No one could accuse me of being a fan of Donald Trump. Every day there is some fresh outrage from America’s newest president, and every weekday at least you can read me shedding light on the latest catastrophe or controversy in my Per Diem e-mails for Reaction. I have spent the last eighteen months refusing to apologise or make allowances for the Trump phenomenon, which I believed – as I believe now – would irreparably damage the foundations of US democracy and America’s standing in the world.
So please keep all of that in mind when I say the following: MPs wasted their time on Monday by debating the president’s state visit to the UK.
Monday’s debate saw MPs being crammed into Westminster Hall like cattle. So many wanted to speak that their contributions had to be limited to five minutes each, and the vast majority used it as an opportunity to get their morality credentials noticed.
Let me be clear: I think the prime minister made an unforced error by offering an invitation for a full state visit – the greatest honour Britain can bestow on a foreign leader – to Trump just one week into his presidency. The rush was unprecedented, and, in retrospect, careless, given that just hours after she left, Trump announced his unethical and illegal executive order banning Muslim travellers to the US. But Theresa May didn’t ask me for my opinion, and like it or not the invitation was made.
I am no happier about this than the 1.85 million people who signed a petition to cancel the visit. I do think, however, that point is moot. Theresa May is not going to rescind the invitation now (to do so would be an act of diplomatic suicide), and all the debate on Monday did was give MPs the opportunity to repeat the arguments they made in January 2016, when the possibility of banning Trump from the UK outright was debated in the House of Commons.
It is rare that House of Commons debates get much attention, from the public or from MPs (unless they are about Brexit, that is). But there are many problems and decisions facing Britain that could do with some healthy discussion in Parliament, and do not receive the commitment they deserve, petitions or no petitions. Here are just a handful of issues that would have been a better use of MP’s time than talking about Trump.
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Repealing the Investigatory Powers Act
The so-called Snooper’s Charter, envisaged by Theresa May when she was home secretary, is a security and ethical minefield. It enables the government and law enforcement to mass-hack private devices and forces communications providers to store the data (including browsing history) of all their clients. The petition to repeal this bill got double the number of signatures needed to be considered for a debate in Parliament, but was rejected by the government. With the privacy and liberty of every British citizen at risk, you’d have thought this would be a top priority for MPs to debate.
Parliament should sit on Saturdays
Health secretary Jeremy Hunt sounds like a broken record every time he talks about a “seven-day NHS” – according to him, working life is changing, Monday-Friday is no longer good enough for a modern organisation, and doctors need to stop taking it easy at weekends. All valid points – so why was a petition for Saturdays to be “normal working days” for MPs rejected without debate last year? That is not to argue MPs do not already work hard (they do – at what is often a thankless and under-appreciated job), but the hypocrisy of refusing to even have the debate has not gone unnoticed.
I am not a fan of proportional representation – I happen to think our first-past-the-post system generally does a good job at keeping out extremist parties and producing functioning governments. That said, over 80,000 people disagree with me, and while that’s not quite yet at the 100,000 threshold needed for a debate, it’s hardly negligible. Our political landscape is changing, and the shock-result of Brexit shows that traditional political parties haven’t been paying attention for the last decade. Maybe a full parliamentary debate on a more proportional system would go some way to alleviating the sense that MPs only care about protecting the status quo.
Marriage and civil partnership reform
This one is topical today, as a heterosexual couple have just lost their appeal to have a civil partnership rather than a marriage. The couple argued that it was discriminatory for them to be denied a civil partnership because they are of opposite sexes, whereas same-sex couples can choose either a civil partnership or a traditional marriage. All three judges on the panel agreed with their arguments, but two ruled against them, on the grounds that the government is already considering the future of civil partnerships. That consideration deserves a full parliamentary debate. It may seem niche, but the institution of marriage in the UK has a complex and not entirely savoury history (originally it was the transfer of ownership of the woman from one man to another). It is understandable that some modern couples might want legal recognition without submitting to an institution they feel is unequal. And that merits discussion.
It’s worked in the Netherlands, in Portugal, and in multiple US states, all of which have managed to avoid a crisis of stoned teenagers and permanently spaced-out workers. Cannabis is less harmful than alcohol or cigarettes, and can be life-changing for people with long-term health conditions, yet it remains a class B drug, with possession punishable by up to five years in prison. Of the 650 MPs sitting in the House of Commons, I’ll wager at least half have “inhaled”, whether they’ll admit it or not, and clearly it hasn’t prevented them from representing their country. Besides, decriminalising cannabis might actually give us the means to cope with the state visit President Trump is already planing. There is no way MPs can actually block it, so they may as well give the rest of us something with which to distract ourselves from the coming apocalypse.