LONDON: They came at him with every insult imaginable: demagogue, idiot, fool, buffoon.
They depicted him as a menace, a danger to public safety.
And they mused with care and concern over the country across the Atlantic that’s given him so much prominence in its politics.
But in the end, the dozens of members of the British Parliament who spent an extraordinary three hours Monday debating about the front-runner for the Republican nomination for U.S. president did not ban Donald Trump.
A ban wasn’t their plan, though that was the ostensible excuse for meeting. It wasn’t in their power, anyway. Only the Home Secretary can decide to bar an individual from British shores.
But even if a ban had been an option, it wasn’t the preference of a majority of those who spoke during a passionate and, insults aside, reasonably high-minded discussion that touched on weighty issues of free speech, political extremism and what’s become of Britain’s American cousins.
No one spoke to defend Trump – and everyone took turns condemning him. But for many, the logic came down to this: Trump may strike them as despicable, but it would be playing into his hands, and could even help his U.S. prospects, to bar him from the country. The better option, they suggested, was to prove to him that he had it all wrong.
“I stand here as a proud British Muslim woman. Donald Trump would like me banned from America. But in my Islam, what it teaches me is that goodness is better than evil,” said Naz Shah, who represents a city in northern England, Bradford, with a high concentration of immigrants. “If someone does bad, you do good in return. I will not allow the rhetoric of badness into my heart.”
Instead of banning Trump, Shah proposed that the real estate mogul pay her a visit. The member of the opposition Labour Party promised she would show him around “the curry capital of Britain,” take him to a local mosque and try to disabuse him of any misconceptions about life in the U.K.
It was Trump’s December comments about Britain – including suggestions that London is filled with no-go zones where even the police fear to tread – that raised the ire of many Britons.
Coupled with his proposal that Muslims be banned from the United States, his words prompted more than 570,000 people to sign an online petition demanding that he be outlawed from visiting the United Kingdom on the grounds that he was peddling “hate speech.”
Parliament’s newly created Petitions Committee decided to take up the question, and it set aside three hours in a hearing room just down the hall from the famous green benches of the House of Commons.
The resulting debate was, by any measure, unusual. There’s no precedent for British leaders debating whether to ban a man seeking to lead the free world. British politicians are often fascinated by American politics but normally don’t dare interfere.
Monday was a rare exception – and one that some argued should not have been made. Adam Holloway, a member of the ruling Conservative Party, described the debate as “embarrassing” for Britain and suggested that it ran counter to the ideals of free speech to even suggest barring Trump for his comments.
“We should apologize to the people of the United States,” he chided. “It’s for them to decide, not us.”
Even some who supported the debate fretted that it would only add to Trump’s already off-the-charts publicity.
“The best plan was not to give him the accolade of martyrdom, and we may already be in error in giving him far too much attention,” said Paul Flynn, a Labour member who was selected to present the petitioners’ view but ended up siding with those who advocated inviting Trump, not shunning him.
Others countered that the venom behind Trump’s rhetoric was too dangerous to ignore.
Jack Dromey, Labour’s spokesman on home affairs, argued that Britain could not afford to risk a visit from Trump at a time when it’s grappling with extremism – both Islamist and Islamophobic.
“Donald Trump is free to be a fool,” he said. “But he’s not free to be a dangerous fool in Britain.”
Using an acronym for the Islamic State, Dromey suggested that the terrorist group and Trump were co-dependent: “ISIS needs Donald Trump and Donald Trump needs ISIS.”
Trump himself weighed in on the debate through surrogates. Earlier this month, he had threatened to withdraw $1 billion of planned investment in his Scottish golf courses if Britain went through with a ban. On Monday, Sarah Malone, executive vice president of Trump International Golf Links, said in a statement: “For the U.K. to consider banning someone who made a statement in America, about American boarders during a U.S. election campaign is ridiculous.”
But Trump’s threats to withdraw funds didn’t stop members from insulting him. Through a thick brogue, a Scottish National Party member, Anne McLaughlin, noted that Trump is “the son of a Scottish immigrant. And I apologize for that.”
Members were quick to point out that the nation that created Trump had also given the world Martin Luther King Jr.
But Kwazi Kwarteng, a historian and one of a relatively small number of black members of Parliament, argued that to focus on King and ignore Trump was to disregard the streak of nativism that has always run through American politics.
Banning Trump, he said, wouldn’t solve that. Besides, he noted, Trump could win. And that would be supremely awkward for the closest U.S. ally: “We would be in the absurd situation of having banned the president of the United States.”