Trump in Britain – Protests all the Way

Richard Abernethy

Summary: Trump’s (un)diplomatic visit: uncertain relations between the United States, the United Kingdom and the European Union: and the biggest protests against a foreign leader in British history – Editors.

Donald Trump flew into London from a NATO summit in Brussels, dined at Blenheim Palace with government ministers and business leaders, held talks with Theresa May at her country residence Chequers, took tea with the Queen at Windsor Castle, played golf at Turnberry (the golf course that he owns in Scotland), then went on to Helsinki for a summit with Vladimir Putin. The whole visit was carefully planned to keep him out of sight and sound of tens of thousands of people who came out to protest against him.

For Theresa May and British capitalism, this was an important but risky diplomatic encounter. For the United Kingdom, this is a time of instability and uncertainty both in international relations and domestic politics. Brexit – Britain’s departure from the European Union – is due in March 2019 (with a two-year transition period to follow). To date, seemingly endless negotiations have produced no clear picture of how commerce is going to work between the UK and EU. The issue is fiercely contested within May’s Conservative Party. Days before Trump’s arrival, two cabinet ministers from the right-nationalist wing of the party – David Davies and Boris Johnson – resigned in protest at what they perceived as May’s inclination towards a “soft Brexit”, one that would retain a significant degree of economic integration with the EU. Britain’s commercial relations with the United States are looking no less uncertain, due to Trump’s ideology of “America First” and tariff protection of U.S. industry. All this at a time of heightened tension between Britain and Russia over the Salisbury novichok poisoning.

A trade deal with the United States is therefore a high priority for the British government. The difficulty is that May and Trump represent not only different national-capitalist interests, but differing ideological strands within capitalism, mainstream centre-right conservatism versus authoritarian nationalism.

In a provocative interview with The Sun newspaper, Trump spoke of “turmoil” in Britain, said he had given advice to May on how to handle Brexit but that she had taken an opposite course, declared that Boris Johnson would make a great prime minister, and claimed that immigration was ruining Europe.

By the end of the trip, Trump was somewhat more conciliatory, heaping lavish praise on May, describing the U.S-U.K. relationship as “the highest level of special”, and appeared open to a trade deal after all.

Behind the protocol and pageantry, alliances and rivalries between the major capitalist states are being juggled in unpredictable ways. Just afterwards, Trump described the European Union as a “foe”.

Asked by a television reporter why she had joined an anti-Trump demonstration, one protester responded “He’s so ludicrously, impossibly awful”. There are so many reasons to oppose Trump that, on the spot, it may be difficult to know where to begin. The first notice of the protests that landed in my inbox came from Freedom from Torture, an organisation that offers care and support for torture survivors who seek refuge in Britain. The message noted that, during his election campaign, Trump said he wants to bring back waterboarding “and a hell of a lot worse”, and that Trump has installed a new CIA director, Gina Haspel, who is accused of torturing detainees in Thailand, and destroying the videotapes afterwards.

Britain’s own intelligence agencies have been found complicit in the use of torture by the CIA – by preparing questions for interrogators, rendition of prisoners to countries where they faced torture, and keeping silent when they knew torture was happening.

The visit just happened to coincide with Britain’s longest heat wave since 1976, as if to remind us of Trump’s denial of climate change caused by carbon emissions, and support for burning fossil fuels.

Much anger was expressed against the forced separation of parents and children at the U.S.-Mexican border, and the holding of children in cages. Britain too has had its Windrush Scandal, in which Black people from the West Indies who have lived in Britain since the 1950s and 60s were denied the right to work or receive benefits, threatened with deportation, denied re-entry into the country and in some cases actually deported, because they had not kept the documents from long ago. This happened under a policy, introduced by May in her previous post as Home Secretary, of creating a “hostile environment” for illegal immigrants (which turned out to extend to legal ones, too).

On 12 July, the first evening of the visit, about 3,000 people gathered in protest outside Blenheim Palace. The following day saw a demonstration outside Windsor Castle, and two big marches in London: a women’s march, with the clanging of kitchen pots and pans, Latin American style; and a general march. “Baby Trump”, a 6-metre high floating balloon caricature of the president, got a lot of attention and became the symbol of the protests. Several replicas have been ordered for the United States and are likely to become a feature of protests there too. In Scotland, there were demonstrations in Glasgow (two days running), Edinburgh and Dundee. At Turnberry, Trump finally came in sight of a small group of protesters as he played a round of golf. The protests were impressively big and were held in a carnival mood. In other towns and cities including Manchester and Newcastle, crowds also came out to proclaim “Donald Trump not welcome here”. Apparently, this was the largest protest against any foreign leader in the history of the country.

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