Cartoons by Helen Cochrane and Nicholas Leonard.
In June 2012, Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi, gave an address to both Houses of Parliament, with the Speaker of the Commons, one John Bercow, giving a welcoming address. Nothing very surprising there and surely nothing controversial about such an invitation or speaker. But even Nobel Peace Prize winners can be criticised and Miss Suu Kyi has, for her reluctance to use her undoubted moral authority within Burma to speak up for the persecuted Rohingya minority or against those attacking them. The Rohingya are Muslims, have lived in Burma for many many years, are being denied Burmese citizenship and there are credible accounts of their persecution (including rape, murder, burning down of mosques and ethnic cleansing) by the Burmese state and Burmese nationalists. The Rohingya are now refugees living in abject conditions in the borderlands of Burma and its neighbours.
In November 2012 the Emir of Kuwait was invited to make a speech to both Houses of Parliament while on his state visit. The Speaker gave a welcoming address. Kuwait is not an example of a state which places much value on the principles of equality. Foreign workers and stateless Arabs (called ‘bidoon’) as well as women face legal discrimination. Free speech is constrained. It is not the worst Middle Eastern state for lack of human rights is the best that can be said.
In 2015 the Chinese President was accorded a state visit to Britain and a speech to Parliament with, once again, the Speaker making a welcoming speech. China is hardly in the gold star class when it comes to human rights. A list of its failings would swamp this post. But to take two examples: baby girls have been routinely aborted (in many cases against the mother’s wishes) or abandoned at birth with the connivance or active encouragement of the Chinese authorities.
Despite this long-standing practice (arguably, whatever one’s views about abortion, believing that female infants should not live or be abandoned is about as sexist a view of female worth as it is possible to have) the UN felt able to hold its Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in September 1995, an event at which a Mrs Clinton made a well-received speech about women’s rights which, curiously, did not mention what happened to female babies or their mothers in the host country. The Chinese state also mistreats its separatist Uighur (and Muslim) minority, going so far as to seek to prevent fasting during Ramadan, something which would provoke outrage if attempted by any Western government.
Well, one could go on. But the point is obvious.
What might we learn from these examples?
- Realpolitik requires us to sup with all sorts of unpleasant regimes or ones where we may disagree with some of their policies or with people who are less than perfect.
- Muslims are mistreated in many countries, often by fellow Muslims. Demonisation of Muslims is not a Western speciality.
- Pointing out the hypocrisy of the Speaker is unlikely to shame someone shameless enough to broadcast his own virtue quite so loudly and publicly.
- If you’re going to make a virtue of your own principles, it might be worth examining how much you have in fact followed them. Otherwise others might think that those principles are no more important to you than a fashionable coat, to be discarded when fashions change. Principles these days appear to be like the Access card of old – “Your flexible friend”.
- However bad these countries are, we hold – and should hold – ourselves and countries like the USA to higher standards. Even so, it is excessive hyperbole to suggest that the USA or Trump are so very much worse than, say, the King of Saudi Arabia or the Chinese President or their respective countries.
- It used to be said that “the personal is political”. It sometimes appears these days that the political is only personal, political imperatives to be determined only by personal character, who is one’s friend and who one hates the most. This is the politics of a playground full of teenage girls. If one is a friend, all can be excused. If one is not, nothing can. Oh dear.
Whatever else Trump may or may not achieve as President, he has already joined the ranks of those few politicians who induce a sort of mental derangement in their opponents. Mrs Thatcher was one, Nixon another and in earlier times, FDR, seen by some – certainly at the start of his Presidency – as a traitor to his class. Only time will tell whether Trump will achieve anything remotely comparable to what those politicians achieved. Something more than anger and a gift for using Twitter is required.