By Sarah Pridgeon
Every so often, something happens within the political sphere that is almost too surreal to be believed. In the case of a debate in the House of Commons last week, my two worlds collided in the strangest of ways.
A little background for you on the moment when British politicians intervened in the race for president. Last week, members of the House of Commons enjoyed a three-hour debate on the merits of one particular candidate, despite my country having nothing at all to do with the presidential campaign.
The UK Parliament has a nifty little system on its website whereby residents and citizens can create petitions directed at their politicians. It takes five signatures to create one that will then be published and periodically reviewed by the Petitions Committee.
Topics that are considered of interest are selected by this committee and passed on. At 10,000 signatures, petitioners get a response from the government; at 100,000 signatures, a petition will be considered for a debate in Parliament and will almost always be heard on the floor, unless it has already been talked about or there is a plan to do so in the near future.
Well, one of those petitions recently earned the accolade of garnering more signatures than any other that has ever been presented to Parliament. It called for the government to deny Donald Trump entry into the UK on the basis of his “unacceptable behavior”, such as hate speech and racist remarks, and in particular his claim that he will close America’s borders to Muslims.
“If the United Kingdom is to continue applying the ‘unacceptable behavior’ criteria to those who wish to enter its borders, it must be fairly applied to the rich as well as poor, and the weak as well as powerful,” says the petition.
At last check, it had 576,995 signatures.
I should probably mention that there was also a second petition to not ban Trump, which pointed out that my country has no business banning people for their opinions during a political race that is of no concern to us. Unfortunately, that petition only received 42,898 signatures and 30,000 of them had to be removed because they appeared to be coming from a single source.
Now, to begin with, asking the House of Commons to debate this issue is something of a moot point, because only the home secretary can actually make that decision. One could also consider it moot on the basis that poor Trump hadn’t even expressed a desire to visit.
But debate it they did, across the span of three bizarre hours, because not to do so would be to ignore the voices of half a million of their constituents. Trump, in response, threatened to pull his funding from a long list of UK golf courses.
It wasn’t easy for our poor MPs. On the one hand, the second most popular petition facing Parliament, not too far behind Trump’s own with over 450,000 signatures, demands that we close the UK borders until ISIS has been defeated. Clearly, there are plenty of people in Britain who are similarly concerned about the dangers of terrorist infiltration and don’t feel Trump’s remarks are too far out of the ballpark.
On the other hand, after some trepidation over the danger of offending the entire American nation, one politician pointed out that the topic does actually affect British citizens. If Trump is successful in banning all Muslims from entering the country, that includes a significant percentage of the Brits.
Most MPs were happy to enter the fray, still sore over Trump’s claims that there are “no-go areas” in London because gangs of Muslims roam the streets like packs of rabid dogs. I can personally assure you that, having lived in that city for a decade, I never encountered such a phenomenon.
It certainly upset the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, who commented that he would love to invite Trump to visit his multi-cultural melting pot of a city, only he wouldn’t want to expose Londoners to unnecessary Trump. Other comments reportedly annoyed the leader of the Labor Party, Jeremy Corbyn, whose wife is from Mexico.
The general consensus appeared to be that Trump is not too popular a figure among British politicians, who for the most part represent constituencies that feature a rainbow of faces and a range of religions.
“His policy to close borders, if he is elected president, is bonkers. And if he met one or two of my constituents in one of the many excellent pubs in my constituency, then they may well tell him that he is a wazzock,” said Victoria Atkins, MP for Louth and Horncastle.
Not everyone even agreed that banning Trump would be a good idea, however.
“I have heard of a number of cases in which people have been excluded for incitement or for hatred; I have never heard of someone being excluded for stupidity, and I am not sure that we should start now,” said one MP.
Another displayed a moment of pure Britishness when he questioned why it’s necessary to go so far as to ban the man from the country. Can’t we just mock him? He asked.
Largely because they had very little power to be making this decision in the first place, the House of Commons ultimately took no vote. It’s probably just as well because, as MP Kwazi Kwarteng pointed out, debating the issue in the first place was simply adding to Trump’s publicity drive.
Not to mention, he added, that Trump could very well win the election.
“And then we would be in the absurd situation of having banned the President of the United States,” he told the floor.
He had a point.