“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity... it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” Thus Charles Dickens begins A Tale of Two Cities. Would that the greatest of all novelists could return to us for a week.
For it would take Dickens in his prime to do full justice to Donald Trump’s impending state visit to Britain. At its best, a state visit to this country dazzles the foreign head of state. Not much dazzles Mr. Trump, aside from his own very stable genius, but being greeted by Her Majesty the Queen on Monday should come close. She has, after all, reigned since Mr. Trump was five years old. She has been receiving U.S. presidents since Dwight Eisenhower.
Yet, this seems certain also to be the worst of state visits. For Tuesday, the group Stop Trump has promised “a diverse carnival of resistance,” at which it will doubtless chant childishly: “Say it loud, say it clear, Donald Trump’s not welcome here!” Up to a quarter of a million people are expected to participate in anti-Trump protests in London and elsewhere, and if permission is given, the six-metre inflatable Trump baby will hover over Trafalgar Square.
On his state visit in 2011, Barack Obama addressed the two houses of Parliament at Westminster Hall. No such honour will be bestowed on his successor. A carriage ride to Buckingham Palace was deemed appropriate for the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, in 2015. There will be no gold coach for Donny from Queens.
On the whole, I expect, the President’s reception will be authentically Dickensian, in the sense that Dickens personified English anti-Americanism. When he visited the United States in 1842, Dickens was scathing, as readers of his American Notes and Martin Chuzzlewit will recall.
Yet, I would urge Britons to take a long, hard look in the mirror before joining in the anti-Trump clamour. They should reflect on the catastrophic mess British politics has become. So badly have the Conservatives bungled Brexit that they are now staring electoral disaster in the face. Thrashed in the local elections, annihilated in the European elections, they now live in mortal dread of a general election.
Whoever succeeds Theresa May as Tory leader and prime minister – and I would not bet the house on its being Mr. Trump’s buddy Boris Johnson – will find themselves in exactly the same predicament as her. With too few votes to pass the existing withdrawal agreement, but no majority in the Commons for a no-deal Brexit, the new leader will soon find that there is no renegotiation on offer in Brussels and no chance of a further extension beyond October without either an election or another referendum.
The country seems to be sleepwalking toward a Corbyn-led coalition of Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party, with the prospect of not one but two more referendums – one that may well undo Brexit, and another north of the border that might just undo the Union.
Britons may be tempted to sneer at the United States because the President is a vulgarian. But isn’t Mr. Trump entitled to sneer at them? In their complacency, many Britons fail to notice that, with every passing year, they become more American in outlook.
“How are you?” I ask my older children, who were raised in England. “Good,” they reply. But they should really say, “Fine” or “Well”, or – the correct English response – “Mustn’t grumble.”
Two weeks ago, 3.2 million British television viewers sat up until the early hours of Monday to watch the final episode of the American series Game of Thrones. And heaven knows how many people will turn their backs on the cricket World Cup to watch the Yankees take on the Red Sox in London on the weekend of June 29-30.
It is the best of times, it is the worst of times. By most objective measures, life on both sides of the Atlantic has never been better. And yet, most of us feel closer to Dickens’s winter of despair than to the spring of hope. Our sole consolation is that somehow things in America are worse. I hate to break it to you, but they’re not.
©Niall Ferguson/The Sunday Times, London.