On January 18, Westminster will debate a proposal to ban U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump from the UK for hate speech, following a 572,000 signature petition. Ethan DeWitt caught up with Aberdonian activist Suzanne Kelly back in December, shortly after her petition became the most successful in Parliamentary history.
The following has been edited for space and clarity. Interview conducted by Ethan DeWitt on Friday, December 11, 2015.
The Student: This petition started at the end of November before Trump’s inflammatory comments on banning Muslims from the U.S. It seems to have been in response to local Aberdeen issues, principally his golf course?
Suzanne Kelly: That was the kernel of my interest in Donald Trump. But I’ve always over the years watched as he’s insulted one group after another. I think he made a comment about “I wish I were a well educated black”—that’s been stuck in my head for some time. Comments about wanting Jewish people to count his money. Comments about building a wall between Mexico and the States, while of course the man has some of his clothing made in Mexico.
And all this has been sitting in my head but now we’ve been watching it get worse and worse while he’s become a presidential nominee [sic]. And the enormity of him possibly becoming the commander in chief of the American army and having his finger on the button is giving me sleepless nights.
But the real catalyst for it was when I saw him mocking the journalist, and then trying to turn it around and asking the New York Times to apologise to him, which of course it didn’t. I thought, this is somebody either who’s so deceitful that he’s got us all running around thinking that he’s right about so many of these issues—and unfortunately so many Americans do—or he’s deluded. And I thought, whatever the case is, this is not someone I want to be in charge of world at this point in time.
We need somebody who’s going to be a diplomat. Somebody who’s going to want to calm things down, and try and get reconciliations going where they are needed. Not to bother some Muslims when they want to come to America.
Did you expect the petition to have the impact that it did?
I’ve been writing about him for years, and occasionally I’ve had some small successes, and I’ve thought that’s wonderful, I’m doing my bit. I thought if I made these two petitions, that if I worked really really hard maybe I’d get one or two press releases and maybe get some people interest.
I did not in my wildest dreams think that 38 Degrees [the name of the petition site] would find—is it nearly 80,000 people now to sign a petition that’s been successful about revoking his degree at RGU [Robert Gordon University]? I never thought that he would lose his Global Scots status so quickly. And I never thought that I would have been the author of the fastest and most popular ever United Kingdom petition to government. I’m overawed by all of it.
I will say that yeah, I’m a bit used to dealing with the press, I’m a bit used to be on camera or being interviewed. But the onslaught’s been amazing. I just got off the phone with a middle eastern television station, where I’ve been Skyping—I’ve been on quite a few things. But while that’s overwhelming for me, the overall effect is I feel really humbled by all this—I feel a part of something that’s a machine that’s 500,000 strong at the moment. None of this would be happening without the half a million people agreeing with me.
So was this petition born out of making a political statement of disgust, or do you see banning him from the country as a legitimate policy change?
I suppose I wanted to to be a platform for people who are sick and tired of hate to be able to say “this is never going to go anywhere, it’s not going to work, but I’m going to stand up and say I’ve had enough of bigotry, sexism, religious bias, and racism.” That’s what my goal was and I’d dare say it’s certainly struck a tipping point.
Were you surprised at how much engagement there was by fellow Brits on an American political figure running in an American primary?
Well, Scotland and Trump’s relationship is something that I’ve been very involved in and interested in since he came up to Scotland and stripped some of our environmental protection off the Balmedie estate, treated people foully in my opinion, and of course there was the arrest of the journalists Baxter and Phinney. You’ve probably seen the documentary You’ve Been Trumped, or you know of it.
To appease a foreign billionaire and his deluded plans to build a golf course on that magnitude in a stretch of land in Scotland [shows that] the powers that be were willing to sweep away the protection of journalism, the protection of the environment. Well, this has happened to a lot of Scots. I’m not alone in this distrust and dislike by any score.
There’s been some criticism and even a counter petition against the proposed UK ban. The criticism is that it’s not the UK’s place to call out these remarks on Trump and that pre-emptively banning him from the country would have repercussions if he should ultimately win. Is that a valid argument?
Not even remotely. I think if you examine the logic of some of the comments that I’ve seen that say things like that and say things like “well, he’s got the right of free speech, and we shouldn’t ban him until he—“ what are we waiting for him to do? If we’re gonna wait for him to do something that’s so unacceptable, what might that be actually?
To build off that, George Osborne has said the country should “engage in robust democratic debate” rather than ban him. Do you agree with that assessment, and do you think that’s the direction the government’s aiming to go?
I kind of thought that I was using the democratic process here by using existing principles, laws and tools. There’s not many ways a person can fight a billionaire who’s got friends in high places. And I thought that I was exercising my freedoms and my free speech by setting this up. The petitions committee thought about it and agreed with me. And anybody who wants to set up a petition such as one to you know, make him King of England or whatever, welcome him—yeah you’re free to do that too. By all means, do whatever you want to do under the rule of law.
It’ll be very interesting to see how the UK Parliament handles this. I have no idea what the outcome will be. I don’t know anybody who does know. I think that George Osborne might have been just a little bit presumptuous and premature.
So this petition has become a lightning rod in terms of public opinion. Anyone can create a petition, but yours seems to have captured a moment. Are you going to try and take this momentum into any other areas of public policy?
I would like to see people with more experience and more power use something with this momentum. I’m certainly not an expert. I am a little, amateur, unpaid journalist/campaigner/activist in a part of Aberdeen. There are people with more expertise. As for me I certainly don’t want any power. I’m not going to start doing a whole bunch of preposterous television shows and things. But I think that naturally there are going to be some great outcomes out of this. I really really do.
In terms of the overall tenor of the country, Britain has had its own debates on these issues, and a lot of the same fear that Trump has preyed on in the U.S. exists over here. Do you think the response to this petition is an antidote to that?
That would almost be too much to hope for. But yeah, I want to live in a world where nobody cares what colour, religion, nationality, or sex somebody is. And where people are free to speak up. I want to live in a world where extremists are dealt with, but not everyone who’s in the same broad group is painted with the same broad brush.
This has been said by many before on this issue, but the last person who tried to exploit the fears of an entire group of nations was a German gentleman back in the late 30s/early 40s. I don’t want to see anything like that ever happen in anyon’e lifetime again. If me being silly and doing this thing—and many people are saying it was silly to even do it—if it’s just nothing more than standing up and saying I’ve had enough of this hatred, then that’s good enough for me. And apparently, I’m not alone.
So is the future brighter in the U.K. for tolerance?
Well hopefully it would be. [Laughs]. It certainly won’t be just because of me; it’ll be because of people building on this sort of [movement] that might actually go somewhere. There are a lot of people of course who want us to have separatism and fears and hatreds. And this is just my way of saying no to all of that.