UPDATE: In the end, almost 2 million people signed the petition, but nothing will come of it. The Leader of the Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, raised the issue repeatedly in parliament during PMQs and many MPs condemned Trump’s alleged “racism and sexism” during the debate. The official parliamentary debate of the petition was held on Monday 20th February. The government expressed that the state visit WILL be taking place.
On the 30th January 2017, the petition to ‘Prevent Donald Trump from making a State Visit to the United Kingdom’ reached an astonishing 1,000,000 signatures or roughly 1.6% of the UK’s population. While many await the government’s response, we can only look to the past to predict what the result may be.
Capturing the attention of thousands of people around the world, this unprecedented petition has garnered the second most signatures a UK e-petition ever has, trailing the unsuccessful petition for a second EU referendum by some 3,000,000 signatures. Yet, both supporters and critics of President Trump want to know the same thing; what will come of this petition? This raises questions about the history of petitions and how successful they have been in the past.
What has Petitioning Ever Achieved?
The UK has seen an array of groups with thousands of different requests but in most cases petitions have achieved very little. Take the aforementioned petition for a second EU referendum, for example. Despite reaching record-breaking levels of support, the government did not flinch and issued the following statement:
The European Union Referendum Act received Royal Assent in December 2015, receiving overwhelming support from Parliament. The Act did not set a threshold for the result or for minimum turnout.
In 2015, a UK petition to give all children the Meningitis B vaccine received over 800,000 signatures and met a similar fate, in which the government issued a statement defending its existing provisions. There is, by all means, a trend for petitions to fail and there has been for centuries.
While the UK was certainly not the democracy which it is today, petitions were still prevalent in the 19th century. If anything, petitions were of even greater importance as it was the only opportunity available to the disenfranchised (the working class and all women) to wield a voice in politics.
The Chartist movement of the 1840s utilized petitions as their main instrument of achieving influence. In 1839 a petition was presented to parliament by the leading Chartist Thomas Attwood which demanded the People’s Charter became law and for improved social and working conditions. This petition included the names of over 1.2 million individuals, including many disenfranchised women. Three years later, the Chartists petitioned government again with the exact same aims. This time they acquired over 3.3 million signatures. To understand the scale of this, one must acknowledge that the UK had a substantially smaller population in the 1840s than it does today. In fact, there were just 16 million people, compared to some 65 million Brits in 2017. This means that an enormous 20% percent (one in every five) of British men and women had signed this petition, compared to the much reduced 7% who signed the 2nd EU Referendum petition last year. In both cases, despite popular support, the government swiftly defeated the objectives of the petitions.
One would posit that the success of a petition is entirely dependent on its aims; Emma Howard of The Guardian highlight numerous successes stemming from petitions in recent years;
- Malalai Joya was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize
- BBC 6 Music was saved from closure
- Campaigners won a fight to keep a woman on our banknotes
A clear pattern can be seen here; these measures are all relatively insignificant as minute changes to the appearance of our currency, a radio station and an award are incomparable to the immense political upheaval which would be involved in calling a second referendum on our EU membership or redrawing the definition of British democracy.
What Happens Next?
Preventing a world leader from embarking on a state visit falls into neither of this categories; it is an idea simply implemented, yet one which may have unforeseeable diplomatic consequences.
However, as much as we may speculate, it is incredibly unlikely that Mr. Trump will be barred from a UK state visit. It is worth noting that Queen Elizabeth II is the “the most traveled head of state in the world.” Simply put, she is not picky about who she visits or who visits her;
- 1960: The Queen receives a state visit from French President Charles De Gaulle who “despised the British and the British despised him.”
- 1973: State visit received from the President of Zaire (known as the Democratic Republic of Congo since 1997) Mobutu Sese Seko, a homicidal dictator and a vocal critic of Britain.
Clearly then, the extension of a state visit, by no means, condones the actions of a leader or their government. In fact, state visits appear to be detached from domestic policies, and are usually tactical efforts to improve diplomatic relations; in the case of Donald Trump it is, arguably, vital for Downing Street to maintain cordial Anglo-American relations so as to help the British economy succeed in the stark, post-Brexit world.