It’s not just in the U.S. that Donald Trump’s campaign for the Republican presidential nomination is making waves. This week the U.K. parliament debated whether or not Trump should be barred from entering Britain—with a depth and seriousness that might surprise outsiders.
The session held on Monday (available in full here) came after outrage over Trump’s recent call for a ban on Muslims entering the U.S. A petition calling for the U.K. to bar him in return gained more than 570,000 signatures, enough under British parliamentary conventions to bring up the subject for debate time. Part of the ire in Britain comes from widespread suspicion that discriminatory policies are already in place at the U.S. border—a concern bolstered by the recent barring of a British Muslim family en route to Disneyland.
Monday’s debate in itself is not enough to change policy; no final vote was taken. But it did reveal a high level of hostility in a session where condemnation of Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric turned out to be bipartisan. In fact, as part of an all-around roasting of Trump, the central question boiled down to this: Would banning him from Britain be a stand to protect the country’s minorities, or would it only serve to gain Trump greater publicity?
The pro-ban side had some strong arguments in its arsenal. The U.K. government does, after all, exclude some foreign visitors who it believes risk encouraging hatred. As Scottish National Party MP Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh put it:
"Since her appointment as home secretary in 2010, Theresa May has already banned hundreds of people from the U.K. Her job is quite correctly to protect public safety and promote our security. She has already excluded 84 people explicitly for hate speech. In my view, under her judgment, Donald Trump should be number 85. Using the powers invested in her, Theresa May has already excluded people who include serious criminal, far right extremists, homophobic extremists—and these rules should be applied consistently and equally to all, because if they exist they exist for that reason."
Labour MP Tulip Siddiq insisted on the importance of taking Trump seriously:
“This is a man interviewing for the most important job in the world. His words are not comical. His words are not funny. His words are poisonous. They risk inflaming tensions between vulnerable communities. … It was Donald Trump who ran a dog-whistle campaign against Barack Obama’s birth certificate, to find out whether the president of America was really American. Can you imagine in the mother of parliaments if my colleagues decided to question ethnic minority MPS about whether they were really British?”
Speakers against the potential ban made the point that it risked descending into posture politics, adopting the same tactics as the man himself. As Conservative MP Paul Scully put it:
“I’ve heard of a number of cases where people have been excluded for incitement, for hatred. I’ve never heard of one for stupidity, and I’m not sure that we should be starting now.”
Another conservative MP, Edward Leigh, portrayed the ban as something that could only damage the U.K. to Trump’s benefit:
“This man may conceivably become President of our most important ally. This would play into Mr. Trump’s hands. His entire style of politics is to stoke controversy and to say outrageous things. Lavishing him with attention, even if our attention is to condemn or deride, is falling into the trap he has set for us. … We must beware of lowering ourselves to demagoguery in fighting demagogues.”
Over all this hung the issue of America’s international prestige and the degree to which Trump’s media platform might affect it. Labour MP Paul Flynn was careful to draw a line between condemning Trump and condemning America:
“This is no attempt in any way to disrespect the American state. This is a country of which our cultures have melded together over centuries, getting ever closer. This is a country who sacrificed more of its sons and daughters in the cause of creating democracy in other countries than any other nation on Earth.”
Other MPs weren’t so sure. Conservative Sam Gyimah insisted that rather than being an aberration, Trump’s anti-Muslim stance was really a case of business as usual:
“If Martin Luther King were here today he’d be very surprised at the sugar-coated version of American history [presented here]. I regret to say this … but the exclusion of people on the grounds of race, color, ethnicity is something that has often happened in U.S. history. In that light, Donald J. Trump’s hateful, objectionable views have a history in the American political area … from a long line of nativist legislation. We can object to this, we can decry this, but that is no grounds on which to ban a presidential candidate.”
Beneath the exchange ran an uncomfortable truth: Even if the British public wants a debate, the chances of Donald Trump being stopped from entering the country remain extremely slim. There seems, indeed, to be a growing fear that Trump is someone whom the U.K. and other countries might just possibly need to deal with as a President some day. But although many are starting to realize that might be an outside possibility, that doesn’t mean they have to pretend to like it.