The Britishness of Not Banning Trump
Parliament's little-attended debate over banning the inflammatory Republican front-runner shows the country has a more fitting way to deal with The Donald — ridicule.
LONDON — In a small, pea-soup-colored committee room in the British House of Commons on Monday, MPs spent three hours calling Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump a “buffoon,” an “idiot,” and, most British of all, a “wazzock.” The volley of insults was not without purpose: As the MPs traded turns weighing Trump’s demerits, they were charged with debating whether he had engaged in hate speech and thus should be lawfully banned from entering the country under the 2006 Racial and Religious Hatred Act. While the 30 or so assembled lawmakers could agree on Trump’s apparent daftness, whether or not the wazzock is a danger to Britain was more contentious.
According to the more than half-million British citizens who signed an online petition to ban The Donald from entering their country, he is. Spurred by Trump’s call for all Muslims to be barred from entering the United States, the logic (or joke, perhaps) behind the initiative seemed to be: “Trump wants to ban an entire religion from entering his country, so let’s ban an entire him from entering ours.” The feelings of those who signed the petition and argued in favor of banning Trump, in the lead-up to the debate, were encapsulated by Scottish National Party MP Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh, who said, in an emotive speech, “[Trump is] talking about me; he’s talking about my family, my children.” According to House of Commons procedure, a petition with more than 100,000 signatories must be considered for debate in Parliament.
Just before 5 p.m., Labour Party MP Paul Flynn opened the debate in a sparsely populated committee room. Flynn’s opening remarks were balanced, measured, and delivered in the atmosphere of a British courtroom. “The great difficulty that we’re in is, in showing disrespect for Mr. Trump, it might well be interpreted by supporters and others in America as showing disrespect to the American nation,” Flynn said, perhaps a bit blandly. But there were other dangers, too: While the petition leading to the debate attained more signatures than any other petition of its kind, a ban from entering the U.K. could serve as a perverse blessing for Trump. “The great danger by attacking this one man is that we can fix on him a halo of victimhood,” Flynn said, thereby making him a martyr to his small-minded cause.
The second speaker — and first to argue in favor of the ban — was another Labour MP, the young, tenacious representative from Hampstead and Kilburn, Tulip Siddiq. Trump’s “poisonous” words, she said, “risk inflaming tension between vulnerable communities.” This is ultimately a debate about when and where a line should be drawn when it comes to free speech, and for Siddiq, that line should be drawn somewhere before Trump’s condemnation of the world’s entire Muslim population.
The Scottish National Party’s Anne McLaughlin apologized for Trump, who has Scottish ancestry, on behalf of Scotland. McLaughlin challenged those opposed to the ban to point out the differences between Trump’s hateful views and those expressed by others, Muslim preachers in particular, who have already been banned from the U.K. for inciting racial and religious hatred.
Not all Trump’s critics wanted to see him barred from Britain’s shores. Trump’s comments earned him quite a few invitations from those British MPs to have a look around their various multicultural constituencies and see for himself just how damaging his ultraconservative, xenophobic worldview is. Naz Shah, the Labour MP for Bradford West (a constituency in northern England with a particularly large Muslim population) and a Muslim herself, offered to take Trump out for a curry. Shah compares Trump to the “demagogue” George Galloway (the British left’s very own Trump-esque figure, if that’s something you can imagine), who she replaced as MP for Bradford West last year. “I will not allow the rhetoric of badness into my life,” said Shah. “What I will do is challenge that with goodness.”
A few speakers opposed the ban because of an aversion to line-drawing in general. They mentioned the growing trend in British universities for “no platforming” those deemed overly offensive, in order to create “safe spaces” for the minorities most likely to be offended. “Buffoonery,” said Conservative Party MP Alex Chalk, using a word that came up a lot, “must not be met with the blunt instrument of a ban. It must be met with the classic British response of ridicule.”
Only one speaker actually came close to actively defending Trump: Conservative Philip Davies, who spoke halfway through, pitched his opposition to the ban as solidarity with a fellow crusader against political correctness. Although he was sure to note that he also disagreed with Trump, Davies said that “as a Yorkshireman” — the British equivalent of being a Texan — he admired Trump’s knack for straight talk. Furthermore, Davies pointed out, banning a potential president from the U.K. would be “by anyone’s standards, a rather big thing.”
The Scottish National Party’s Corri Wilson deviated from her party’s pro-ban line, warning — in the tone of a particularly doom-mongering Gaelic soothsayer — that a ban on Trump would be a disaster for her constituents surrounding the now Trump-owned Turnberry golf course. If it closed, she said, it would be “catastrophic for the resort and the local community.”
It’s important to understand that the entire debate was a matter of parliamentary procedure rather than a genuine threat to Trump’s travel plans. As Prime Minister David Cameron said in December that he opposed the ban on Trump, and there was never a plan to put anything to a vote, the MPs gathered in this gloomy little chamber to hold a debate purely so it can be said to have happened. If there were any lingering questions about the debate’s importance, the notable lack of cabinet or shadow cabinet ministers at the event clearly showed that neither the government nor the opposition had any true interest in banning Trump.
But if there was no real possibility of banning Trump, why did MPs choose to debate it? Some will have wanted to show solidarity with their Muslim constituents. All, perhaps, wanted to register their personal disgust at Trump’s comments.
Would the assembled collection of lawmakers have banned Trump, were they given the power to? Probably not. The point, made again and again in the debate, is that free speech is so much at the core of British political values that banning Trump for his own would-be ban would be hypocritical. What became clear as the debate dragged on, however, is just how much of an oddity Trump is to even some of the most socially conservative British politicians. In the words of Democratic Unionist Party MP Gavin Robinson — a member of one of the country’s most conservative parties — Trump is a “ridiculous xenophobe.” One absolute certainty is that, across the board in mainstream British politics, Donald J. Trump’s “ridiculousness,” or “idiocy,” or “wazzock-ary,” is not up for debate.
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