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Ten visitors more terrible than Trump

May 20, 2019   6 mins

Poor Theresa May. Her Premiership has been one humiliation after another, but before she leaves office, she has to get through the state visit of the President of the United States of America, Donald Trump. Scheduled for the 3rd to 5th June, this will be a grander occasion than the President’s first visit to the UK last year. The protests are likely to be bigger too, The Independent reports they will feature a 16 foot high automated effigy of Trump tweeting on the toilet.

Spare a thought, too, for the Queen. As this is a state visit, the monarch, as head of state, is the host not the PM. I can’t imagine that Her Majesty is looking forward to honouring a man who is likely to bring large numbers of her own subjects out on the streets in protest. 

Still, she’s had worse.

By my count, there have been 111 state visits during her long reign. Some of the visiting heads of state have been constitutional monarchs or ceremonial presidents, but the Queen has also played host to many of the most powerful men and women of the age – some of them proper wrong ‘uns. Here’s a personal top ten:

10. François Mitterrand

Before getting to the actual blood-soaked dictators, let’s ease into it with some less spectacular examples of dodginess.

Politicians don’t get more ambiguous than François Mitterrand, who was the President for 14 years from 1981 to 1995 (his state visit to the UK was in 1984). However, his first job in government was as a mid-ranking functionary in the collaborationist Vichy regime. Mitterrand’s supporters always emphasised his links to the Resistance – though his critics say that his working to undermine the enemy from within was more a case of a foot in both camps.

No modern American President – not even Trump or Nixon – comes close to the twists and turns, smoke and mirrors, of Mitterrand’s career. But because it all happened in another language and with infinitely more finesse, we, in the English-speaking world, barely paid attention.

9. Emperor Hirohito

Despite being awarded the Order of the Francisque for his efforts, Mitterrand did not have a senior position in the Vichy regime. Hirohito, however, was the Japanese head of state during the second World War (and indeed during the Empire of Japan’s invasion of China which began 1931).

Debate still continues as to the extent of his responsibility for Japanese war crimes, but he was more than a puppet of the governments in this period.

While Hideki Tojo, the wartime Prime Minister, was arrested and executed following Japan’s surrender, Hirohito was not only spared, but kept on as Emperor – playing an important role in Japan’s transition to democracy and membership of the ‘western’ alliance.

It was in this capacity that he was welcomed to Britain on a state visit to Britain in 1971. There were protesters – thousands of them, including many former prisoners of war. Despite having suffered so much more than those who turned out to shout at Trump last year, the 1971 protesters were silent – turning their backs on Hirohito as he travelled by horse drawn carriage to Buckingham Palace.

8. The jailbirds

The Palace was where the Obamas stayed during their 2011 visit – the ‘Belgian Suite‘ to be exact. Due to renovations, the Trumps will stay elsewhere, but I expect it won’t be too shabby.

The present accommodations of some of the Queen’s former guests are not so enviable. Looking down the list I see that former President Park Geun-hye of South Korea (visited 2013) is currently serving a 25 year jail sentence, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil (2006) is serving 12 years and former President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt (1991) was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2012, but was released in 2017.

Say what you like about the Donald, but at least he hasn’t been jailed yet.

7. The Gulf monarchies

No list of state visits to the United Kingdom would be complete without a mention of the Al Thanis (Qatar), the Al Sabahs (Kuwait), the Al Nahyans (Abu Dhabi), the Al Khalifas (Bahrain), the Al Saids (Oman), and, of course, the Al Sauds (Saudi Arabia). During the Queen’s reign there have been 11 state visits from the rulers of the Gulf states – almost 10% of the total.

It may be that the Windsors like hanging out with their fellow royals. Or it might be something to do with oil. Royal or oil. One or the other.

6. Hasan II

And now a visitor from the other end of the Arab world – King Hassan II of Morocco, who reigned from 1961 to 1999. His rule was harsh, to say the least – but as a pro-western ruler in a difficult region that was overlooked.

Less overlooked was the treatment of Queen Elizabeth II on her state visit to Morocco in 1980. This was the so-called “tour from hell” – a chaotic affair involving the Moroccan monarch being late for various events or not turning up at all. At one point the Queen was left waiting for hours in the desert sun. Not cool.

Still, all was forgiven – and Hasan made his state visit to the UK in 1987 – a mere seven years later.

5. Hastings Banda

From north Africa to southern Africa – and Hastings Banda, officially ‘Life President’ of Malawi. It was a title he took very seriously – clinging on to power from independence in 1960s until well into the 90s and, indeed, his 90s. His regime’s human rights record was as one might expect, but as a firm friend of the West, it wasn’t held against him – hence his state visit in 1985.

4. Mobutu Sese Seko

Part of the problem with mere presidents is that on formal occasions – like a state visit – they can appear quite dull compared to a monarch. A grey suit, no matter how well cut, can’t really compete with a crown.

However, the President of Zaire (or the Democratic Republic of Congo as it is now called) was an exception. Mobutu Sese Seko – who was in power from 1965 to 1997 – was famous for his leopard skin hat. It’s always annoying when someone copies your look, which is why he banned all leopard skin hats apart from his own.

Being on the right side during the Cold War also helped with his image. His 1973 state visit to Britain was a sign of the West’s favour. Whether or not he stayed in the Belgian Suite (see above) I’m not sure. It might have been considered inappropriate given what the Belgians did to his country when King Leopold II owned it as his personal possession.

Mobutu Sese Seko’s rule wasn’t quite as horrific as Leopold’s, but that didn’t stop him from becoming immensely rich.

3. Robert Mugabe

And thus we come to another African tyrant – Robert Mugabe, whose state visit was in 1994. He didn’t just get tea with the Queen, but also an honorary knighthood. It was, however, stripped from him in 2008 – following the slaughter of political opponents. Quite what was different about this slaughter compared to some other slaughters that took place in Zimbabwe before the 1994 visit I couldn’t tell you.

2. Nicolae Ceaușescu

Mugabe wasn’t the first Marxist dictator to get a honorary knighthood. That precedent was set in 1978 when President Nicolae Ceaușescu of Romania came away from his state visit with a K (specifically the Grand Cross Order of the Bath).

To be fair he did reciprocate, awarding the Queen the Star of the Socialist Republic of Romania – first class, no less. They didn’t just hand that out to anyone, you know – other recipients included Nikita Krushchev and Kim Il-sung.

What on earth was the then British government thinking? It’s true that Ceaușescu had turned against Moscow, raising hopes of fractures in the Communist Bloc. But at home his regime was utterly brutal – vying only with Enver Hoxha’s Albania for the extent of its totalitarianism.

Ceaușescu’s knighthood was revoked in 1989, but by that time this was the least of his worries – he was too busy fleeing the capital (to no avail, he and his wife were arrested and executed).

1. Xi Jinping

Speaking of communists, the Queen has put on a right royal show for no less than three Chinese Presidents – Jiang Zemin (1999), Hu Jintao (2005) and, most recently, Xi Jinping in 2015. There were some protests for Xi’s state visit, but a small fraction of those likely to turn out against Trump.

Why is this? Yes, Trump is Trump and unworthy to be President. But compare the noisy disapprobation directed at his travel ban on visitors from some Muslim countries with, say, the muted response to the mass persecution of Muslims in China – where, by some estimates, there are more than a million Muslim Uighurs in detention camps.

This is far from the only issue in which we see such inconsistency in outrage levels. Whether it’s on women’s rights, LGBT rights or environmental issues – the discrepancies are glaring.

Why are western leaders, especially those from English-speaking countries, held to higher standards than other leaders? Is it that more is expected from some parts of the world than others? And, if so, isn’t that a bit racist?

Of course, familiarity breeds contempt – and the faults of one’s closest relations tend to loom larger than those of more distant nations. But if that’s the case and the protesters really are the internationalists they consider themselves to be, then shouldn’t they educate themselves? Or perhaps it’s the other way round – with British activists assuming they have more influence on American politics than on Chinese politics? There’s half a point there, but the other half is that most Americans don’t give a fig for our opinions on their politics.

Finally, it’s worth pointing out that in democratic societies, street protests are largely the preserve of the Left. For some reason, the more conservatively-minded prefer the ballot box to walking down the road shouting things. Therefore, the visiting leaders who get shouted at the most are those who suit some kind of Left-wing agenda. When non-western leaders do attract protest, for instance the Saudis, it tends be those who illustrate the compromises and hypocrisies of our own foreign policy.

Fair enough. One can’t look down the list of state visits and not feel a little bit sick.

Still, this is a country where one can scream insults at powerful men and go home without a broken head – so there’s always that.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.


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