President Trump’s visit to London in early June is going to cause a lot of trouble, cost a lot of money and generate acres of newsprint. But the State visit does raise interesting questions about what are our legitimate expectations of people in public office, in the professions and in the arts. What behaviour ought we tolerate before shunning an individual, and who should do the shunning? These questions, important though they are, are now being raised merely as weapons in current partisan political battles.
To attend or not to attend the State Banquet in honour of President Trump has become a signal of personal and political virtue. The Speaker of the House of Commons and leaders of opposition parties have hastened to declare that they won’t be there, a decision which as private individuals they might make without exciting comment. But they are not private individuals. And one at least aspires to be considered prime minister in waiting.
Most of us believe that a moral line should be drawn somewhere, but where it should be drawn is a tougher question – especially when we’re talking about those in public office. The President of China leads a State which has crushed Tibet and now interns millions of Uighur Muslims, determined to obliterate their identity. Only a minority protested during his visit to Britain. Public opinion seemed reluctantly to accept that British interests demanded that Xi should be received with honour. Perhaps Jeremy Corbyn, Vincent Cable and others believe that the expression of racism and misogyny trumps – excuse the pun – all other moral dereliction. Or maybe they all, except Corbyn, think they will never have to take responsibility for British foreign policy.
The unpalatable fact is that one of the duties of public office is to put national interest, or international peace, first – and to accept the unpleasantness of associating with the loathsome characters who strut on the global stage. The latter comes with the job description. Winston Churchill in wartime, all cigars and bonhomie, did a good job of working with Stalin. Tony Blair spent some unpleasant but successful hours with Gadaffi to eliminate what was believed to be his nuclear programme. Heads of state and prime ministers, as their name tags at international conferences suggest, represent their states not themselves (someone should tell this to Mr. Trump). International relations, particularly in a complex multi-polar world, require that we relate to, and sustain good relationships with other states. Ergo, our national representatives have to work with some very unpleasant characters. It is almost as simple as that.
But does the general public have the same responsibility? Obviously not. As private individuals we have every right to protest at the personal and public conduct of a visiting head of state. But we ought to think about the reason for our protest and its likely effectiveness, especially as the cost of policing and security will be heavy. And we as private citizens should also think about the national interest. Do we seriously think that protest on our small island, however large the demonstration, will dent Mr. Trump’s vote next year? Or are protesters still living with the illusion of a continuing “special relationship” with the USA, 75 years after D-day; a relationship that would mean having an effect on the USA’s foreign policy or even ours? Probably not. It looks very much as if anti-Trump protesters will be expressing their own powerful ethical identities, as they have every right to do, precisely because they are private individuals and believe, as private individuals, that they ought to make a visible moral stand.
Turning now to members of the professions. They are held to quite stringent moral standards in addition to the expectation that they will always act legally. While we accept that holders of public office may be forced to a tolerate violations of ethical norms, the same does not apply to members of the professions. For doctors, barristers, teachers, accountants and social workers, misconduct which is not criminal (such as breaches of confidence or sexual misdemeanours) still result in heavy penalties and possible expulsion. Professional relationships are deemed to be governed by much the same standards as those of private life. The difference being that the standards are enforceable and are enforced. Impeachment of a president, for example, is deliberately and constitutionally quite another story.
The work of creative artists also throws up interesting moral questions, especially as much of the work we so much admire is centuries old. Lovely Roman temples were built by slave labour. The innocent sounding circus was a festival of cruelty. Caravaggio was a violent man and a murderer. Wagner was an anti-semite. Writers, like Charlotte Bronte, whom we still much enjoy were bigots. Picasso was a sexual predator. So was Eric Gill. Yet their work is part of our heritage and even when we fear it is tainted we continue to admire it. Despite the occasional outbursts of protest, we decide not to boycott because the work has taken on alife of its own. We view these objects of beauty separately from the conduct of their creators.
Back to the dilemma which faced Mr Corbyn. He decided to refuse to take part in the official hospitality offered to the American head of state. When further ethical dilemmas present themselves, as they will, he must reflect and decide whether he is a future prime minister who will be responsible for safety and prosperity of the state or something more akin to a private citizen. Then he must act accordingly. Perhaps he knows already.
TheArticle.com “Private citizens have every right to protest Trump’s visit. But what about those in public office?”