The Independant – An unprecedented security operation is being put in place to protect George Bush and his entourage from mass protests and potential terrorist attacks when they arrive in London in 19 days’ time. Scotland Yard has cancelled all police leave for the three-day trip, which will be the first state visit paid to Britain by a President of the United States in more than 80 years.
Sir John Stevens, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, said yesterday that 50,000 to 60,000 anti-war protesters were expected to demonstrate against the American leader. Organisers of a rally in central London on 20 November said they were expecting more than 100,000 people. Opponents of the Iraq war, anti-globalists and anarchist groups are expected to join forces in opposition to the presidential visit.
There are also fears of a terrorist attack;Sir John said yesterday that Britain remained on a high security alert, and the head of MI5 has warned of an attempted strike by al-Qa’ida supporters.
Up to 4,000 police officers are expected to be used to cover the demonstrations during the visit from 19 to 21 November, and the total cost will be more than £1m. One of the biggest concerns for the police and intelligence services is a suicide bomb attack. Armed officers will be on duty and will have the authorisation to open fire under exceptional circumstances.
The officers policing the various demonstrations have been warned not to use any heavy-handed tactics or to prevent the public from displaying anti-Bush slogans. This follows widespread criticism of the Met when its officers removed banners and Tibetan flags from demonstrators protesting in central London against the state visit by the Chinese President, Jiang Zemin, in 1999. The Met later apologised for its actions.
Speaking yesterday of the security arrangements, Sir John said: “I have cancelled leave for this organisation because the operational demands over a three to four-day period will be substantial.
“There will be substantial demonstrations over President Bush’s visit – as much as 50,000 to 60,000 people. Apart from ensuring his safety, which is our primary concern, we have to ensure the demonstrations are allowed to take place in the normal way we do in this democracy.”
The Commissioner confirmed that the American secret service would have a “considerable presence in London under our direction”. Sir John said the combination of a series of large public order events in quick succession, including President Bush’s visit and Remembrance Day events, would “widely stretch this organisation to the limits”.
The Stop the War Coalition has been mobilising opposition to Mr Bush’s visit and has arranged demonstrations, including a mock royal procession, a national march and a rally in Trafalgar Square, where protestors plan to topple a statue of the President.
Ghada Razuki, one of the organisers, said: “The reaction we have been getting is pretty phenomenal. It is not just from people who are against the Iraq war, but from people who just hate Bush for what he has done to the environment. We are expecting a minimum of 100,000 will come to protest.”
She added that the organisation had sent out 80,000 leaflets and stickers saying “F*** Bush”, “Bush Not Welcome”, and “Bush-Free Zone”, in the past four days.
Another organisation, Global Resistance, tells visitors to its website: “Many groups and activists are uniting to make London inhospitable for Bush. We need to make the place as unwelcoming as possible.”
The anti-war feeling among many sections of the public and a significant number of Labour MPs has influenced Downing Street and the police in arranging a low-key schedule. Mr Bush is thought unlikely to address both Houses of Parliament, despite the fact that Tony Blair addressed a joint session of Congress in July.
The President and his wife, Laura, will stay at Buckingham Palace and undertake a series of private engagements, thought to include a visit to the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. There will be extensive private talks with Mr Blair at Downing Street and two state banquets with members of the Royal Family, senior politicians and prominent Americans living in Britain. Plans to join the Queen for a procession down The Mall have been scrapped because of security concerns and potentially embarrassing demonstrations.
No decision has yet been made on whether the President will accompany Mr Blair to his Sedgefield constituency, but a trip to Scotland, where Mr Bush spent childhood family holidays, has been ruled out.
Mr Bush’s visit is technically the first state visit by a US president since Woodrow Wilson in 1918. Ronald Reagan’s 1982 trip to Britain was not declared a state visit even though he stayed at Windsor Castle.
Mr Bush’s trip carries considerable political risks for both him and Mr Blair. The White House and Downing Street had hoped that, by now, the fortunes of both men would have been boosted by the discovery of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
From Mr Bush’s perspective, television images of him being confronted by thousands of furious protesters on a visit to what is supposed to be America’s closest ally could further dent public confidence in the US in his abilities.
Ceremonial arrival in the UK, followed by a private lunch with the Queen. The President and his wife, Laura, will stay at Buckingham Palace.
In the evening of day one, there will be a state banquet, hosted by the Queen, whose guests will include members of the Royal Family, Tony Blair, the Archbishop of Canterbury and captains of industry.
On day two, there will be talks with the Prime Minister. In the evening, Mr Bush will host a banquet for the Queen and invite well-known Americans living in the UK.
During the stay, Mr Bush will visit the Cenotaph in Whitehall to pay his respects to the war dead.
Other controversial visits
Japan’s wartime head of state was welcomed by silent crowds in London as war veterans and former prisoners of war turned their backs on him during his state visit to Britain in 1971. The frosty reception underlined how war wounds had still not healed after more than 25 years. During the same visit, the Emperor was made a Knight of the Garter, the oldest British Order of Chivalry which was founded in 1348.
Putin’s visit in June this year was the first official visit by Russian head of state since 1843. The president’s trip, featuring four days of state processions, was opposed by those who felt that the former KGB chief had “blood on his hands”, as well as by Amnesty International and other human rights groups, who highlightedreports of extra-judicial execution, rape and torture by Russian forces in Chechnya.
The Chinese President’s state visit in October 1999, the first ever, ended on a controversial note after Chinese officials criticised the British government for not doing more to stop demonstrations by human rights protesters. There were noisy calls to free Tibet and protests against human rights violations in China. Bands of protesters waved Tibetan flags and shouted slogans during processions.
The Queen Mother did not attend the state functions during the Zimbabwean president’s visit to Britain in 1994. She did not have tea with him, usually a fixture for visiting heads of state, and neither did she attend the state dinner given in his honour. The official explanation was that she was in Scotland.
The Romanian Communist dictator and his wife Elena were invited to Britain to meet the Queen in 1978, just over a decade before they were executed by a firing squad on Christmas day in 1989 for war crimes and bankrupting the nation. His visit was afforded full state honours and the couple travelled in a carriage with the Queen from Victoria station to Buckingham Palace.