British lawmakers reacted angrily Wednesday to President Donald Trump’s retweeting of anti-Muslim videos initially posted by a far-right British leader who’s been convicted of hate speech.
Several lawmakers called on Prime Minister Theresa May to cancel a “working visit” by the president scheduled for next year.
“He is no ally or friend of ours,” said Labour lawmaker David Lammy, adding that the U.S. president is not welcome in Britain.
Prime Minister May’s spokesman said Trump was “wrong” to retweet the videos. “British people overwhelmingly reject the prejudiced rhetoric of the far right, which is the antithesis of the values that this country represents — decency, tolerance and respect. It is wrong for the president to have done this,” he said.
Even normally pro-Trump British politicians criticized Trump for sharing three Twitter posts by Jayda Fransen, the deputy leader of the far-right anti-immigrant group Britain First, which calls for a return of “traditional British values” and an end to “Islamization.”
Trump’s retweets came Wednesday morning with the first unverified video claiming to show Muslim migrants beating up a Dutch boy on crutches.
Moments later the president shared a second video, also initially posted by Fransen, which claimed to show a Muslim destroying a statue of the Virgin Mary.
A third post carried the message: “Islamist mob pushes teenage boy off roof and beats him to death!”
Fransen and Britain First
Fransen has had several run-ins with police for hate speech, as have other leaders of Britain First who have been accused of religious harassment and incitement. Earlier this month, Fransen was found guilty of religiously aggravated harassment after she verbally abused a Muslim woman for wearing a hijab.
Fransen was charged in September with religiously aggravated harassment along with Britain First’s leader, Paul Goldings, for the distribution of inflammatory leaflets in the southern English town of Canterbury. Fransen is awaiting trial. In December, she is due in court in Northern Ireland to face charges of using threatening and abusive language during a speech she made at an anti-terrorism protest in Belfast.
Britain First’s ideology is thought to have inspired the assassin of British lawmaker Jo Cox. Thomas Mair, Cox’s killer, shouted “Britain first” just before slaying her during the Brexit referendum campaign last year. At his trial, no formal link was found between Mair and the group Britain First, which was founded in 2011 by former members of the British National Party. The group claims to have 6,000 members and has almost two million “likes” on its Facebook page.
The murdered lawmaker’s widower, Brendan Cox, also responded Wednesday to the Trump retweets, tweeting back: “Trump has legitimized the far-right in his own country, now he’s trying to do it in ours. Spreading hatred has consequences and the president should be ashamed of himself.”
Politicians, Muslims react
Consequences were immediately apparent on the floor of the House of Commons. “I hope our government will condemn far-right retweets by Donald Trump. They are abhorrent, dangerous and a threat to our society,” said Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn.
As Labour lawmaker Stephen Doughty questioned government ministers on the floor of the House of Commons over the tweets, other lawmakers, including Conservatives, could be heard interjecting and calling them “absolutely disgraceful.”
Labour’s Yvette Cooper, a former government minister, urged the ruling Conservatives to condemn the “significant and serious” posts, saying, “the woman in question has already been convicted of hate crime in this country.” She added that Trump had given her a “huge platform.” Several lawmakers called for Trump’s planned 2018 invitation to visit to be withdrawn.
Among them was Chuka Umunna, an opposition lawmaker. “At some point, you’ve got to draw a line,” he said.
British Muslim groups joined the criticism of the U.S. president. A Muslim Council of Britain spokesperson said: “It is outrageous that the president of the USA is sharing anti-Muslim content from a renowned far-right extremist group in the UK. We hope our prime minister and home secretary will distance ourselves from Mr. Trump and his comments, and will reiterate the government’s abhorrence to all forms of extremism.”
Dilemma for May
While the backlash grew, Britain First supporters celebrated the presidential retweets. Fransen herself tweeted: “God bless you Trump! God bless America!”, signing off with the abbreviation OCS, meaning Onward Christian Soldiers.
Some British populists who are normally supportive of Trump question the wisdom of the retweets. Paul Joseph Watson, a Britain-based editor of the far-right conspiracy website Infowars, said: “Yeah, someone might want to tell whoever is running Trump’s Twitter account this morning that retweeting Britain First is not great optics.”
Steven Wolfe, a British lawmaker in the European Parliament, was highly critical of the president’s sharing of the Britain First videos, but said Trump should still visit Britain next year as it would provide an opportunity for “people to talk some sense to him about immigration and culture.”
For Prime Minister May, the retweets pose a dilemma. She has been critical of Trump publicly before for his tweets, notably in connection with terror attacks in Britain. But at the same time, her government is desperate to make progress in talks on a free trade deal with the U.S. to help make up for the economic impact of Brexit.
Opinion polls have consistently shown disapproval for a Trump visit. Last month, British and U.S. officials revealed that a scaled-down “working” trip was being planned for next year, most likely January, that would not include the U.S. president meeting the queen or staying at Buckingham Palace.
Shortly after his inauguration, Theresa May invited Trump for a state visit to Britain. But lawmakers from across the political spectrum criticized the invitation, including John Bercow, the Commons Speaker, who announced he would oppose Trump being allowed to make an address to the British Parliament. Amid an unprecedented backlash among lawmakers and the threat of mass protests, the trip was delayed.