Belfast Telegraph

Mary Dejevsky: President Trump's conduct wasn't undiplomatic... it was a welcome return to the plain-speaking of old

Best behaviour: US president Donald Trump shares a joke with the Queen during his visit to the UK during which he attended the D-Day commemorations
Best behaviour: US president Donald Trump shares a joke with the Queen during his visit to the UK during which he attended the D-Day commemorations

By Mary Dejevsky

This has been a week, for the UK at least, when we have come pretty close to visual overload, what with all the red, white and blue pageantry rolled out for Donald Trump and the commemorations, both here and in France, for the 75th anniversary of D-Day.

But the coincidence of these two events illustrated something else - the significance at such times of the spoken, written and now tweeted word: if the D-Day anniversary was commemorated with language in complementary registers that largely reinforced each other, the US president's state visit was another matter.

The supreme split-screen moment for the visuals came on Tuesday afternoon, when Trump and Theresa May were giving their Press conference in the splendid surroundings of Durbar Court at the Foreign Office and the leader of the Opposition had just finished his address to the protest that had wended its way along Whitehall to Parliament Square, London.

What was striking was that the visual split screen had its verbal equivalent. For the most part, the US President was on almost exaggerated best behaviour. Both he and the UK choreographers of his visit seemed to have learnt from the missteps of his visit the year before.

The Trump family did not get in the way of the Queen. The president turned up on time; he spoke softly, showed deference and lavished compliments. There were times when it almost seemed as though the Queen might be enjoying his company. (Prince Charles less so.)

But there was another Trump, inimitably out in the popular Press and the Twittersphere. In a tweet, put out as he arrived, he lambasted Sadiq Khan as a "terrible" mayor of London and a "stone cold loser" (though, to be fair, Khan had got in first, describing Trump's language as akin to that of "the fascists of the 20th century").

All of which posed a question that was raised in different ways and at different times during the visit and boiled down to what should be considered appropriate conduct. Was it unacceptable, or rude, for Opposition leaders to boycott a state banquet and address a protest rally, instead? Was it unacceptable, or rude, for Trump to lay into the London mayor as he did? Indeed, should he have carried on tweeting at all after he became president?

Tweeting to, or about, unpredictable national leaders (such as North Korea's Kim Jong-un) can be seen as a risky, even reckless, approach. Some of what Trump has said about May has been plainly insulting.

But I have to admit that, not just as a journalist but as a citizen, I see more pluses than minuses about such plain speaking.

One feature that positively leaps out from Thatcher: A Very British Revolution, the current BBC documentary series about Britain's first female prime minister, is how direct and unambiguous she was, from the very first, in her language. She left no doubts about where she stood; no one listening to her was in danger of getting the wrong end of the stick.

In subsequent years, that preference for plain speaking was lost and what took its place was a resort to euphemism and "spin" that has hobbled UK politics ever since.

The Blair government's arguments before the Iraq war are a case in point. Whether there was any actual lying can be argued, but there was certainly what might be called verbal sleight of hand. At the more primitive end was the "dodgy dossier" that supposedly showed that Iraq still possessed - and was prepared to use - weapons of mass destruction.

One of the reasons why Gordon Brown was (briefly) welcomed at No 10 is that he was seen as a straight-talker, while Tony Blair had been a master of verbal manipulation.

So, you may not like the fact that Trump tweets, or the way he tweets, with its frequent crudeness and non-respect of persons.

But there is surely a virtue in national leaders, especially, saying things how they actually see them - if not quite how they actually are.

Belfast Telegraph

Popular

From Belfast Telegraph