The polite overheard exchange, as the daylight waned over Parliament Square, could hardly have been any more stereotypically British.
“Ever so sorry, but is this the ‘anti-Brexit’ protest?”
“No, that’s over there; this one’s the ‘anti-Trump state visit’ demo.”
“Sorry to have bothered you.”
“Not at all.”
The display of understated good manners was, at best, anachronistic; a profile of British, or at least English, sensibilities that existed more in the imagination of a Wodehouse or an Austen than in the lives of real people who have to struggle to get by every day.
Ken Loach’s superb award-winning social-realist movie “I, Daniel Blake” gets closer to real life in the United Kingdom these days than “Downton Abbey.”
This is not a country at ease with itself, if it ever were. The United Kingdom continues to display more and more intolerance and anger. 2017 has not begun any better than 2016 ended; most people are on edge, bewildered and uncertain.
This is not a country at ease with itself, if it ever were. The United Kingdom continues to display more and more intolerance and anger.
If it was not quite clear what was happening in the streets and squares outside the Westminster Parliament, it probably was just as uncertain inside. On Feb. 20, the House of Commons was debating an online petition: “Prevent Donald Trump from making a State Visit to the United Kingdom.”
They had no choice but to hold the debate, though many members of Parliament would no doubt have preferred not to. According to the rules, 100,000 signatures are enough to oblige the House to at least consider debating the cited issue. Almost 1.9 million people signed the petition demanding that Mr. Trump’s state visit be reviewed.
At the same time, another Parliament debate responding to the 314,000 people who signed up to the opposing proposition that “Donald Trump should be invited to make an official State Visit because he is the leader of a free world and U.K. is a country that supports free speech and does not believe that people that appose [sic] our point of view should be gagged.”
The government’s official responses to each of these petitions were identical: “HM Government believes the President of the United States should be extended the full courtesy of a State Visit. We look forward to welcoming President Trump once dates and arrangements are finalised.”
Both debates ended without a vote; such debates would never directly influence a U.K. government’s diplomatic plans. But over the coming months, the polarizing debate over Mr. Trump’s official visit will smolder, as will the unfolding legal-political drama of Brexit and just what Brexit will mean for average Britains.
The House of Commons was debating an online petition: “Prevent Donald Trump from making a State Visit to the United Kingdom.”
On the same action-packed evening in another part of Parliament, the upper-chamber House of Lords reviewed legislation that would enable the government to instigate the much-heralded Article 50, Britain’s exit-visa from the European Community.
This debate only convened because a case had been brought to the U.K. Supreme Court, successfully arguing that the decision to depart the European Community had to be made by Parliament, not unilaterally undertaken by the Conservative government of Prime Minister Theresa May. Thus, we are about to see the formal launch of a process that should lead to a negotiated settlement and the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the community two years from now.
Or, it might not.
Signs are that European leaders are not going to be pushovers about the process. London wants to keep some of the benefits of E.U. membership, and their negotiating strategy reflects this ambition; Euro leaders are beginning to pour scorn on that plan, however. Imagine cancelling your membership to the health club then demanding that you should still be allowed to use the fitness suite—that’s how the British stance looks to at least some of those who remain, for now, our fellow-Europeans.
Meanwhile, recently released police figures reveal that hate-crimes across London rose 20 percent in the period after the Brexit vote—a spike reflected in other parts of England with a few areas showing increases of over 50 percent. Many fear even a small minority could use the Brexit vote to legitimize and normalize behavior that would be unacceptable in a society more at peace with itself.
To suggest that all “Leave” voters made that choice because of intolerance would be foolish, even fake news. After all, xenophobic hatred did not begin the day after the referendum. But certainly a few acts of it did.
The increase in reported hate-crimes could be a blessing in disguise—even as many fear a further increase of it, if and when the United Kingdom finally leaves Europe. Average Britons might become more aware of the problem and more ready to report it.
Well, most average Britons at least. Right on cue, here comes the new leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party, Paul Nuttall, to let us know that these officially recorded statistics on hate crimes were “fabricated” and “overblown” in order to deprecate Brexit.
It appears divisive, fact-free public discourse is gaining ground here in Britain. Expect more of this: Does it remind you of anyone who might be making a state visit to this unsettled land?