Dr Fabian Frenzel of the Management and Organization Division of the School discusses the Anti-Trump protests across the UK and what they mean for Brexit Britain. How are the two connected?
UK wide protests against the Trump administration have hit the streets since the new president issued a controversial travel ban for seven predominantly Muslim countries last week. Nowhere outside the US have protests against Trump’s travel ban been as fierce and widely shared. A petition to parliament asking to revoke Theresa May’s invite to Trump for a state visit to the UK in summer has now reached nearly 2 million signatures. May has thus far rejected this demand, insisting on the diplomatic necessities of Realpolitik.
In response some MPs compared May’s approach to Trump to the appeasement policies of British government with Nazi Germany in the 1930s, indicating just how controversial her invite is. More protest are planned by a newly formed Anti-Trump coalition that enlists an impressive number of UK celebrities. Nation-wide marches are planned on the 20 February, the day Parliament is scheduled to debate the petition.
Such strong rejection and near spontaneous outburst of protest, mostly mobilised via social media without the involvement of larger organisations or parties, are by now a familiar feature of protest cultures across the world. The Anti-Trump protests are examples of collective affects, broadly shared sentiments pitched up via the power of algorithms and connectivity. It is wrong to dismiss social media as mere echo-chambers, reflecting only those sentiments one already holds. Some issues resonate broadly, while others remain fringe concerns. Once people take to the street in the numbers we saw this/last week, it is clear that something has hit a nerve.
The question is why the Anti-Trump protests resonate so strongly in Britain. I got some ideas about this when I attended the spontaneous protest against Trump’s travel ban in Leicester. I was surprised to find that far from everybody in the crowd seemed to be united. A fellow migrant saw me and shared her views: “Typical British anti-Americanism, she quipped: If they care so much about freedom of movement, why don’t they protest against Brexit?”
I replied that most people in the demo were likely to be opposed to Brexit, but she had a point. No one was out on the street when the House of Commons voted for the Brexit Bill this week. The leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, had even ordered his MPs to vote for Brexit. At the same time he fiercely criticised Theresa May for seeking closer ties with the US.
This makes very little sense.
Theresa May’s encounter with the new US president was the result of frantic diplomatic efforts in which May bargained for being the first foreign leader to meet Trump and for a quick free trade deal after Brexit. In return Trump asked to meet the Queen: He got it.
Brexit Britain has little choice but to seek closer ties with the US. Only the US has an economy strong enough to offer some replacement of the economic benefits of the single market. Via closer ties with the US the UK financial sector can hope to maintain its world leading position, even if EU markets becomes harder to access. Politically, it is only on the side of the USA that Britain may hope to have some relevance in the world, once its leaves the foreign policy co-ordination of the EU.
None of this British geopolitical constellation is new. Long before Brexit, Britain maintained relative political and economic independence as a result of carefully balancing its position between the EU and the US.
The balancing act is not only a question of diplomacy and national interest, it also deeply affects the British identify.
Parts of the UK public are evidently allergic to EU influence, but as the protests against Trump show, public sentiment is also fiercely opposed to any sense of dependence on the USA. With a president as controversial as Trump, this is even more so. Few people made the link between the Anti-Trump protests and Brexit last week. But it may well be that the unease and anger displayed results not simply from the politics of the new American president, but equally from the fear of being closely associated with it.
The question many Britons may ask is: when we leave the EU, will we be forced into a closer alliance with Trump’s USA. The answer to that question is almost certainly yes. Brexit Britain needs closer ties to the US at the precise point where the US turns out to be a very dubious partner indeed. Protests against Trump in Britain may well signal the beginning of a new wave of Anti-Brexit mobilisation.