Politics and ethics make uncomfortable bedfellows. Some think they have nothing to do with one another and that it is only a naive liberal who could think they have any connection with each other in the “real world”. Robin Cook, when he became Foreign Secretary in 1997, was ridiculed by some and patronised by others when he set out his Mission statement and talked about an ethical Foreign Policy. Over his period in that office this was often used as a stick to beat him with when some trade deal was done on weapons or some visit from the head of an unsavoury ally occurred.
Politics, it is argued, is about the art of the possible and should not be constrained by ethical considerations which get in the way of a “good deal”, more often than not a good trade deal, and quite often a good arms trade deal. There is rarely a shortage of highly respected politicians and business leaders willing to point out that in the real world we have to be pragmatic and often sup with the devil. That realists have to put aside their moral scruples on particular issues for a greater good.
That politics is a messy business is unarguable. Yalta was not a meeting of those with a common ethical view of the world looking forward to the defeat of fascism. Politics is always about compromise and deal making. In democracies compromise is at the heart of the process. Those that lose elections compromise their views to allow the winners to implement theirs for a period of time.
That politics requires a pragmatic approach to issues does not mean, however, that it is, or should be, an ethics free zone. There are times when the ethically right thing to do is also the politically correct thing to do. Usually the ethically right thing to do is more difficult and the benefits less tangible but that does not always, of itself, change its political correctness.
Mrs May had a a difficult hand to play in her visit to the United States. President Trump is the democratically elected leader of the most powerful country in the world and maintaining a sensible relationship with him is in the interests of the UK. Given President Trumps behaviour to date, during the election, as President elect, and latterly as President, many would find it difficult to shake hands with the man, nay be in the same room as him.
Politicians earn their pay when they subordinate their feelings to the needs of their country and do things which may be personally distasteful to them. However, suppressing all ethical judgement is a mistake. When approaching the meeting with President Trump geo-political security, trade, the implications of Brexit were all matters where the UK has a vital interest in US attitudes and one cannot make progress by standing apart from someone in such a key position of power.
To be fair, Mrs May also addressed some of difficult areas of concern such as President Trumps views about NATO. However, her desire to secure a favourable response from President Trump was palpable and it was clear from her speech in Philadelphia she wanted to maintain the “special relationship” with the US. This relationship, first enunciated by Churchill in 1946, has always been one of a junior and senior partner and in the realpolitik of diplomacy has been of material benefit to the States occasionally (when they need support in the UN for a foreign adventure) and helped UK morale in its transition from “top Nation” to somewhere much further down the pecking order.
Going into this meeting Mrs May knew what President Trump is like. What you see is what you get and what you see is awful. She might have thought that some distance from this man might be sensible. Polite and respectful of someone who has been elected to such an important office, business like in areas of common concern but above all reserved. The image of his holding her hand may well haunt her for years to come, however, what she could have done to prevent that is uncertain. Comments about the “stunning election victory” were a gratuitous hostage to fortune. His stunning victory is that of the “noisy minority”.
If the president represents the American people we do not want a “special relationship” with them. The reality is he does not. He does not represent the half of the electorate that voted against him, and it is my strong belief that in due course those that voted for him will come to the view that he does not represent them either.
There have been few reasons for optimism as the new year began. Two impressed me, both out of the United States. First Michelle Obama’s last speech which was a model of optimism and dignity, second the women marchers following the inauguration. Maintaining a special relationship with this face of America has to be the right thing to do. But to paraphrase, right now America is the worst of places and the best of places.
Ethically President Trump is repugnant. Despite the circumlocutions of some, the alternative facts of others and the wishful thinking of many he is also politically repugnant. I suspect Mrs May is going to regret bitterly the invitation to meet our head of state.You have to work with lots of people but you need to chose your friends carefully. You are often judged by their actions.
What looked like a competent managing of a difficult challenge on Friday has started to unravel as President Trump issued an odious and in truth incompetent Presidential edict on immigration. Mrs Mays’ initial response at the press conference in Turkey was 100% political and ethics free. Basically, US immigration policy is the responsibility of the US.
Maintaining a pure ethical stance amongst the crooked timber of mankind is probably impossible. However, a good politician never loses site of what is right and wrong and makes difficult judgements about when a line is crossed. Often those judgments carry a political or a personal cost, or both. When they are not made however they can have awful long term consequences.
Robin Cook was presented as naive when he talked about an ethical Foreign Policy. No doubt there were some who thought his ethical stance, resigning from his position of Leader of the House of Commons in 2003 following the invasion of Iraq, was naive also. Had there only been more such naive politicians with robust moral compasses’ at the time the world might have been a much better place.