Politicians and UK citizens alike raised their eyebrows when Theresa May, in her first press conference at Washington D.C. with Donald Trump, invited him to Britain for a state visit. The protests that shook the country during the past couple of weeks were not only addressed to the commonly called “muslim ban”, but also to this state visit, seen by many as outrageous.
Just as we thought the dust was settling on this topic, during Parliamentary discussions the Speaker of the House of Commons stated that he was “strongly opposed to an address of President Trump in Westminster Hall” and to the Royal Gallery as well. Speaker Bercow has been scolded like a schoolboy by the media, MPs and Cabinet members. He has been hysterically accused of overstepping his role of Speaker, breaching his duty to stay impartial, being hypocritical in his selective choice of people who were invited to address the Lords and the Commons and undermining the diplomatic strives of the PM to create strong diplomatic bonds.
Let’s stop this right here.
First of all, MPs and Cabinet Ministers like Crispin Blunt, who stated that the Speaker had overstepped the boundaries of his position in “banning” Trump from addressing Westminster Hall should start reading the rules of the game a little bit better. Those statements are simply plain wrong. It is in his very rights as Speaker to invite, accept or deny addresses from anyone in Westminster Hall. He didn’t, therefore, skirt the rules at all, nor defy his commitment to being neutral: it’s his job to do that. He didn’t have to call Theresa May to ask permission to do so, because he is the keeper of the House of Commons, not her.
The claims of hypocrisy in denying Mr Trump an address to the Lords and Commons is partially true. The Telegraph noted that in the past, he has accepted addresses to MPs from rather controversial leaders, such as China’s president Xi Jinping in 2015 or the Kuwait’s Sheikh in 2012. However, the although it is true that these visits happened, they were never addressed in Westminster Hall: only Charles De Gaulle, Nelson Mandela, Barack Obama, Aung San Suu Kyi and the Pope have been invited there in the last 50 years. An address in Westminster Hall by a foreign leader is extremely rare and as Bercow pointed out, “is not an automatic right but an earned honour” that the Speaker clearly thinks Trump is not worthy of. Given the outstanding record of the past visitors of Westminster Hall, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Bercow raised his eyebrows just to the idea of having Trump speaking about the legitimacy of the migrant ban, the dishonesty of the press, or the support for water-boarding in one of the most prestigious rooms of Britain. Regarding the address in the Royal Gallery, yes the argument made by the Telegraph is hard to fight against, since a great deal of controversial leaders addressed MPs in that room. However, as Stephen Bush pointed out it’s Bercow’s right as Speakerto turn him down.
Secondly, was he right in what he said? Did the Speaker, as Whittingdale stated to Sky News, “damage UK’s national interest”?
I really don’t think so.
Leaving aside the cringeworthy addresses to the MPs he allowed to happen in the Royal Gallery, the Commons Speaker gave a voice to a multitude of MPs (who were loudly cheering after his speech in the House) and all those people who are currently marching and rallying against Donald Trump in the streets of Britain. While Theresa May’s failure to condemn the migrant ban quickly enough created outrage within the population, Bercow’s refusal to let Trump into Westminster brought a light of hope. Whereas PM and POTUS giggle and hold hands together in Washington, dismissing and being complicit in violations of human rights and civil liberties, the Speaker’s call to hold on to the values that make our democracy great gives us a reason not to give up the fight. Where, in the name of “diplomacy”, the UK seems willing to get on its knees and bend to a bully who thinks his power has no limits, Bercow provided a symbolic stop.
This is majorly important to this debate: Bercow’s statement does not have much influence on the course of action. Donald Trump will not be blocked from entering the UK, he will simply not address MPs directly, which is what happens to the majority of foreign leaders coming into the UK anyway. He will simply find another venue. Is this a big deal? I don’t think so. The Commons Speaker will probably get the privilege of being attacked in a nasty Trump tweet, as did Hillary Clinton, the CIA, the press, the judiciary, Meryl Streep, and many others. Then the dust will settle and the world will keep spinning. But Bercow locked Westminster and took the keys away, “drew a line in the sand”, as Stephen Kinnock pointed out in defence of the Speaker, to remind the President and the British population that its Parliament will not bow to Donald Trump.