the Chinese state. There are also fears he could even undermine NATO, on which Europe’s security depends, if other member states do not pay their fair share.
The Queen also emphasised the crucial role of the transatlantic alliance that will be even more important to Britain post-Brexit. The evidence is clear that it is in the nation’s strong interest, with a shared history and common values, to continue to nurture the special relationship with the US. Thus, it is good news that Mr Trump has reaffirmed the importance of what he himself has described as the ‘extraordinary alliance’ between the two countries.
Since his return home, some commentators in the US are suggesting the more he travels abroad the better he understands how valuable America’s traditional alliances are for global peace together with the importance of protecting the liberal world order. Maybe that is wishful thinking, but I believe his state visit to Britain should have been widely welcomed. It is good for Britain to do business, in the broadest sense, with a possible two-term US president who at least seems to have the nation’s best interests at heart.
While the D-Day anniversary is over, we must never forget the sacrifice
In this column two weeks ago, I wrote about the lead-up to the D-Day commemorations on June 6. I need to follow up today by mentioning the extremely well organised and successful events that have just taken place - in addition to the Portsmouth gathering in England, the mixture of commemorations and celebrations in France both on the Normandy beaches and at the Allies’ military cemeteries nearby. The presence of large numbers of bemedalled veterans took pride of place, with most now in their nineties and some looking in remarkably good health for their advanced years. But Mr Trump also deserves credit for his speech at the American cemetery at Omaha Beach where the majority of US forces landed as well as at Utah Beach.
While the fighting in all sectors was fierce, resulting in more than 4,000 troops being killed, the battle on Omaha Beach was considered to be the deadliest with US casualties extremely heavy in the face of stiff and unrelenting German resistance firing from clifftops.
It is hard for new generations to comprehend the sheer terror of young men pitched in to this sort of appalling conflict – ordinary soldiers frightened and seasick forced to jump out of landing craft in to cold water in the face of a barrage of machine gun bullets. As the cynics say, politicians start the wars that ordinary people have to finish.
There were, of course, major ceremonies attended by so many British, Canadian and French veterans at the other beaches along the Normandy coast codenamed Gold, Juno and Sword. But, in the context of the President’s visit to Europe, I found it particularly interesting to watch his Omaha Beach speech.
Despite accusations that he lacks the dignity and gravitas needed for high office, this speech was exceptionally good both in terms of content and delivery and was apparently well received by all concerned. He is at his best in such situations and it was a remarkable performance which earned praise even from his most ferocious critics.
Behind it all, however, while this significant anniversary of the D-Day landings is over, the dreadful destruction and the sacrifice of so many lives must surely never be forgotten.
Boris off the hook
I wrote last week about what appeared to me to be the farce of a leading British politician - and the current favourite to succeed Theresa May as Prime Minister - being forced to face a court summons on a charge of misconduct in a public office. Displaying a disturbing lack of proportion and good sense, a district judge sitting in Westminster Magistrates Court had ruled Boris Johnson should answer charges, brought in a private prosecution, over a claim that he had lied by saying the UK government gave the European Union the equivalent of $450 million per week as a membership fee when the figure was significantly lower after the annual EU rebate.
Having commented that, whatever the facts, this should never have developed into a criminal case because it amounted to an assault on free speech, I hoped the judge’s decision would be overturned. Lo and behold, that is exactly what has now happened. After Mr Johnson mounted an immediate legal challenge on the grounds the case was politically motivated and vexatious, two High Court judges took just five minutes to rule the summons was unlawful and therefore quashed it. They said they would provide their reasoning at a later date.
In my view, it was utterly idiotic from the start to try to prosecute him for supposedly misleading people on the campaign trail when canvassing, in advance of the 2016 EU referendum, in favour of leaving the bloc. Politicians lie constantly and the validity of the figures was anyway always a matter of debate.
This case now seems so absurd that it is not worth worrying about further. But the original decision that Mr Johnson should be hauled before a court remains a serious matter because it amounts to an ill-advised incursion by the judiciary into the political arena and an attack on free speech.
In undeveloped democracies the law can be used to stop free speech. If that can even be attempted in a well-ordered and historic democracy like Britain, it is a potentially dangerous development and it could happen in other countries. The people need to be on their guard.