In the late hour of yesterday evening it was announced that Donald Trump would be cancelling his state visit to the UK, planned for February. Following an invitation from Theresa May, the President was due to open the new US embassy in Nine Elms. The UK held its breath for a few hours and, sure enough, there came a tweet from the Donald claiming the new embassy wasn’t good enough, blaming Obama for its supposed downgrade, the original Mayfair building having been sold for ‘peanuts’ (£500m).
Of course none of that is true; the Bush administration agreed to the change amid post-9/11 security concerns, and the location of the new embassy has been known for years. Trump is scared of the welcome (or lack thereof) he will receive in London, and has made the calculated decision not to provoke what could have been the largest protest march in British history. This was, after all, the explicit aim of the Stop Trump UK campaign. The UK has demonstrated the importance of popular movements and organisation, which, in a political climate where the right has perpetually belittled protest as pointless and anti-democratic, is a significant achievement. The people said no to Trump, and that is something to be proud of.
But many may ask: so what? How does this slight change differ from any other vague forms of ‘resistance’ to the President? And with reason; for Trump, this is nothing but a minor setback in an alliance he cares little for. He is still marching ahead with tax cuts, wildly undiplomatic foreign policy and cutting Medicaid. Oprah Winfrey’s propulsion to the forefront of the Democrat voter’s illuminated imagination makes it hard to believe his re-election will meet much resistance. Even his squabbling tweet this morning – often a bittersweet comic relief for an otherwise frightened population - pales in comedic value to any of his statements over the last few weeks, from his desperately boastful ‘My nuclear button is bigger than yours’, to his slightly more mature, drunk student-esque ‘I promise I’m not mentally unstable’. If we didn’t even provoke a sufficiently childish reaction from our beloved commander-in-chief across the pond, then what is there to celebrate?
The victory of Trump’s cancelled visit lies not in the minor effects it will have on his presidency but on the image and reputation of the UK, at home and abroad. It is about setting the ideological boundary between Trump and the UK, and making it clear that Britain will not easily relegate itself to another peripheral chapter as a bystander in the one-sided history of the ‘Special Relationship’ between the two countries.
This may seem like petty, self-aggrandising patriotic nonsense. Ultimately, historians will still qualify the current chapter in the Special Relationship as one of emasculated one-upmanship between two countries persistently pushing each other to see who can make the most destructive political decisions possible. There is, however, much to be said about the significance of such a small gesture or event. Politics, especially in the case of international relations, is extremely marked by images, gestures, and instances, as this is what dominates the mainstream’s understanding of events.
Reagan and Thatcher are widely regarded as the pioneers of Western neo-liberalism – but their frequent encounters did a lot to push for the popular idea that theirs was a particularly strong bond that stood out against the background of the Special Relationship, otherwise characterised by less enthusiastic partnerships between reluctant Presidents and Prime Ministers. Cameron understood the importance of maintaining an image of friendship, even ‘bromance’ between himself and President Obama, their casual, authentic affection to each other evident in their outings as spectators to college basketball games.
Although Cameron is recently reported to have thought lowly of Obama, with time this will likely be overshadowed by images of the two together, be it watching basketball or warning of the threats of Brexit, a collective reinforcement of their place in history as the last centrists. An idea as superficial as the ‘Special Relationship’, serving the sole purpose of convincing nostalgic Brits that the UK still has a political place in the world anywhere near as significant as that of the US, relies on images, events and anecdotes for its survival. But arguably, letting Trump’s visit go ahead, just for the sake of the protest going down as the largest in UK history, would have been more of a victory, more of a story. What’s so great about Trump having successfully dodged a bullet?
It is less about creating a story of rupture than it is about preventing another story of partnership from dominating the public view of the UK. The measure of success of the popular movement to protest Trump’s visit is subjective, and it is still early days. After all, the official response is still that the invitation to a state visit has been accepted, but delayed. But so far, reactions are promising – while very few people in the US are likely to care, the cancellation has angered the right kind of people back home, namely the aforementioned starry-eyed nostalgic Brit, like Boris Johnson or Nigel Farage – precisely the kind of person to which the notion of a special relationship actually matters. Their prompt angry responses illustrate their frustration that in a post-Brexit, supposedly global Britain, the President of the US, our strongest ally, may not like us.
Again, the idea of the Special Relationship exists to flatter Brits, so let us flatter ourselves not by welcoming the President to London and letting history sideline us into yet another simplified page of the story of the Special Relationship, but by rejecting Trump’s disgraceful rhetoric and policies and showing some independence, some political ability to stand up to such a widely hated man. If, as is the case, such an effort is non-existent in the government, then it must come from the people, as it has done, and will continue to do so.