‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.”
Thus Charles Dickens begins A Tale of Two Cities. Would that the greatest of all novelists could return to us for a week! For it would take Dickens in his prime to do full justice to Donald Trump’s impending state visit to the UK.
At its best, a state visit to this country dazzles the foreign head of state. Not much dazzles Trump, apart from his own very stable genius, but being greeted by the Queen tomorrow should come close. She has, after all, reigned since Trump was five years old. She has been receiving US presidents since Dwight Eisenhower.
The best of state visits are also solemn. The president and the first lady will go to Westminster Abbey to lay a wreath at the tomb of the Unknown Warrior. The Trumps will also attend events to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings, arguably the greatest of all Anglo-American undertakings. Trump is not noted for his solemnity, but even he should be moved by these sites of commemoration.
Yet this seems certain also to be the worst of state visits. For Tuesday, the Stop Trump group has promised “a diverse carnival of resistance”, at which it will doubtless chant childishly: “Say it loud, say it clear, Donald Trump’s not welcome here!” Up to a quarter of a million people are expected to participate in anti-Trump protests in London and elsewhere. If permission is given, the 20ft-tall inflatable “Trump baby” will hover over Trafalgar Square.
Conspicuous by their absence from the festivities will be Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the opposition, and the US-born Duchess of Sussex, née Meghan Markle — perhaps because she is still on maternity leave; perhaps (or so the Daily Express speculated) because she has previously described the president as “misogynistic” and “divisive”.
On his state visit in 2011, Barack Obama addressed the two houses of parliament at Westminster Hall. No such honour will be bestowed on his successor. John Bercow, the Speaker of the House of Commons, said in Washington last week that “nothing has happened since” 2017 — when he opposed inviting Trump to address parliament — to change his mind about the president’s “racism” and “sexism”. A carriage ride to Buckingham Palace was deemed appropriate for China’s president, Xi Jinping, in 2015. There will be no gold coach for Donny from Queens.
For his part, Trump can be depended on to fuel the flames of British condescension. The hapless Theresa May will not be enjoying the president’s interviews this weekend, in which he repeats his criticism of her handling of Brexit and his praise of her rivals Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage.
Trump’s latest advice is a startling intervention in British politics. He backs the “excellent” Johnson to succeed May, urges him to threaten Brussels with either litigation or the non-payment of Britain’s EU dues, and recommends that he “walk away” if he doesn’t secure concessions. In short, Trump wants a no-deal Brexit.
On the whole, I expect the reception we give Trump will be authentically Dickensian, in the sense that Dickens personified English anti-Americanism. When he visited the United States in 1842, Dickens was scathing, as readers of his American Notes and Martin Chuzzlewit will recall. (He especially loathed the US habit of chewing tobacco and spitting, which he found “anything but agreeable, and . . . most offensive and sickening”.)
The British habit of looking down on American vulgarity has a long history. As Andrew Roberts shows in his magnificent biography of Sir Winston Churchill, even our greatest prime minister had a period of, at best, ambivalence about the land of his mother’s birth. Yet I would urge readers to take a long, hard look in the mirror before joining in the anti-Trump clamour.
For a start, let’s reflect on the catastrophic mess British politics has become. So badly have the Tories bungled Brexit that they are now staring electoral disaster in the face. Thrashed in the local elections, annihilated in the European elections, they now live in mortal dread of a general election. A YouGov poll last week put the Liberal Democrats and the Brexit Party ahead of the Conservatives. If an election were held today, more than 200 Tory MPs would lose their seats.
Even among Americans, Trump is not a popular leader, it is true. Many Republicans privately worry about their party’s future when they see how he polls with younger voters. Compared with the Tories, however, the Republican Party is in rude health.
Whoever succeeds May as Tory leader and prime minister — and I would not bet the house on it being Trump’s buddy Boris — will find themselves in exactly the same predicament as her. With too few votes to pass the existing withdrawal agreement, but no majority in the Commons for a no-deal Brexit, the new prime minister will soon find there is no renegotiation on offer in Brussels and no chance of a further extension beyond October without either an election or another referendum.
The country seems to be sleepwalking towards a Corbyn-led coalition of Labour, the Lib Dems and the Scottish National Party, with the prospect of not one but two more referendums — one that may well undo Brexit, another north of the border that might just undo the Union. You may be tempted to sneer at America because the president is a vulgarian. But isn’t Trump entitled to sneer at us, too?
In our complacency, we fail to notice that with every passing year we British become more American in outlook. “How are you?” I ask my older children, who were raised in England. “Good,” they reply. But they should really say “Fine” or “Well” or — the correct English response — “Mustn’t grumble”.
Two weeks ago, 3.2m British viewers sat up until the early hours of Monday to watch the final episode of the US series Game of Thrones. And heaven knows how many people will turn their backs on cricket’s World Cup to watch the New York Yankees take on the Boston Red Sox at baseball in London on the weekend of June 29-30.
It is the best of times, it is the worst of times. By most objective measures, life on both sides of the Atlantic has never been better. And yet most of us feel closer to Dickens’s winter of despair than to the spring of hope. Our sole consolation is that somehow things in America are worse. I hate to break it to you, but they’re not.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford