There was a very good case to be made for Tony Blair’s handling of the Iraq issue. His critics never sufficiently acknowledged his efforts to play a difficult hand in a difficult game. He is nobody’s poodle. It was wise, rather than craven, not to isolate the Americans, still smarting from the affront as well as the horror of 11 September. And if it was important to encourage them to work through the UN, does anyone suppose that this could have been achieved simply by hectoring them, whether in English or in French? A hawkish American President was persuaded, by a process of coalition building in which the Prime Minister was a key player, to seek UN support for forcing Saddam Hussein to comply with his international obligations. And does anyone suppose that – unforced – any compliance would have been forthcoming? So Blair’s approach should fairly be credited with more successes than failures, even at the time when millions took to the streets to denounce him. Right up to the end of February, he seemed to have the better of the argument. Who would have thought that Iraq’s benighted regime would submit to this degree of containment by a peaceful UN process, backed by the credible sanction of force? Whether his critics liked it or not, was it not Blair’s policy that had actually done most to stop a war in Iraq?
The war, however, was stalled rather than stopped, as we all know. What, then, was the fatal flaw in the case for supporting Blair? Surely the assumption that he was a moderating influence on the US. It was a moment of truth, in more respects than one, when he declared, as he first did in an interview on 1 March: ‘If the Americans were not doing this, I would be pressing for them to be doing so.’ Yet we had been here before: it was not Iraq but Kosovo that first established Blair as an international leader – as the most resolute champion of effective intervention, whatever the risks and whatever the costs, and without UN sanction. This was the issue on which Blair had forced the pace, despite American wariness. ‘This is now a battle of good and evil,’ he told readers of the Sun in April 1999. He saw it as a victory achieved against the odds. His belief that he’d been vindicated fortified him again in Afghanistan.
In handling the Iraq crisis, then, a justifiable prudential strategy was, by March, overtaken and overwhelmed by this paradigm, underpinned by a commitment that became increasingly messianic. From this point – not wholly without prior warning, but henceforth unmistakably – Blair’s rhetoric shifted gear, from conditional to imperative and from consequential to moral. In the process the issue changed. The problem was no longer to identify and find and contain the weapons of mass destruction that were the basis of the case put to the UN. The task was redefined, increasingly explicitly, as that of overthrowing the forces of evil represented by Saddam Hussein and his regime. When Blair talked, as he did increasingly, of being judged by history, it was in these virtually providential terms. Hence his retrospective claim that history would forgive him, even if no weapons of mass destruction were ever found, presumably because he had put on the whole armour of God and stood against the wiles of the Devil.
This is not what we signed up for. No, let me put it more personally: I don’t want to fall into Blair’s habit of co-opting others into a supposed consensus that they do not share. Perhaps I should openly declare my own agenda and confess my own record, which is – or was – by no means anti-Blair.
I have written about politics in the LRB for over twenty years now, though not as a paid-up member of the Labour Party. It was precisely a lack of fealty to Old Labour that made voters like me receptive to attempts to modernise the Labour Party. Ten years ago, for example, I was writing of Kinnock and his efforts to stitch up union support for reform: ‘Like Moses, he led his followers within sight of the promised land. It is up to his successor to keep on with the tablets.’ That successor, in October 1993, was still John Smith; so it was a pre-Blair perspective that led me to conclude: ‘If a “labour party” did not exist, it would not be necessary to invent it. But a social democratic party known as the Labour Party, with an unstitched leadership, is more necessary than ever.’
Little wonder that the sudden advent of Blair seemed so liberating to those of us who had almost despaired of getting rid of the Tories – and who thought that the necessary preliminaries included getting rid of Clause Four and doing so without depending on trade union influence. Hence the fine spring promise in 1995:
Tony Blair has shown that he is alert to the implication that Labour needs to be imaginative, flexible and responsive if it is to be confident of victory next time. The alternative strategy, of course, seen in the defenders of Clause Four, is to wait with undiminished confidence for the tide to turn, whereupon socialist fidelity and patience will receive their repeatedly postponed but ultimately inevitable vindication. This is bad politics, feeding on bad history. The need for adroitness in catching the tide is one message which the new Labour Party ought to learn from . . . its tough, wily, resilient, shrewd, adaptable – and often remarkably lucky – opponents. Who knows? Under Blair Labour might get lucky too.
And lucky it became, almost beyond belief. We need to remember what a transformation of the political landscape Blair presided over. As the general election of 1997 approached it seemed necessary to point out the obvious: ‘Labour sympathisers are superstitiously afraid to believe the evidence of their own eyes about the scale of their impending triumph, ever mindful of their nasty experience last time. The fact that Blair has dispelled any real apprehension about a Labour Government (except perhaps on the left) has been slow to sink in.’ If Blair had squared the political circle by combining an appeal to boldness with an offer of reassurance, the essential precondition was the trust that he inspired.
It is trust that is now at stake. When we were first confronted with the published evidence as to whether Iraq posed an immediate threat, it was obvious that the Prime Minister had sources on which he could not fully dilate in public. If he made claims which seemed to lack convincing proof, that he seemed convinced was itself persuasive, licensing the reasonable assumption that he must know something we did not. Under these circumstances a leader who is trusted can make a claim on well-disposed followers whose acquiescence, although intuitive, is not simply gullible. When Churchill told the British people in 1940 that they were in imminent peril from weapons of mass destruction, almost everyone took him on trust, and they weren’t wrong; nor was he.
Tony Blair has often appealed for trust. His own sincerity has been part of his political armoury. But he has been able to maintain this posture partly by employing a succession of advisers of more robust disposition. In the continuing disputes, notably with the BBC, about the veracity of the Government’s presentation of British intelligence, an important line has been crossed. This has become a zero-sum game, which one side can win only if the other loses. The Government has entered into a bitter tactical skirmish about whether it was Alastair Campbell who manipulated the evidence. But suppose he is totally and utterly exonerated of this specific charge. This simply sharpens the infinitely more damaging strategic issue: if Campbell did not exaggerate the case for war, who did?
Blair and his inner circle bear an inescapable burden of responsibility. They have played together as a team and he is indisputably the captain. The football idiom here is not just a metaphor: it’s more serious than that. When Peter Stothard was allowed to follow Blair for the month that saw the Iraq war begin, he quickly had to learn the argot, as his revealing book recounts.Campbell duly makes his dig against Jack Straw, who is the MP for Blackburn: ‘What do Saddam Hussein and Blackburn Rovers have in common? They both put people in football stadiums and torture them.’ Here is another joke from Campbell. ‘Just remember: when we get our own dictatorship here, I will control all the media.’ This time Blair comes back. ‘That will be good: non-stop football videos from Burnley.’ The Prime Minister’s ability to bluff his way through this wearying welter of football talk is well caught. It is a laddish, locker-room badinage that I remember with indulgent nostalgia from my days playing college rugby; we, too, thought we were a great team but I’m not sure that the future of the country ought to have been entrusted to us. Stothard’s diary for 25 March records: ‘Iraq has temporarily replaced football as the favoured male metaphor.’
All credit to Blair for admitting Stothard to his circle. It shows that the Prime Minister felt that he had nothing to hide, but whether he really appreciates the impact of his candour is another matter. It quickly becomes clear that there was never any question inside 10 Downing Street either that Bush would attack Iraq regardless, or that Blair would support him regardless. ‘On this war,’ Stothard notes, ‘the central commitment has been fixed, not seriously challenged, for at least a year.’ Little wonder that Bush later said of Blair: ‘We’ve learned that he’s a man of his word.’ It follows that Blair’s resort to the UN, his ‘flat-out’ effort to achieve a second resolution, was simply cover for a policy already determined on other criteria. Little wonder, too, that Blair later professed himself ‘uncomfortable’ with sticking to the terms of the UN resolutions. The UN Secretary-General was thus an important player but never a decisive one, merely lending his name to eponymous ploys in public relations. ‘Yes, we want more Kofi,’ a Downing Street aide says, faced with an embarrassing twist. ‘We seriously have to Kofi now.’ It all came down to signing up Kofi for Burnley.
In some ways it seems unjust that Blair has had to face more criticism over the war than Bush. But Bush never seriously purported to be waging the sort of war that Blair thought he could get the UN to support. Bush’s war was pretty straightforward in its objective of regime change, which has happened, as it was bound to once US forces had been committed. All that Bush needed to justify war was the war itself. What Blair would need to justify the war would be not only the end of the former Iraqi regime, which nobody mourns, but a good peace. This is what he promised, not least for Palestine. What was at stake was always the consequences of his actions, not his moral convictions. Whether Iraq and Palestine and the whole region are now better off and a lesser threat to peace is still the test.
‘Governments are recognising that they made a bad choice on Iraq,’ Blair said to himself (and Stothard, of course) on 6 April. He was thinking of Jean Chrétien, the Canadian Prime Minister, who had recently telephoned, and, having kept his country out of the firing line, was, according to Blair, rueful at being ‘on the wrong side’. Perhaps they ought to swap notes again, five months later. These have not been happy months for Blair. It is obvious that he cannot really understand why people are still exercised about the way the case for war was presented or why they are not content to rejoice at the fall of Saddam instead of fretting about whether the evidence was strong enough to justify the second resolution in the UN. If only the weapons of mass destruction could be produced, what fools the French would look! As it is, our parliamentary system, reinforced by the media, has held Blair to account.
For those of us who have supported Blair up till now, and have been sympathetic to New Labour as an improvement on Old Labour, there is now a crisis of leadership. ‘The only plausible alternative to Tony Blair is not Gordon Brown but Robin Cook,’ was Ross McKibbin’s challenging conclusion in the LRB last month – all members of the present Cabinet are thereby disqualified from the succession. But although Cook’s manifest vindication warrants his return to high office, it is simply not realistic to think that he can displace Blair. Still less do we need a return to Old Labour. The social democratic dimension of New Labour, by contrast, has been explored most convincingly in the initiatives of the present Chancellor, who displays a moral commitment in domestic policy without Blair’s messianic zeal in foreign affairs. If Blair is still the man we took him for, and wishes to secure the continued ascendancy of New Labour, he should take the obvious and honourable steps to settle the future leadership of his Party while he is still able to do so.