What is the British public to make of the rise of Donald Trump? It presents them with a conundrum. Trump prophesied that the presidential election would be “Brexit times ten”. He interpreted Britain’s EU referendum surprise as presaging his own triumph, and it sounded like a compliment to the UK. Indeed, after that referendum he said that the US would pursue new trade deals, and Britain would be head of the line. All this would seem to hint at friendliness from a future Trump administration.
British commentators sometimes wonder if there is a “special relationship” between the United Kingdom and the United States. The relationship is said to arise from a common language and the shared values of democracy. In the last few years, this has given rise to talk of an “Anglosphere”, a loose network of English-speaking nations that quietly co-operate with one another. This enthusiasm mostly emerges from the British side, however, and the truth is that as a world power, the United States has many special relationships, some more useful than others.
Any special relationship with Britain dwindled under President Obama. The bust of Winston Churchill was banished from the Oval Office, and American foreign policy pivoted towards the Pacific. With the election of Trump, some in Britain are wondering if there will now be an improved relationship between the two countries. Prime Minister Theresa May’s message of congratulation to him was unstinting, in contrast to the cool caveats in the message from Germany’s Angela Merkel.
Yet it will be difficult for the British public to warm to Trump. The middle class culture which prevails in England shrinks from self-publicity. It is regarded as bad form. If you must talk about your achievements, then you do so in understatement laced with irony. The sharp-minded Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, is a man of many achievements, including two terms as Conservative Mayor of left-leaning London, but he takes care to present a bumbling image.
Trump should do better in Scotland, as his mother was Scottish. She came from the Isle of Lewis and reportedly could speak Gaelic. But in Scotland, Trump’s reputation was sullied by controversies over his development of a luxury golf course in Aberdeenshire. He clashed with local landowners and environmentalists. Things did not improve when he bought a second, historic golf course and criticized what he considered to be a Scottish obsession with ugly offshore windfarms. There were angry exchanges with Alex Salmond, one of Scotland’s leading politicians, with Trump calling him possibly “the dumbest leader of the free world” and “an embarrassment to Scotland”.
Uneasiness with Trump may have led to a petition in January of this year asking for Trump’s exclusion from the UK. It gathered 574,000 signatures and was debated in the House of Commons. Scottish Nationalist MPs were among those supporting the move. One Labour MP called Trump “a poisonous, corrosive man”. Other MPs agreed with Home Office Minister James Brokenshire, who reminded members that the US was the UK’s most important bilateral ally and the UK should “engage” with presidential candidates even when disagreeing with them. No vote was taken as the House did not have the power to exclude, and the event was widely regarded as political theatre.
All this seems a far cry from the stratosphere of politics. Western European leaders must have noticed, for example, Trump’s coolness towards NATO’s central principle of mutual defence. His intentions in this respect (if he knows them himself) will have far-reaching consequences. Yet his election showed us a new twist to the slogan “the personal is the political”. For the good of Europe, perhaps the Scots should be inventing a new tartan for the man and harvesting those personal links. As for Britain as a whole, it can always roll out its heavy weapon: an invitation to stay at Buckingham Palace.
Terry Tastard, PhD, is pastor of a Catholic parish in London. He has an article about South Africa in the forthcoming print edition of Providence.
Photo Credit: Prime Minister Theresa May held a Cabinet meeting on 31 August 2016 at Chequers, the Prime Minister’s official country retreat. By Tom Evans for the Crown, via Flickr.