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The President’s speech


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A Conservative Prime Minister, seeking to cement the Special Relationship with the USA, has invited a controversial Republican president to make a state visit to the UK. The invitation is heavily criticised in some quarters, particularly the suggestion that the President should address both Houses of Parliament in Westminster Hall. The left-wing Labour leader is amongst those condemning the idea, arguing that this high honour should not be afforded to the visitor. A public controversy erupts, with the subject raised in Parliament.

This situation, which we find ourselves observing today, may seem unprecedented. In fact, it has striking parallels with a previous incident three decades ago, the official papers for which are now available in the National Archives. In 1982, Margaret Thatcher sought to secure the transatlantic special relationship at the time of the Falklands conflict by inviting Ronald Reagan to visit the UK, as a guest of the Queen. Technically it would not be a state visit (unlike the current proposal for President Trump), but it was intended to have an almost identical status. In particular, it was proposed that Reagan should address both Houses of Parliament in Westminster Hall. This aspect of the visit was briefed to the US media by an over-enthusiastic White House official, before it had been discussed with the Official Opposition, causing serious difficulties. 

Like Jeremy Corbyn, the then Labour leader Michael Foot was a left-winger known for his scepticism regarding the extent to which the UK should pursue a close alliance with the US. After reports of the proposed invitation appeared in the British press, his Chief of Staff telephoned the Prime Minister’s private secretary to say the Opposition were ‘surprised and agitated’ at the news, and that the Labour Party would be ‘very resistant’ to the idea.  He argued that Reagan was ‘a controversial figure who had not been long in office’ and that the Opposition would be ‘angry’ that such a rare privilege was being proposed for him.

A meeting was hastily arranged for Foot to meet Thatcher to discuss the issue. The Prime Minister stressed that Reagan’s visit was the first by an American President to be made as a guest of the Queen since Woodrow Wilson’s in 1919, that other several other world leaders had addressed both Houses over the years, and that the government believed it would have been ‘unthinkable’ for Reagan ‘as the leader of our most powerful ally and friend’ not to be given the opportunity.  

Foot replied that he believed the Opposition should have been consulted before any proposal, ‘however tentative’, had been made to the Americans. He was particularly opposed to the government’s suggestion that Reagan should speak in Westminster Hall, a privilege that had at the time been accorded since the Second World War only to President de Gaulle. Unlike today’s vocal opposition by Corbyn to the visit taking place at all, in 1982 Foot suggested a compromise - that if the President were to address both Houses, it should take place in the Royal Gallery, a less exceptional honour, which had been afforded to several other world leaders. 

The Americans, meanwhile, were trying to repair some of the damage, and the US Ambassador in London, John J. Louis, phoned Foot directly to discuss the matter. Louis found the Leader of the Opposition ‘easy to talk to’, but his position unchanged – he did not think that Reagan ‘at this early stage of his Presidency, was deserving of this accolade’. 

Having developed into a significant media and diplomatic incident, the matter was discussed at Cabinet, with Mrs Thatcher repeating her strong belief the President’s speech should take place in Westminster Hall.  She considered Labour’s position to be ‘a trivial and small-minded objection’ and believed it would be ‘unfortunate if the Royal Gallery were used and Mr Foot then chose to represent this as a capitulation to pressure from the Opposition.’ 

However, faced with the prospect of an active boycott of the speech by Labour were it held in Westminster Hall, the Prime Minister reluctantly agreed with senior Cabinet colleagues at a later meeting that whilst moving the ceremony would be seen as ‘a climb down for the Government and an affront to the Americans’, it would be a ‘a far bigger reverse for the Government and a more humiliating affront to the Americans if the whole of the Opposition boycotted President Reagan’s address.’

The Americans, for their part, had been taken aback by the controversy. A senior White House official told the British Ambassador in Washington that ‘in view of the parliamentary fuss, the President thought it would be better to abandon the idea of a speech altogether’ as to speak elsewhere after such publicity would be ‘humiliating’. The Ambassador objected that this would be ‘regarded as a triumph for Foot’, and hoped that the President would not ‘fall into this trap’. After further representations, Reagan agreed to the venue being changed to the Royal Gallery, and it was there that he spoke on the 8th June that year.

Whilst the episode was embarrassing to the British and American governments, they were fortunate that the Official Opposition was prepared to compromise, and even to participate in the visit. At the speech, Michael Foot sat in the front row next to Mrs Reagan, although his applause for the President was seen to be notably restrained.  He also attended the banquet for the President at Windsor Castle that evening. The current rhetoric over President Trump’s visit is rather more uncompromising, and it seems unlikely a similar outcome is possible, particularly now that the Speaker, John Bercow, has controversially joined those opposed to the President speaking anywhere in the Palace of Westminster.

An added complication with a full state visit, such as that now being offered to Trump, is that the Leader of the Opposition is customarily invited to call on the visiting Head of State for a courtesy meeting. Neither party can be relishing that prospect, and ‘courtesy’ is likely to be in very short supply indeed.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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