Why President Trump should and must be this country's honoured guest
PUBLISHED: 16:21 18 December 2017 | UPDATED: 09:28 20 December 2017
Michael Cole, the BBC’s former Royal Correspondent, explains why the State visit by President Trump will go ahead despite protests.
So, Donald Trump says he will come to London to officially open the new American Embassy in February.
Why wouldn’t he? It’s the biggest, most expensive and best-protected piece of American real estate anywhere outside the United States.
It will be an Official Visit not a State Visit, with the full-blown ceremonial significance including a meeting with the Queen.
The protesters who don’t want him to come at all will be out in force. They are the sort of people who as children threw a tantrum because they could not get their way.
They won’t win this one. The visit will go ahead and it would be an utter disgrace to this country if the Head of State of our most important ally were not able to visit this country in safety.
The State Visit will happen too, in due course. These usually happen during a President’s second four-year term. Though Jimmy Carter made a memorable Official Visit, he and his wife never enjoyed the carriage ride through the streets of London with the Queen and her Household Cavalry.
Such meetings between heads of State are important well beyond the pomp, pageantry and pleasantries at a State Banquet. They help to maintain good relations between nations, all the better for this country’s interests and international equilibrium.
That said, it must be admitted that things could have been better handled by the Prime Minister. So eager was Mrs May to be first through the door of the White House to meet the new President back in January that she allowed herself to be bounced into extending the invitation for a State Visit that took everyone by surprise, especially Buckingham Palace.
Such invitations are extended by one Head of State to another. It’s the Queen’s prerogative. Mrs May, just six months into the job, should have allowed herself to be guided by the courtiers who have rather more experience of these things than a green and occasionally awkward Prime Minister. After all, they have been arranging State Visits for the House of Windsor ever since it was created 100 years ago by the Queen’s grandfather, King George V.
I am certain that, newly in office with a big agenda for his First Hundred days, Donald J Trump had other things on his mind that day than making a State Visit to the United Kingdom. But, being polite and seeing advantage to be had in the ultimate “Photo Op”, he accepted the invitation, as he might have accepted in his earlier existence the opportunity to chair the judges of the “Miss Universe” contest.
The synthetic outrage was immediate and has continued intermittently since. It’s comic that British politicians who have never been famous for their devotion to the Crown are suddenly worrying about the Queen, publicly questioning whether she should be required to entertain a man whose questionable conduct and language have not disbarred him from being the democratically elected Leader of the Free World. And with the economy looking good in America, a second term for Trump looks more likely.
Meeting President Trump will be one of the least unpleasant things the Queen has ever been asked to do by her Prime Ministers. During nearly two-thirds of a century on the throne, she has been required to meet and smile at a whole host of odious people, including the tyrannical despot Robert Mugabe, only lately removed from power in suffering Zimbabwe.
The Queen has had to play nice with Archbishop Makarios of Cyprus, soon after he ceased to be deemed so dangerous that he had to be detained on an island in the Indian Ocean, and the late Martin McGuinness, the butcher’s boy who became the leader of the IRA in Londonderry but was subsequently reincarnated as a Man of Peace and deputy leader of the Northern Ireland government, now inoperative.
As for State Visits, what could have been more uncomfortable for the Queen than riding down the Mall next to President Nicolae Ceausescu of Romania, a dictator unmatched in megalomania even within the Soviet Empire?
The Queen was encouraged to give the tyrant one of her black Labrador gun dogs from the Sandringham kennels. When Ceausescu and his equally appalling wife Elena were executed by firing squad on Christmas Day 1989, the major concern over the Norfolk turkey at Sandringham House was for the dog; sadly, its fate remains unknown.
I was in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in 1986 when the Queen, in tiara and Garter sash, had to make a speech of friendship to the Mao-suited Chinese oligarchy, the very men who her own son Prince Charles later described as “ghastly old waxworks”. To add to the Queen’s burden, she was then required to eat “Sea Slug” for dinner.
State Visits at key moments in this country’s history have had significance far beyond any ceremonial purpose, such is the power of personal relationships to transcend mere politics.
The visit of King George V1 and Queen Elizabeth to the United States shortly before the Second World War did more to win President Franklin D Roosevelt to the cause of Britain than anything a British politician of that era could have said or done.
The way the royal couple fitted in at the White House and the President’s private residence, Hyde Park, on the Hudson River forged bonds far more valuable to this country than even the 50 US destroyers that FDR released to us as the first instalment of American “Lend Lease” war materiel.
That triumph followed the royal couple’s State Visit to France when the Queen, in an entirely white wardrobe, wowed the hard-to-please Parisians. Her mother had died shortly before but rather than call if off, or dress completely in black, the Queen let it be known that white was a traditional and therefore acceptable colour for mourning. With war looming, that royal visit cemented the Entente Cordiale originally established by King Edward VII in 1904 when he told a French actress that she was as beautiful as France itself.
Personal contacts matter, in politics as in life. Trump’s State Visit will go ahead. An invitation made in good faith has been accepted in good faith. We have too much in common for it not to.
Since British Redcoats burned down the White House in 1812, Britain and America have marched together for the past two centuries, give or take the occasional bump in the road. It is important for this country and to President Trump that he should be the 13th American President she has met and welcomed.
A former Press Secretary to the Queen once told me that 50% of Her Majesty’s job was to be seen. She herself jokes that she has to be seen to be believed. Yes, a Trump visit will present security problems. But we have lived with these since the first IRA bombs in Britain in the early 1970s. A carriage ride through London may well be ruled out as too dangerous.
No problem: when President Nicholas Sarkozy of France and his glamorous wife Carla Bruni paid their State Visit, the ceremonial proceedings were handled perfectly nicely within the battlements of Windsor Castle.
People who imagine that their personal righteousness has ever helped a single person, will be out in strength to demonstrate against President Trump in February, ignoring that this country has much to gain by strengthening its ties to America, particularly in our precarious post-Brexit existence.
Instead of shouting, the haters of America and Britain, who never have a good word to say for two nations that have helped to mould the modern world, ought to ask themselves why so many people from all over the world want to get into our two countries. An occasional word of praise might be more effective than the constant cacophony of accusation and criticism.
As for the Queen, she has seen and heard it all before. And she will have at least one thing in common with her American visitor: they both had much-loved and greatly-missed Scottish mothers.