Scarcely has the invitation been issued to President Trump to make a State Visit to the UK than a million Brits have signed a petition opposing it. Phew.
First things first. What is a State Visit?
Broadly speaking visits by a head of state (HoS) or head of government (HoG) to this or any other country fall into the following categories.
The HoS’s son or daughter is at Uni here: the HoS/HoG wants to visit them and see some other friends. The ‘host’ state concerned lays on background VIP protection. V little if any press attention. No work done in the margins.
The HoS/HoG swings through the capital for a flying visit to meet the local HoG and talk about something specific. Typical EU occasion these days. Little official flimflam. Maybe a working lunch. As much media as the occasion requires.
The HoS/HoG is received with a noteworthy degree of ceremony for a longer, more substantive programme to send some serious messages and drill down into detail on a wide range of issues. The Theresa May visit to the USA (where she was HoG but met the new US HoS) would fall into this category.
The HoS of the host country formally invites the HoS of the visiting country to visit. This is the highest possible bilateral level of ceremony and formality.
Such visits will tend to have a strict formula from country to country. In the UK’s case the visitor is a personal guest of The Queen. The visit involves the carriage procession to Buckingham Palace, a State Banquet, a No 10 lunch, a return banquet for The Queen hosted by the visitor, and a grand lunch in the City. There are bilateral talks of all shapes and sizes in the margins, but the emphasis is usually on showing how much the two countries have in common or on marking a new state in bilateral relations. For a classic example of the latter category, see The Queen’s visit to Moscow in 1994 – the first State Visit in either direction since the Russian Revolution.
Here’s the mighty list of inward State Visits to the UK during The Queen’s reign. Legend has it that one of the grimmest was that of President Ceausescu of Romania in 1978: this absurd person was showing a smidgeon of independence from the Soviet Union so the then Labour government duly tried to gruntle him.
And here is the piece I wrote for DIPLOMAT on the general theme of State Visits as seen from an insider perspective:
The State Banquet during this visit was splendid with huge gold plates sparkling on the walls around the hall in Buckingham Palace. The menus were in French – an unexpected (if not diplomatically mysterious) yet elegant touch.
Poland’s former president-in-exile Ryszard Kaczorowski was also present. For weary Cold War decades the British government largely ignored Poland’s unwavering anti-Communist exiled leadership in London. Now, at last, their historic contribution was recognised at the highest level. The banquet brought together the former anti-communist President with the former communist who had chosen democracy and now led Poland. Symbolic and touching on many levels.
President Kwaśniewski enjoyed himself during his visit. He delivered a storming speech at the Lord Mayor’s banquet on behalf of Poland as a powerful new force in Europe. And he visited Arsenal football club to bring back memories of his days as a student in London working illegally in a nearby pub. Arsenal were delighted to show him their glittering trophy rooms before he went out onto the pitch and banged home a penalty past Poland’s Defence Minister Jerzy Szmajdziński.
For a head of state no state visit gets better than that.
So, question. Who decides what category a visit falls into?
For purely ‘political’ visits the government decides at the appropriate level. The key issues are the ‘symbolic’ level of the visit (what signal does the fact/level of the visit send about the state of relations and specific negotiations?) and who in fact meets the visitor. HoSs and HoGs watch like hawks to see who gets what, where, when and how.
How this works varies with each government. Tony Blair was infamously fond of trying to get away with offering even Heads of State cursory ‘brush-bys’ at No 10 (a senior official fields the visitor in a spare room then the PM drops by for a chat). This was a disaster when he insulted Robert Mugabe.
Any foreign working/official visit by a member of the Royal Family is run past a steely FCO/Whitehall Royal Visits Committee, with slots typically allocated a year or two in advance. A lot of protocol is in play here. The FCO will field bids from embassies/departments for different levels of visit:
2019 is the 150th anniversary of UK/Ruritania relations being formally established: a visit by HRH the Prince of Wales to symbolise this relationship and mark surging bilateral trade growth will really help
In 2020 Obnoxia will have had ten years of successful and more or less stable democratic government. A first Royal Visit by HRH The Princess Royal will be appropriate, the more so as it can coincide with the launch of a new ship being built for UK coastguards (HRH is patron of the charity concerned). That visit might be combined with a visit to neighbouring Sportovia where the 2020 Commonwealth Games are taking place
The ‘package’ of visits proposed to Buckingham Palace also includes State Visits hosted by The Queen. These are agreed up to three years in advance even if the formal invitation may not be issued immediately.
Note that the arguments for an inward State Visit by a HoS will be influenced by the range of royal visits and above all any State Visit to that HoS’s country in recent years. So anyone drawing lofty conclusions about inward State Visits who is not looking closely at the long record of the The Queen’s State Visits overseas is wasting your time.
The Palace may have Views on the sequencing and level and proposed ‘message’ of any of these proposals or the package as a whole; things get sorted out quietly behind the scenes. That said, the Palace are invariably keen that any Royal event create a warm positive glow and above all be full of events successfully promoting the UK: ‘controversy’ is more than unwelcome…
Therefore what for this new visit of President Trump?
London has moved fast to extend this invitation to President Trump. Some might say that it would have been wiser to wait and see how he gets on before doing this. And they might have been right. Mrs May might have used her visit to convey personal greetings from The Queen to the President and extended the invitation in principle.
However, that’s not so easy to do as State Visit slots get allocated years in advance, the more so as The Queen now rarely makes a State Visit overseas herself. No doubt the FCO had fondly been reserving this mid-17 slot for President Clinton, and if it were not taken by President Trump instead there might not be another one available for several years.
The problem now is that far from celebrating a nice shared warm and above all popular glow of mutual self-satisfaction (see eg the Mandela and Obama state visits here), this visit might well generate formidable bilateral chatterati dismay and public protest on a scale never before seen for a visit at this level. Choreographing and delivering the usual programme in this context will be more than tricky, with security concerns well to the fore.
In short, is it all worth the bother? Might both sides come to conclude that a diplomatic excuse be found to agree a postponement?
Not easy, as it will (rightly) look as if the two leaderships are weak and nervous. And in the UK government’s case, it does make sense to work hard to stay close to Washington under its quixotic new leadership for many reasons (Brexit, NATO, Russia/Ukraine, trade, terrorism and so on).
So, on we go (for now). Never a dull moment.