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Why Trump Won't Tear Us Apart (In Britain, At Least)

07/02/2017 13:04
Bastiaan Slabbers via Getty Images

It's been a difficult start to 2017. The new US President has hit the ground running, and has trampled right over many of the protections and advances that have been accumulated through years of campaigning. People I know and have worked with in the voluntary sector have been shocked, angered, upset (and maybe a little excited and energised too) by the policies and rhetoric coming out of the White House since the 20th of January.

The Trump administration will have an impact on issues and politics in the UK, both directly through US policy and indirectly by example. Many of us working in the migration, refugee protection, human rights, women's rights, anti-prejudice and environmental sectors (plus many more - apologies if I missed you out) will now be discussing what impact the Trump presidency may have on our issues and, crucially, what we can do about it.

I was struck, at a recent Britain Thinks breakfast briefing Learning from Brexit and Trump, by a comment from one voluntary sector worker: "People are expressing their outrage and mistaking it for action that will make a difference". It's a fair point. Yes, we are outraged and want to come together to express that. But we do, above all, want our actions to make a difference - that's why we got into this sector in the first place. And so it is worth taking a step back from the barricades to ask: "What is the most effective way to oppose the policies of President Trump?"

The problem is that much of the mobilisation against Trump doesn't just originate from within the most liberal minority, but ends up looking like it's only meant to appeal to them too. That represents a lack of ambition, perhaps borne out of bitter experience for some campaigners. On issues like immigration and asylum, the UK public tends to be pretty divided - a strongly 'pro' liberal minority, a strongly 'anti' rejectionist minority, and the bulk of the public somewhere in between. On Donald Trump's policies, however, that's not the case. With the exception of cheerleaders like Katie Hopkins and Nigel Farage, plus their fanclubs in the margins, most people in Britain agree on Trump.

The good news is that this is because he and his politics are not popular in the UK - with liberals and the wider public alike. People prefer our traditions, of religious tolerance and protecting refugees, to a US President who wants to undermine them. A quarter of the British public agreed with Trump the candidate when he proposed banning Muslims from the US - but two-thirds of us thought it was inappropriate (YouGov, December 2015). Six times as many Brits think Donald Trump as president makes the world a more dangerous place, than think he makes it safer; and 58% say his victory sets a dangerous precedent for future election (ComRes, November 2016).

So while the Trump presidency represents a threat, it also offers an opportunity for campaigners. In seeking to divide people (as he has in America, roughly down the middle) in the UK he has made us more united than usual - in opposition. Most people in the UK don't like his approach to refugee protection and immigration - they prefer ours. So there is the potential to mobilise two-thirds of Britain around a message that defends existing refugee protections. And yet given the chance to mobilise more broadly than ever before, we seem to risk only taking the usual crowd with us.

So what could we do differently? Firstly, think about who we want to talk to, and who is doing the talking. The London demo on Monday went off peacefully and most protesters took a rather British approach to their placards, expressing their wit rather than their anger. Contrast that with the chants of some protesters at US airports: "No borders, no nations, no deportations" will have little appeal beyond the already-onside. In the UK, protests that seek to defend principles of refugee protection dating back to the First World War and beyond will find support across a broad cross-section of society - while a 'no borders' message will not.

Likewise making an explicit link between Trump and Brexit, which many campaigners may be keen to do. This puts an immediate 48% ceiling on support and, more likely, restricts it yet further to the 25% who still hope to stop Brexit. Yes, I'm sure that personally many of us would lump the two together near the top of the 'bad things that happened in 2017' list. But will voicing that help us to oppose Trump effectively? Probably not.

Tougher still to swallow, I suspect, will be a final point: trying to stop the state visit is a minority position and unlikely to succeed. The public is pragmatic and worried about the economy. 49% of people, according to a ComRes poll for the Independent, think "Theresa May should pursue a close relationship with Donald Trump because it is in Britain's best interests" while just 31% think she should not. So calls to cancel that visit will be less effective than, for example, a call to make very clear where we disagree with the policies of the new US administration.

Stopping Trump will be difficult - he is, after all, the elected President of the United States - and it is largely the job of his opponents on the other side of the Atlantic. Making clear what we think of his policies, and their impact on people in the UK and all over the world, is more achievable. Most importantly, we should be more ambitious in defining that 'we'. It does not just mean the liberal left, but the majority of Britain. That includes most Christians and other people of faith; most people who would get behind Comic Relief or Children in Need; and most Conservative voters. We should seize this opportunity to build a far bigger and broader coalition to defend refugee protection and to oppose torture and prejudice. Because one thing we did learn about the new President, from his obsession with the crowds at his inauguration, is that size matters.

Steve Ballinger is Director of Communications for British Future, an independent thinktank on immigration and integration, and has previously worked in media and comms for Amnesty International, Shelter and VSO.

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