If Britain is serious in its outrage about Trump’s far-right tweets, it should consider why it gleefully exploded its special relationship with the EU.
By Kit Holden
Have Lady Luck and Donald Trump just saved Theresa May? Just as the rather nasty question of the Brexit Bill – and the even nastier question of the Irish border – had begun to flare up again, POTUS appeared with a well-timed opportunity to look stateswomanlike.
To recap: this week, as the Financial Times rather wearily put it, “the UK at last accepted that it must pay its dues to Europe.” Until this point, Britain’s attitude to its financial obligations, and indeed to Brexit as a whole, had been of the General Melchett school. “If nothing else works,” Stephen Fry once boomed, “a total pig-headed unwillingness to look facts in the face will see us through.”
Melchettism, sadly, is the only approach available to May, a politician forced to straddle utterly opposing interpretations of reality in order to stay in power. The problem, of course, is that real, actual, reality reality was always going to catch up. Hence the noises from Brussels this week that the UK had finally conceded a “Brexit bill” of around €55bn.
Spared by an early Christmas Miracle
Under normal circumstances, that would have been cause for certain media outlets to tear May to shreds, which is exactly why she and others in the UK government hastened to confirm that they had not agreed to any final figure.
As it turned out, May and co. were in any case spared by an early Christmas Miracle, or rather by a Donald Trump retweeting a host of unsubstantiated videos about Muslims from far-right, fascist group Britain First. Cue a spat carried out both in the real and virtual world, in which May stated that she was “not afraid” to criticise Trump.
Suitably distracted from the boring nastiness of Brexit, the British press have spent the last day or two lauding May for her Churchillian defiance of a tyrant. The Telegraph praised a “stinging rebuke”, while the Mail compared her to a fictional character played by Hugh Grant. Piers Morgan even went as far as to say that Donald Trump, the man who is literally trying to stop Muslims from entering his country, might be an Islamophobe.
Inspiring as it is to know that the UK prime minister is still capable of condemning actual fascism – and it is genuinely heartening to see Trump’s state visit repeatedly kicked into the long grass for fear of mass protests – the whole saga does cast a rather depressing light on Britain’s current moral confusion.
Legal and moral obligations
It is good and right that those across the political spectrum and Brexit divide have been outraged by Trump’s retweets. But it is worth remembering that the hard Brexiters were for a long time convinced that a special relationship with the very same Donald would allow them to emerge from Brexit unscathed. They count among their number the Tory MP who, without giggling, told the BBC that the value of the Brexit bill would be much lower, “if we were to put aside our legal and moral obligations.” Now, when faced with a genuine moral question, they find that their special relationship might not be worth the imaginary paper it’s written on.
When the President retweets a fascist, it becomes painfully clear that you cannot simply put aside moral obligations. The widespread outrage highlights that Britain’s moral compass is more closely aligned with that of the European Project than with Trump’s nihilism.
Wasn’t the point to stop fascist ideas?
As it turns out, it may not be the vindictive EU who are, in Philip Hammond’s words, “the enemy”. As evil deeds go, requesting that Britain pay its dues rather pales into insignificance when compared with endorsing fascism.
Some hard Brexiters would do well to admit that as the questions of Ireland and the Brexit Bill resurface over the weekend. On Monday, May is set to lunch with Jean-Claude Juncker in what Bloomberg claims will be a “make or break” moment for Brexit. The bill will have to be finally agreed, and the long discussions over the Irish border may finally begin in earnest.
So if Britain is genuinely serious in its outrage, it should perhaps consider why it so gleefully exploded its special relationship with the European Project. After all, wasn’t the whole damn point of the thing to stop fascist ideas from resurfacing? Isn’t “united in diversity” pretty much exactly the opposite of what Trump and Britain First aim to make us? Brexit or not, Britain is more European than it thinks.
Now, ahead of that crunch lunch on Monday, might be a good time to grow up and admit as much. If not for our own sake, then at least for Ireland’s.
Kit Holden is a British journalist based in Berlin.
Photos: Jule Halsinger; Pixabay