I’m glad Theresa May jetted across the Atlantic so quickly after Donald Trump officially and legally became the world’s most powerful man. Any grown-up spying a White House door that was even slightly ajar had a responsibility to seize the opportunity to try to temper this most extraordinary 45th American president.
It must have been to guide us on occasions such as now that Theodore Roosevelt crafted his inspirational “Man in the Arena” speech. Those words nudge leaders to be actors, not spectators. Mays rather than Corbyns. Statesmen not politicians. Focused on national and global interests rather than electoral calculation.
That Britain’s Prime Minister can influence the new White House and other powerful Washington politicians by jamming her famous leopard-skinned high heels in that open door was evident from the commitments to Nato and against torture that were made during the high-wire act that our PM and Mr Trump performed together (an event usually known as a press conference).
The highlight of Mrs May’s visit was probably that speech she gave to Congressional Republicans on the Thursday, however. Trump and Republicans will have liked her emphasis on controlling borders and security.
Most of her conservative audience that day, although probably not their new commander-in-chief, will also have liked her hawkishness towards the Kremlin. And almost none of the coal-friendly Republicans will have appreciated what she said about climate change.
But candour is essential between friends – and frankly, any respite from the odd American habit of applauding almost every paragraph is welcome.
It would be a mistake to only focus on the specifics of her Philadelphia address, however. It was more important than that. It was a powerful declaration of love from a successor to Winston Churchill for the very special country that is the United States, and the enduring relationship between two English-speaking peoples.
Conversations I’ve had with a handful of Senators and Congressmen over the past week have confirmed that Mrs May touched her audience’s hearts as much as minds. The emphasis that this vicar’s daughter put on the religious and cultural common ground between Britain and America – rather than simply focusing on piggy-bank and security issues – was well-judged.
But now, several paragraphs into this shortish blog, I’m finally getting to the point – and to my question for CapX readers.
How could Mrs May make such a generous speech about the United States, honouring its history, its values and its global role, only six days after Mr Trump swore the presidential oath – when a whole 206 days after she became our second female prime minister, and 226 days after the Brexit vote, she still hasn’t made any equivalent gesture to the peoples of Europe?
After all, our negotiations with Europe are much more important to us, at least in the shortish term, than likely trade negotiations with Washington.
I’m fully aware that Mrs May visited Angela Merkel, François Hollande and other major EU leaders very soon after entering 10 Downing Street. But important talks with heads of government don’t begin to address a far too common perception on the continent that the vote to leave the EU’s dysfunctional and disabling structures was another iteration of that infamous two-fingered Up Yours Delors gesture.
If a good number of my German friends are representative of Europeans as a whole, there are a lot of bruised feelings across the continent. There is also the suspicion that the John Cleese-style bad manners exhibited by Nigel Farage in the European Parliament, and seen in tabloid form across some of our newspapers, are a key reason why 52 per cent of us voted to leave the European Union.
While the detailed terms of our divorce deserve most of the sometimes mind-numbing attention that they are getting from politicians, Whitehall mandarins and the press, it is a missed opportunity of the highest order that Mrs May hasn’t gone to Prague or Amsterdam or another major EU capital and given a big, bold and warm speech about what European nations have given to the civilised world – and surely will continue to give in the decades to come.
No one is in a better position than the head of our government to make it clear that post-separation, our every intention is to be enthusiastic and good neighbours – and that a refreshed relationship might even be better for everyone than a continuation of the miserable tenant-landlord friction of today.
I am genuinely baffled by Mrs May’s failure to give this speech, but hope and believe that there is still time to make some amends. In my darker and more cynical moments I almost fear it’s a deliberate omission by a politician who backed Remain and is keen to establish the most Brexity of Brexiteering credentials.
It is notable that nearly every key move she’s made as PM has been pretty Ukippish. There has been her even tougher than usual position on immigration. Quite a bit of bashing of globalisation generally. The support for new grammar schools. And the Priti Patel-ish positioning on overseas aid.
I don’t see much Trump in Mrs May, but she mustn’t think that Trumpism is in any way a path to electoral success (as I recently argued here).
Please do tweet or email CapX with your own theories about the speech that should have been delivered but hasn’t been. But let me end by quoting that top-of-the-league BBC anchor, Andrew Neil. You may remember how he began the edition of “This Week” that followed the attacks on Paris by referring to Isil “scumbags”. The video of his intro went viral at the time:
“Evening all, and welcome to This Week. A week in which a bunch of loser jihadists slaughtered 132 innocents in Paris, to prove the future belongs to them rather than a civilisation like France. Well I can’t say I fancy their chances. France: the country of Descartes, Monet, Sartre, Rousseau, Camus, Renoir, Berlioz, Gauguin, Hugo, Voltaire, Matisse, Debussy, Ravel, Saint-Saëns, Bizet, Satie, Pasteur, Molière, Zola, Balzac.
Cutting-edge science, world-class medicine, fearsome security forces, nuclear power, Coco Chanel, Château Lafite, coq au vin, Daft Punk, Zizou Zidane, Juliette Binoche, liberté, égalité, fraternité, and creme brûlée.
Beheadings, crucifixions, amputations, slavery, mass murder, medieval squalor and a death-cult barbarity that would shame the Middle Ages.
Well IS or Daesh or Isis or Isil or whatever name you’re going by – I’m sticking with IS, as in Islamist Scumbags – I think the outcome is pretty clear to everybody but you.
Whatever atrocities you are currently capable of committing, you will lose. In a thousand year’s time, Paris, that glorious city of lights, will still be shining bright as will every other city like it. While you will be as dust, along with the ragbag of fascist Nazis and Stalinists that previously dared to challenge democracy and failed.”
While far from being a precise model of the kind of speech Theresa May should deliver (and how could he fail to mention Eric Cantona?), Mr Neil’s heartfelt and passionate words point to what we have in common with our near neighbours in France and in most EU states.
An attempt by the British Prime Minister to communicate a love for Europe that she communicated to Americans about their country would not just be her speaking for most Remain voters. It would, I’d argue, reflect the manners and disposition of most Leave voters, too. Fawlty-Faragism, after all, won few votes at the general election and didn’t drive most Leave voters.
Set alongside continued British commitments to the military defence and security of Europe, and our hope for as free, fair and mutually enriching a trade deal as Brussels will concede, it would also prudent to generate a little more goodwill.
Relations between London and Brussels aren’t as frosty as relations between Washington and Brussels, but they’re not a great deal warmer.