Friend, thou art not wanted here

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The Independent Online

We most of us have these dates in the future that creep up on us like thieves in the night. With me it is the speaking engagement. The invitation is for months ahead; its terms are flattering; the organisation is worthy; all expenses (within reason) will be paid. As Mr Barry Norman denies ever having said: why not?

All of a sudden, what was once in the future is now round the corner. I write to the secretary saying that, if he is expecting a full-scale formal lecture, he will be disappointed: hoping thereby to cause him to call the whole thing off. Not a bit of it. He (or, more usually, she) replies by return of post, saying that the more informal the occasion, the better they will be pleased. The day arrives. It is not a disaster by any means, though the train journey is tedious, and the accommodation is not all that might be desired. Was it worth it? In particular, was it worth the worry beforehand? Almost certainly not. The result is that in the evening of my days I have acquired strength of mind, and no longer accept these invitations in the first place.

Mr Tony Blair may well feel the same way about the visit of Mr George Bush to these shores later this week. It is very difficult to get to the bottom of how and why it was arranged. In trying to disentangle these matters I have been helped by an article by Mr Peter Oborne in the current Spectator. Mr Oborne has a good record in affairs royal or, at any rate, in those concerned with politicians. It was he who took on and defeated Mr Alastair Campbell over Mr Blair's attempt to intervene in the obsequies of the Queen Mother.

The jaunt was first thought up in the aftermath of the Afghanistan war, when the United States was our glorious ally, as it still is in Mr Blair's eyes, if not more so. The odd thing was that it was to be a state visit and not an ordinary presidential trip such as most of Mr Bush's predecessors had enjoyed. The only President to have been honoured with a state visit was Woodrow Wilson early in the last century. Even Mr Ronald Reagan did not manage it.

Several commentators, particularly those of a leftish disposition, have noticed this discrimination and have complained about it as indicating an excess of favour for the present incumbent. The truth is, however, that a state visit is an inferior type of government hospitality, even though in formal terms it may be provided by the Queen. It is doled out shamelessly, cynically even, to the ruler of any state with which the Foreign Office wishes to maintain good relations. He is usually an unsavoury potentate. He then duly returns the hospitality, so bringing about more television footage of native dancers viewed by a bored monarch than anyone should be asked to undergo, including the monarch. Why, even President Ceausescu of Romania was accorded a state visit shortly before his demise, so demonstrating yet again the unfailing instinct of the FO to back the wrong horse.

The explanation for the disinclination of the government, until now, to invite US presidents for state visits - or, perhaps, of US presidents to propose them - cannot lie in any difficulty in determining who at any given moment is the US head of state. It is the President. There can be no question about that.

This is something that Margaret Thatcher never fully grasped in relation to France. In 1984, on the 40th anniversary of the D-Day landings, she could never understand why François Mitterrand was allowed to play a leading part in the proceedings, while she was excluded in favour of Her Majesty. He was, after all, a politician too, just as she was herself. Indeed, he was even more of one. It was explained to her that Mitterrand was head of state, whereas she was not. Eventually, I believe, some compromise was fabricated which did not exclude Mrs Thatcher altogether from the festivities.

A state visit traditionally involves a journey in an open carriage (closed if it is raining) down the Mall. Clearly this creates difficulties for the US security services, as it would have done long before the accession of Mr Bush, at least since 1963. The alternative is to strip the thoroughfare in question of any human life at all - or, perhaps, to obtain a security-vetted crowd from central casting. Either solution seems to deprive the exercise of its original purpose.

The other feature of a state visit is that the visitor and his entourage stay with the Queen. If I were in Mr Bush's place (which thank the Lord I'm not, sir), I would rather stay at Claridge's or some other halfway decent hotel than intrude upon Her Majesty's domestic arrangements. Or I would stay with the US Ambassador, whose enthusiasm for horses gives him a rapport with the Queen which enabled him to engineer this particular visit.

The consequence is that, owing to all the recent electronic activity inside the Palace, she risks being deprived of easy access to her two favourite television programmes, Coronation Street and Channel 4 Racing. The President is also reported to be uneasy at the prospect of having to wear at the various beanos what P G Wodehouse used to call the full soup-and-fish in preference to his customary dinner jacket. But then, he would have had to make this sartorial concession in any event, irrespective of the precise category of the visit.

Why is Mr Bush putting himself through all this? The answer lies in pictures, television film to be shown either at the time or, subsequently, as the election approaches. It does not look as if much decent footage will be available for the purposes which Mr Bush's managers have in mind. But never underestimate the skill or the sycophancy of US television where the President is concerned. The possible advantages for Mr Bush are evident enough.

But what has Mr Blair to get out of it? That is more difficult to say. What Mr Bush wants, apart from pictures of him taking tea at the Palace, is a commitment to provide more troops in Iraq. He has probably got what he wants already. Mr Jack Straw has indicated as much.

There will certainly be demonstrations, and rightly so - though the authorities are perfectly correct to prohibit marches or meetings within a half mile of Westminster when Parliament is sitting, for that has been an accepted part of our law since the early 19th century. The story goes - and I am not sure I believe it - that a Quaker was press-ganged into the navy during the Napoleonic wars. In the middle of an engagement with the French he observed one of the enemy trying to clamber aboard. Taking a marlin-spike, he hit the intruder on the head, saying:

"Friend, thou art not wanted here."