On Monday, Donald Trump’s state visit to the UK will begin. I will not be the only British political figure who has declined an invitation to attend the royal banquet and other bits of pageantry around the visit. I have been clear that I see no justification for conferring such honours on this particular president.
Very few US presidents have, in fact, been invited on state visits, with the extra tier of ceremony and status these involve, as opposed to official visits for government business reasons. We had a US state visit quite recently — for Barack Obama in 2011 — so why another one so soon?
It is clear that the invitation had little to do with honouring a traditional alliance and everything to do with low politics. A weak British government in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum, trying to flatter an American president — known for his vanity and craving for recognition — into offering the UK some kind of preferential trade deal to offset, in some small part, the loss of access to the EU.
The view that sycophancy works in dealing with Mr Trump is not unique to the UK government. Shinzo Abe, the Japanese prime minister, has made an art form of such self-abasement but without securing any obvious benefit for Japan. French president Emmanuel Macron tried it but now seems to have given up. The dignified aloofness of Germany’s Angela Merkel seems to inspire more respect, as does the fellow tough guy approach of Russia’s Vladimir Putin and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.
Behind the pomp is a simple truth about trade. Mr Trump is doing what he can to destroy the international rules-based order on which the government’s “Global Britain” strategy is based. His administration is systematically undermining the World Trade Organization, in which Brexiters have such touchingly naive faith. And he is destroying the multilateral agreements in which UK governments have invested so much political capital: the climate change agreement; the nuclear proliferation deal with Iran; the UN Arms Trade Treaty — all are being shredded by the Trump administration.
The hoped-for bilateral trade deal between Britain and the US looks less appetising by the day. Mr Trump’s crude mercantilism — based on bilateral trade balances — will not suit a country such as the UK with a trade surplus. The US is clear that it wants lower food standards to please its agricultural exporters. It wants to bypass British courts to settle disputes. And it would like preferential access to public service procurements, including the NHS. Even if the government dodges these negotiating icebergs, the draft agreement would have to pass the US Congress, where House Speaker Nancy Pelosi lies in wait prepared to reject any deal if the UK ditches Northern Ireland’s Good Friday Agreement in pursuit of Brexit.
There are bits of the Trump visit that are unexceptional. It is good that a US president and commander-in-chief is among those who will be in Portsmouth next week honouring the armed forces at the D-Day celebrations. I will be there too, as a party leader, to pay respects to the servicemen.
President Trump will not be the first or last nasty piece of work to enjoy a state visit, but he is among the most dangerous.
His attitudes to women and to race are abhorrent. And his crude protectionism has placed the world on the brink of trade war between the US and China, with an exposed Brexit Britain stuck in the crossfire. No amount of pomp, circumstance and royal regalia can disguise the fact that Mr Trump poses a real risk to the world, and to Britain.
The writer is leader of the Liberal Democrats