Monday, 13 February 2017

Perceptions of impartiality

It’s more than possible that the clear statement by the Speaker of the House of Commons that he will not support allowing President Trump to address both houses of parliament in Westminster Hall will be sufficient to ensure that the proposed state visit will not actually take place.  Given the massive ego of Trump, and his apparent hatred of Obama, relegating him to what he would probably see as ‘second-class’ status compared to his predecessor may well tip the balance in his own mind as to whether he will come or not.  Time will tell, but I can’t say that I’d be upset if the event were to be cancelled (diplomatic niceties of the past – which don’t necessarily apply to Trump – would probably have referred to a ‘postponement’ due to ‘diary problems’).
Bearing in mind some of the people who have been given the full works, it seems to me that there is a large element of hypocrisy from some of those opposed to according him the honour; but better to get it right this time than to repeat the error just because ‘we did it for so-and-so’.
The proposed state visit has, almost accidentally, raised the question of the extent to which the Speaker should be impartial, and whether he is entitled to express an opinion or not.  Much of the reaction seems to have more to do with whether those reacting agree with him or not; those who think he’s said the right thing praise him for being forthright whilst those who don’t attack him for failing to be impartial.  Choose another issue, and the same people would probably be arguing the opposite of what they're arguing at present.  But how impartial should he really be?
The tradition – always a ‘tradition’, never a rule – was that once appointed to the post of Speaker, the incumbent ceased to be a representative of his or her party and was elected unopposed for his or her constituency.  Like many traditions, there was some sort of justification for this in ancient history (becoming Speaker was not without some danger to the life of the incumbent), but it looks strangely outdated in the twenty-first century.  It leaves the people of the relevant constituency unable to select a representative to represent their views or to participate in the choice of a government.
It also confuses two very different things – holding a view and expressing a view.  The fact that an individual is, theoretically, barred from expressing a view on most issues doesn’t mean that he or she doesn’t hold a view.  And failing to express a view merely guarantees the perception of impartiality; it doesn’t guarantee the fact of it.  I would have thought that it’s easier to assess whether someone is really being impartial in chairing any debate if his or her views are known than if we all simply pretend that they don’t exist.
It would be nice if Speaker Bercow’s words in this case led to a serious rethink about the reality and perception of impartiality, rather than simply a knee-jerk attempt to get rid of him.  In the end, though, neither will happen – our elected representatives are, as I’ve noted before, more wedded to tradition than to efficacy when it comes to their proceedings.


Jonathan said...

I may have certain qualifications to speak on the subject of State Visits, and Trump. Some years ago the President of China visited London. My brother was keen to save Tibet and he was the fellow who protested in the Mall. He was subdued by Grenadier Guardsmen at the point of a bayonet. He was dragged before the Officer of the Grenadier Guards to decide what to do with him. The officer in question turned out to be an old school friend and, on learning that my brother had accepted the rough handling as part of the protest, let him go.
As for Trump, I have been watching him non-stop for a year.
Why do you say that the diplomatic niceties of the past don't necessarily apply to Trump? What, he's worse than the President of China? There are many things I will never quite get about my wife's country. Their obsession with guns takes some understanding. But here are 2 observations
1. Trump does stand for a definite body of US opinion. One tenet is that they have a Constitution for a reason, and Obama was selective in enforcing it especially over immigrant overstayers who had eye-watering criminal records. Would never have reached such a stage in the UK but did in the US. And another reason is that the US (including US women) has run out of patience with aggressive feminism. Hillary Clinton had no discernible policy other than to break her glass-ceiling, which the US voters thought was not enough for a President. Sorry if this upsets Brits and bien-pensants in Wales. Please do not blame the messenger, I am merely reporting this! I do wonder if this is Bercow's problem. He has a feisty and feminist wife Sally who is very outspoken and will not like Trump. This is not whimsy, it is one reading of a political situation which bodes very badly for the UK and so is serious for Wales too.
2. The Welsh angle? Having lived in Carmarthenshire and North Carolina I can tell you they are very similar. Straightforward, decent people who believe in families, farming and like Country Music. They voted Leave. So did many others in Wales. Many will like Trump, because he does what he says (allowing for some snake-oil, admittedly) and he speaks for and to his constituency. How many Welsh politicians can say the same? Homage to miners and Nye Bevan seems very last-century now and will not wash. Idealism is a drag on the market. Many in Wales have had a horrible last decade and do not see help coming from the Left. I did not vote Leave and recognise that we need some very good information indeed, not yet to hand, on where the Welsh actually are. I do not know and I want to. Are you sure the Welsh are not with Trump? Prof.Scully we need you.

John Dixon said...

"Why do you say that the diplomatic niceties of the past don't necessarily apply to Trump?" In context, I was merely saying that finding some polite excuse to cancel is the normal diplomatic approach; Trump seems more likely to just come out and say that he's cancelling. And probably deliberately insult a few people in the process.

I entirely agree that "Trump does stand for a definite body of US opinion", and whilst I wouldn't have used the same words as you, I agree that Clinton was sadly lacking any message which could resonate with people. At best, she was the lesser of two evils for many observers. And I agree that here in Wales "Many will like Trump, because he does what he says (allowing for some snake-oil, admittedly) and he speaks for and to his constituency". The question is about what we want from our politicians. Do we want them to follow public opinion, or to lead it? We're largely and increasingly getting the former, but I'd prefer the latter.

Spirit of BME said...

Three cheers for Jonathan`s input!
It is true, that only spending time in the USA can you truly understand the logic and rationale of their values.
Thake the issue of guns, where we are unable to get our head around it. That is in part due the fact that our history and values are based on Anglo Norman Law, which ensures that only those that make the law, have the arms to protect the law, which reinforces and secures the God given monarchist regime in which we live as loyal subjects.
The founders of the US turned that around as an anti- feudal act, as the state has no God in it and each free citizen has a responsibility and duty to defend their rights, their family and society against a government of frail humans that could conspire to take their rights away from them.
That is why Tom Paine -The Rights of Man, is a best seller in the US and will never get in the top one thousand list in this sceptred isle.

Gwyn Jones said...

I quite agree with the spirit of BME regarding our right to have the means to defend ourselves.This is in the British Constitution and guaranteed by the 1688/89 Bill of Rights. The sovereign's coronation oath from then on guarantees the subjects these rights as a last resort to protect his/her liberty and possessions. See even Sir William Blackstone's Commentary. Thus the gang of MP's who have denied us these rights may well be guilty of treason. Not only this they also enact retrospective laws.

Gwyn Jones

Anonymous said...

The story of the Carmarthenshire leave vote doesn't sit quite right with me. The county was quite narrowly divided. Many of the 'family and farming' folks voted Remain because they are also Welsh speakers and quite nationalistic (not always as much as we might assume). By contrast the Leave vote walked it in the town of Llanelli and the villages around it.

We should accept that Trump speaks for many Americans though. Many in Wales would like his brashness. He does speak to his constituency.

But there ARE Welsh politicians who do the same, and with more honesty and more rootedness. Carmarthenshire votes for two of them, with increasing majorities.