BRAINTREE, England (Reuters) - Britons have protested in their thousands against Donald Trump, almost 1.9 million oppose his planned state visit to their country and the U.S. president is not welcome to address the lower house of parliament. But in Braintree, people feel differently.
Residents of the eastern English town are unenthusiastic about Trump but they reflect what national opinion polls are showing - that Prime Minister Theresa May has the backing of many voters as she tries to court the new U.S. leader.
“I’m not for Trump, I don’t like what he’s about. But he should visit, I don’t see why not,” 73-year-old pensioner Alan Rowe told Reuters.
A recent poll by YouGov found 49 percent of Britons believe the state visit should go ahead, with 36 percent wanting it cancelled. But behind the national figures lie big differences of opinion.
Braintree is only about 60 km (40 miles) from London but political views in the mid-sized town are far apart from those in the multicultural capital. Whereas Londoners overwhelmingly backed remaining in the European Union in last year’s referendum, 62 percent of Braintree residents voted to leave - 10 percentage points more than the national result.
Many approve of the prime minister’s decision to seek a clean break from the EU after more than 40 years of membership, including leaving the European single market. “I agree with May’s approach. If we’re leaving, we shouldn’t just go half way,” said Rowe, who voted leave in June.
With Britain distancing itself from EU allies, there is support in Braintree for May’s attempt to revitalise what politicians call the “special relationship” with the United States. Trump has repeatedly praised Brexit.
“I trust Theresa May,” said Brenda Williamson, 79, another retiree who voted for Brexit.
She expressed backing for the U.S. alliance and concern about immigration - an issue that won support for both Brexit campaigners and Trump in last year’s votes on either side of the Atlantic. Equally, she felt May, who has described Trump’s comments on women as “unacceptable”, would stand up to him.
“It’s such early days for Trump, we have to wait and see. He’s such a new broom and he might sweep too quickly,” she said. “But they are our best allies, and May wants to make the best of it, and she will be firm with him.”
Such views are common in the less affluent towns that voted to leave the EU and have sometimes struggled with rapid economic change. Braintree’s shopping high street has been gutted in recent years, and the town has a relatively large proportion of the elderly voters who largely backed Brexit - around 20 percent are over 65, compared with roughly 18 percent nationwide.
But Britons are split, with thousands in London joining worldwide women’s protests against Trump last month. These divisions deepened with May’s invitation to Trump for the state visit when she became the first foreign leader to visit the new president in Washington.
State visits are marked by much pageantry, traditionally including a carriage ride for the visiting head of state to Buckingham Palace to stay as a guest of the Queen.
Overall, May is feeling relatively little heat. Her Conservatives are around 15 percentage points ahead of Labour in the polls, with the opposition party split over Brexit.
Still, an online petition, which calls for Trump to be let into Britain but not for a state visit “because it would cause embarrassment to Her Majesty the Queen”, has attracted 1.85 million signatures. An opposing petition has drawn just 300,000.
Then this week House of Commons speaker John Bercow, a Conservative, rejected any plans for Trump to address the chamber during the visit, a date for which has yet to be set.
While Britons remain far from convinced about Trump, there are some signs of movement. Another poll by YouGov found that only one in five has a positive impression of Trump, but this has more than doubled from just eight percent since last August.
The survey also found that Conservatives, pro-Brexit voters and people over 65 had the most improved views on the new president. Braintree fits those demographics.
Many respondents expressed concern over immigration, with older voters more likely to favour restrictions.
Younger Braintree residents appear less worried. “It doesn’t bother me - I’ve worked with people from all different countries. I think it’s more the older generation that care about immigration,” said Tammy Davies, 28, a bartender.
In London, thousands have also demonstrated against Trump’s attempt to suspend entry to the United States for citizens of seven Muslim majority states on the grounds of protecting the country from terrorism.
But feelings aren’t quite so strong in Braintree. “I don’t like the policy. Maybe one or two, or a dozen people in a country might be dangerous, but you can’t ban everyone,” said Mohon Ahmad, who is in his late thirties and works in a dry cleaners. “But as a country’s leader you have to accept that he can visit. He’s been democratically elected.”
editing by David Stamp