An online petition signed by 1.8 million Britishers has urged their government not to hold a state visit for the US president for his “well documented misogyny and vulgarity”. Anger over his policies seems to be growing
~By Sajeda Momin in London
Real-estate baron Donald Trump’s dream of staying at Buckingham Palace in London as a guest of Queen Elizabeth has been dashed, thanks to a newly constituted e-petition scheme. Over 1.8 million British citizens petitioned the UK government not to hold a state visit for President Trump as it would embarrass their beloved Queen who would have to host him. The petition cited Trump’s “well documented misogyny and vulgarity” as the reason which disqualified him from being received by either the 90-year-old Queen or Prince Charles, the heir to the British throne.
Worried by the depth of resentment shown by the huge number of petitioners as well as threats by a variety of civil activist groups to hold mammoth protests during Trump’s impending visit, he told British Prime Minister Theresa May that he would like to postpone his visit and save himself some embarrassment.
May, in her desperation to cosy up to the new US President, invited Trump on a state visit when she went to the US on January 27. Pictures of May walking out of the White House holding hands with Trump to announce the visit disgusted most Britons on this side of the Pond.
A state visit invitation is considered by the UK as a high honour that is not easily bestowed on heads of states. May’s quick invitation to a president who is reviled by many Britons offended the people’s sensibilities. Most of the media criticised May’s hasty step and protests were held across the country. Lindsey German, speaking on behalf of the “Stand Up to Trump” movement, threatened that the protests during Trump’s visit would be even bigger than the three lakh people who came out to demonstrate against George W Bush’s visit to the UK in 2003.
On February 20, a packed House of Commons held a three-hour-long passionate debate on the e-petitions, with MPs queuing up to pour scorn on a “sexist and racist” Trump and urging May to withdraw her invitation
Though no official date had been announced for the visit, it was rumoured that it would take place sometime in June this year. The controversy around Trump’s visit continued to mount with him making one bad decision after another with no signs of a change of heart. Finally, at the beginning of March, the news of the visit being postponed was leaked to the British press.
A senior government source told The Sun newspaper: “Trump still really wants to come this year but he wants the heat to die down a bit first. The White House don’t want to create a scene for our sake either.” Apparently, a fresh date in October has been pencilled in to both leaders’ diaries, but it is quite possible that the dates may change again depending on the situation.
The heat that finally burnt Trump’s visit was from the debate in the House of Commons that was the result of an e-petition by a member of the public. Previously citizens could only petition parliament by expressing their concerns to a Member of Parliament and hope that he or she would represent it to the House. This public paper petition only needed to be signed by one petitioner. However, its fate was left to the discretion of MPs and whether they thought it important enough to table in the House.
In July 2015, a new e-petition system under the guidance of a Commons Select Committee was started, making it easier for members of the public to lobby the House of Commons and press for action from the government. Any British citizen and UK resident can start an e-petition on the parliament website on an issue which they would like to bring to the government’s attention. Once it has garnered five signatures, it is established as an e-petition which will remain open for six months for more signatures.
The House of Commons Speaker, John Bercow, has added fuel to the fire by declaring that he would not invite Trump to speak at Westminster because of the British parliament’s long-held opposition “to racism and to sexism”. Bercow, a Conservative Party MP, pointed out that the opportunity to speak in the prestigious Westminster Hall during a state visit “is not an automatic right, it is an earned honour”.
If the petition manages 10,000 signatories, then it will definitely get a response from the government. However, if signatures cross the one lakh threshold, then a debate in parliament becomes mandatory. A Petitions Committee has been set up by the House of Commons comprising 11 backbench MPs from the government and opposition parties, representative of their strength in the House. This Committee reviews petitions, selects those of interest even if they have not got 10,000 signatures and finds out more about the issues raised. The Committee has the power to press for action from the government or parliament.
Of the more than 28,000 e-petitions started so far, 18,731 have been rejected by the Petitions Committee because they were either frivolous or did not meet stated criteria. From the rest, 419 have received a reply from the government and only 52 have been debated in the House of Commons.
At 18,62,002 signatures so far and counting—it’s open till May 29, 2017—the “Prevent Donald Trump from making a State Visit to the UK” petition has garnered the second highest number of signatures for any e-petition. At one point, the petition was being signed by more than a thousand people a minute, and quickly reached the one lakh magic figure needed for a debate in parliament.
Last year’s petition calling for a second European Union Referendum following the Brexit vote was the largest parliamentary petition on record. It was signed by four million people. A rival petition demanding that “Trump should be invited to make an official State
Visit because he is the leader of a free world” managed to get just over three lakh signatories.
On February 20, a packed House of Commons held a three-hour-long passionate debate on the e-petitions, with MPs queuing up to pour scorn on a “sexist and racist” Trump and urging May to withdraw her invitation. Paul Flynn of the Labour Party—who started the debate because he is on the Petitions Committee –pointed out that only two US presidents had been accorded a state visit to Britain during Queen Elizabeth’s 65-year-long reign (George W Bush in 2003 and Barack Obama in 2011) – and it was “completely unprecedented that Trump had been issued his invite within seven days of his presidency”.
As the MPs debated inside the House, thousands of demonstrators descended on Parliament Square outside chanting and waving placards reading “no to racism; no to Trump”. He was called a “bully and a bigot” by MPs who condemned Trump’s travel ban on Muslims and migrants. Jeremy Corbyn, Leader of the Opposition, demanded the visit be postponed, arguing that “Trump should not be welcomed to Britian while he abuses our shared values with his shameful Muslim ban and attacks on refugees’ and women’s rights”.
The House of Commons Speaker, John Bercow, added fuel to the fire by declaring that he would not invite Trump to speak at Westminster because of the British parliament’s long-held opposition “to racism and to sexism”. Bercow, a Conservative Party MP, pointed out that the opportunity to speak in the prestigious Westminster Hall during a state visit “is not an automatic right, it is an earned honour”.
Sarah Wollaston, another Tory MP, argued that Westminster Hall ought to be reserved for leaders who had made a lasting and positive difference to the world and “that does not include Mr Trump”. British state visits do not always include an invitation to address parliament.
Westminster Hall tends to be limited to coveted guests like the Pope, Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama. Other world leaders who wish to address parliamentarians are allowed to use a second smaller room called the Royal Gallery. This is where Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave a speech on his much-touted trip to the UK in 2015.
There are no plans at the moment on the part of Downing Street to give into public sentiment and retract the controversial invitation as that would be really embarrassing. However, the decision by the White House to postpone a visit that the President would have cherished is evidence that Trump is feeling bruised by the flak he has got from British MPs and ordinary people in the UK.
As usual, Buckingham Palace has maintained a dignified silence throughout the controversy. However, privately the royal family must be heaving a sigh of relief at the postponement. Trump and Prince Charles do not see eye-to-eye on climate change, compassion for refugees, populism and persecution of minority faiths. Charles’ two sons, Princes William and Harry, may not be too keen either to meet a man who claimed in a radio interview just a few days after their mother’s death that he could have had sex with Diana. And worst of all, imagine the Duchess of Cambridge’s anger at having to show respect to the man who had tweeted this about her: “Who would not take Kate’s picture and make lots of money if she does the nude sunbathing thing.”
The petition is right—a Trump state visit will embarrass the Queen, personally.