Britain has a choice. Will it stand up to Trump? Can it afford to?
By Laurie Penny
Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May speaks during a joint press conference with President Donald Trump in the East Room of the White House on January 27th, 2017 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)
Britain and the United States have a lot in common. That’s partly because a lot of the same people hate us for a lot of the same reasons. Our two nations share so much more than just language, history, and religion; we share so many fascinating cultural pathologies too, all those post-colonial hypocrisies, all those lucrative military misadventures, all those creative ways of ruining food. The much-vaunted Anglo-American “special relationship” has never been more special than it is at this rolling moment of geopolitical crisis — and it has never been more toxic.
Last week, the British prime minister became the first world leader to visit the White House. She ended up holding hands with President Donald Trump, standing next to him at an official press conference as he declared Brexit “a blessing for the world,” as only someone who isn’t having to handle the fallout could. This week, demonstrations erupted around the United Kingdom protesting Trump’s ascension. Now our two messed-up nations are united in post-liberal panic, and Britain has a choice. Will we stand up to Trump? Can we afford to?
It’s a strange time to be British in America. I’m lucky, of course, in that being white and British is practically the only kind of foreign it’s acceptable to be over here at the moment. During the febrile inauguration period and ever since, everyone I meet, as soon as they clock the accent, wants to know how Brexit is going, as though seeking some sort of reassurance that what’s happening in America might be survivable too. Is it as bad as it sounds? Is our economy as screwed as they’ve heard? Have the hate crimes stopped? Are the winners satisfied? How is everyone holding up? The answers, respectively, are yes, yes, yes, no, no, and booze. I’m sorry. I’ve got nothing for you. Brexit is an omni-shambles, and it’s barely begun. It’s Theresa May’s job to lie to Americans about the benignity of their bad choices — don’t make it mine.
For the British, having to go cap-in-hand to the Americans is a blow to the very nationalist sentiment that Brexit was meant to be all about.
Brexit is a British symptom of the same disease that’s ravaging democracies across the world. Trump and his people are another, with their utter contempt for the rule of law, their brazen trampling over every check and balance in an effort to deliver precisely the xenophobic, misogynist, fundamentalist Christian kleptocracy they promised, due process be damned. Like those who led Brexit, Trump poses as a champion of the working man; in the U.S. it is now even more obvious that this working-class revolt was not a working-class victory, even in the short term — not for those about to lose their health care, their reproductive rights, or their freedom.
But the corporate-authoritarian takeover that is happening in the U.S. (and I really hate writing sentences like that, sentences that would be melodrama in any sane political universe) — it’s not like Brexit. Some of the catalysts are the same, of course: The millions of alienated voters who can measure the future only in terms of what they’ve lost. The fatal miscalculations of a prone political class with no progressive vision to offer. The manipulation of the electorate by unscrupulous racists claiming to speak for “the forgotten men and women” as they toast their own cleverness in elevators made of actual gold. The insistence that bigotry and hatred are the principal concerns of the working class. The shock of the result. The utter lack of any long-term plan. The ongoing panic over how many parts of democracy we might need to amputate to save the body, and whether it might be kinder to put that relatively young political experiment out of its misery.
For the British, though, having to go cap-in-hand to the Americans is a blow to the very nationalist sentiment that Brexit was meant to be all about. We voted to “take our country back,” not to flog it to Orange Ultron and his white-supremacist vultures in Washington. Theresa May is already paying the price for sucking up to Trump, as thousands of citizens took to the streets to demand that the prime minister stop lending this man the badly needed legitimacy of a major Western ally. We understand that they probably needed to talk. But why did she have to hold his hand?
The problem is that, post-Brexit, the prime minister doesn’t have a lot of other options. Nobody else wants to be our friend right now, and why would they? Britain has gone on a crazed tear of confused nationalism and argued itself out of one of the most functional political and economic unions in human history, shaking up the entire European political project in the process. The European Union is the closest thing international politics has to a loving family, in the true understanding of a family where everyone vaguely disapproves of everyone else and the embarrassing violence of the recent past is glossed over with a lot of talk about the proper shape of bananas. Britain has left that flawed but functional family in the false name of independence, only to fall at the feet of a tyrant-in-training.
The dangerous thing is that America gives us Brits what Europe never could — a sense of our own importance. Britain cares far more about what America thinks of it than America cares about Britain. This is because Britain has in no way recovered psychologically from its loss of imperial status in the world. America, especially under a Republican flag, is everything Britain dreams of being and lacks the courage and capacity to become again: a brash and unapologetic modern empire. The U.S. makes Britain feel small, weak, and inferior, and we cope with that resentment the way we always do, by coming over all superior, by telling ourselves that Americans are just so brash, so uncouth, so excessive, we could definitely still rule the world like that if we wanted to, but we’re too polite.
The “special” relationship between Britain and America is special in the way that a relationship between co-dependent alcoholics is special: We need one another to enable our worst habits, alienate our friends, and make excuses for each other in public.
So our leaders rush back, over and over again, to the hard, indifferent embrace of American expediency, forgetting that that’s been the quickest way in recent decades for a British politician to lose face in public. Tony Blair is still despised at home as George W. Bush’s “poodle” for propping up the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. In Britain, the defining mood of Bush and Blair years was embarrassment: shame that our leaders had rubber-stamped disastrous war in the Middle East; shame at Blair’s oily schmoozing; shame at how quickly New Labour was prepared to strip off its veil of morality and respect for the public good and dance for dollars.
In the current relationship, Theresa May is supposed to function as the ice cube in Trump’s boiling bucket of personality disorders. Whatever else the prime minister is, she is at least superficially sane. Unelected and unliked, she nonetheless has the look of a statesperson, albeit one scaffolded entirely from the bones of reanimated necro-Thatcherism and wrapped in a tasteful succession of slash-neck suits. I mention the suits because May’s wardrobe, a real and difficult domain to negotiate for any female politician, is more or less the only thing to admire about her: She may have stripped immigrants of civil rights and helped cripple Britain through austerity, but credit where it’s due — that woman can dress.
Do not underestimate the importance of style in international relations. Style, not substance, is what Britain has always had to offer the U.S., now more than ever — in the Anglo-American relationship, Britain offers the patina of respectability in retrograde policies, a pinch of panache that helps the hegemony go down. Smooth-looking Brits have already done a lot of damage in this dark season of American politics: Slick Breitbart provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos posed on the cover of Out magazine while whipping up Millennial support for “Daddy” Trump, and Alexander Nix, chief executive officer of dodgy electoral marketing megalith Cambridge Analytica, churned the fake news trough for Brexit and Trump while the world obsessed over his quaint accent and Saville Row suits. British pandering makes Americans feel better about their terrible life choices. That’s not the kind of friend you need in a crisis.
The trouble is that, right now, Britain is desperate for any sort of friend at all. Britain needs trade deals to replace the giant chunk of our exports that currently go to Europe tariff-free. I spoke to my local member of Parliament, Green Party leader Caroline Lucas, who has been leading the charge against British complicity with the new Trump regime. “Brexit means the prime minister is desperate for allies,” Lucas told me, breathlessly, on the phone before she took the stage in front of Monday’s rally of thousands outside Downing Street “so she rushes straight from holding hands with President Trump to doing a dirty arms deal with Turkey. I’m afraid that’s what we’re going to see more of in future. We need friends, but not at any price.”
May has lost a great deal of goodwill by pandering to Trump — and especially by offering him a state visit to the U.K. Most American presidents have to wait years before that invitation is extended, but May knows that a state visit, with its attendant pomp and circumstance, its audience with the Queen and stay at Buckingham Palace, is exactly the sort of thing that will please the fragile narcissist she now has to handle. Her electorate, however, remembers the humiliation of the Blair years all too well. Almost 1.5 million of us have signed a petition demanding that the invitation be rescinded, challenging our lawmakers not to legitimize the new American tyranny. “If he wants to come and have conversations with our politicians, that’s fine,” Lucas said, “but he should not be celebrated. The special relationship should not be a fawning and obsequious relationship. A special relationship worth its name would be one in which you could speak truth to your friend rather than being complicit with his racism and bigotry, which is what Theresa May is doing.”
It remains to be seen what price this bitter little island nation is prepared to pay for moral principle. Perhaps Brexit Britain cannot afford to isolate itself in the way that America seems determined to do. Perhaps Brexit Britain can’t afford not to hold hands with Trump.
Except that it can. Of course it can. Britain, as amply demonstrated by the slow-motion car-crash that is Brexit, can do whatever it pleases as long as we’re prepared to accept the consequences. Barely half the voting public decided last June that they were prepared to set fire to the economy if it meant they could stick a finger up at the political class and ship some foreigners back where they came from.
Clearly, we Brits are collectively capable of making foolhardy decisions in the name of ideals far shoddier than human decency. We do not have to board the Trump Train. May likes to think of herself as a modern Margaret Thatcher. Instead, she’s looking more like Neville Chamberlain every day.
Tomorrow, Parliament will vote on whether to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty and finally light the fuse of the bomb the Brexit vote set under the nation last year. But the world has changed since June. When the nation narrowly voted for Brexit, we were not choosing between maintaining our economic and political partnership with Europe and doing business with a patently unhinged, openly authoritarian despot. That is the choice before Britain now. We do not have to enable this man. We do not have to hold hands with this travesty. We do not have to choose complicity. If we do, history will not forget — and it will not forgive us.