Why did he risk it?

Ross McKibbin

Whether we agree with it or not, there was always a plausible argument for intervention in Iraq. The Prime Minister might, therefore, have fewer problems with public opinion in the future than he does now. The important political question to be asked is not whether his policy is right or wrong – that is a rather different ethical and moral question – but why a man usually so risk-averse was prepared to take so many risks with the unity of the Labour Party. It was, or should have been, apparent to the most casual observer that the Labour Party would be deeply divided by the Government’s policies towards Iraq and, by extension, to the UN. Labour carries far too much historical baggage for such policies to be anything other than divisive; and possibly disastrously divisive.

To this question there seem to be two answers: one personal to the Prime Minister himself; the other relating to the historical antecedents of New Labour. Much of what Blair has done over the last few years, particularly over terrorism and Iraq, is to negotiate; and, to an extent not fully recognised, he likes negotiating and is good at it. Constantly on the move, creating majorities, finding agreement, smoothing differences is his metier. Here his easiness of manner, the democratic bonhomie, is very attractive. And, at least by modern political standards, he defends his position effectively. However tired and careworn he looks – and he now mostly looks both – he performs well. Compare his performances, the quickness on his feet, with those of the inarticulate Bush and we can see his value to the Americans: he presents their case much better than they do. I suspect that he also gets a charge out of these last-minute crises, all acted out before the world’s media, even if they are unresolved. His qualities are probably best seen in his managing of the Irish negotiations, where uncommitted benevolence is at a premium. Whether they are in the end successful or not, he has done as well as any British Prime Minister could do – and that is largely a result of political style. Blair is the democratic statesman par excellence, and he knows it. The difficulty is that the democratic statesman has to pick his moment. Blair was all too successful in coalition-building after 11 September. Arranging coalitions for the Americans when there was almost universal sympathy for them is one thing: arranging them for a war against Iraq is quite another.

Were he merely a talented international fixer this gift for negotiating would be largely unproblematical, but he also brings to negotiating strong emotional, moralising impulses. And this, I think, is the second reason why he has been prepared to take so many party-political risks over Iraq: New Labour’s political strategies, which have now hardened into ideology, afford no outlet for such impulses within British domestic politics. Like so many members of his Cabinet, Blair comes from the left of the Labour Party, and he inherits a tradition of radical reforming rhetoric. Under his leadership, however, the Party, in the interests of winning and retaining power, has deliberately abandoned not merely this rhetoric but any policies which require for their legitimation a radical rhetoric or overt emotional commitment. He will occasionally say ‘I feel passionate about this’ but the passion is unconvincing and forced; it convinces neither us nor him. In the making of domestic policy, furthermore, he is often at sea. He has no secure grasp of policy-making, no clear directions, and, like everyone else, can find in New Labour no body of principles which might steer him. We don’t know what in practice he wants from public policy, and his destructive relationship with Gordon Brown, where the one cancels out the other, frustrates him all the more. The result is that caution and political immobilism have now become instinctive. His last serious intervention in domestic affairs was to declare his opposition to any kind of elected upper house: a declaration that leaves inhabitants of other democracies incredulous. This is a government by no means without achievement, but it has even so been a disappointment: a disappointment in relation to what we had a right to expect and in relation to its own extraordinary electoral strength. Its ambitions are narrowed to those which can be achieved with the least controversy and offend the fewest powerful interests. Blair, we are told, is an admirer of the Asquith Government, but I wonder how much he knows of it. This, after all, was a government which was prepared to take on the House of Lords, the Tory Party, a good part of the ruling class, the rich, even the monarchy, and was dependent on the fruitful relationship between a Prime Minister who in the end sided with the Left and a Chancellor (Lloyd George) who enjoyed offending almost everybody. To read the Liberal Party’s rhetoric during the 1910 elections is to realise that we live in a different world. It is inconceivable that Blair or Brown would behave that way.

There is thus a profound tension within the Government between its strong radical-rhetorical traditions and its practices which has particularly affected the Prime Minister. Whether or not he is aware of the extent to which he is frustrated in domestic affairs by his own political choices and New Labour’s political limitations – I think he is aware – the consequence is that his deeply felt moralising-utopian urges have been displaced onto foreign affairs. His political personality is liberated by foreign policy; he feels he has a freedom to act which New Labour has denied itself in domestic affairs. To listen to his address in the House of Commons during the second debate on Iraq was to hear real passion – a determination to act – which should be put to better use. It is the disproportion between this rhetoric and what is likely (or, worse, not likely) to be attained in Iraq that is so dangerous.

This doesn’t, however, explain everything. Blair’s moral impulses took us to Kosovo, with the support of the majority of the population; and most of us still think it was the right thing to do. It is the apparent randomness of his Iraq policy which distinguishes it from Kosovo. The move from a war against terror to a war against Iraq when there are no logical connections between the two has done more to undermine the Anglo-American case than anything else. Why Iraq? And if Iraq why not all those other countries on various axes of evil? For the Prime Minister the answer is simple: America. We are fighting Iraq because America wishes to fight Iraq. And we support America because the country’s elites long ago concluded that what remains of British influence can be preserved only in alliance with the United States. Even more, we support America because of the centrality of a conception of America to New Labour. Once it forsook an indigenous social democracy the Labour Party was desperate for alternatives, and for many, including Blair and, even more, Gordon Brown, ‘America’ provided that alternative: an alternative which might be Britain’s – open, dynamic, entrepreneurial, self-confident, rich. When Blair went to America after 11 September he left his heart in Washington. He recently told the House of Commons that the alliance with the United States was a matter of faith; and I cannot think of another of our ‘allies’ for whom the normal obligations of prudence and self-interest would be ignored like this. I don’t imagine Blair made a calculation that unless one country (i.e. Britain) took on the role of America’s ally no one would be in a position to restrain America’s unilateralism – though that could have been an incidental outcome. It was belief. The result is that both the old Foreign Office elites and New Labour elites have a view of America that is not shared by the rest of the population. America is widely admired, but also widely disliked; and the America whose chief ally we have become represents the America which is widely disliked. It is faith which leads the Prime Minister to argue with immense force that challenges to America’s freedom and way of life are also challenges to ours – something which is simply not true, though it might well become true. The Government also seemingly wishes us to suffer in sympathy with the Americans. The dangers to our security have constantly been ratcheted up. The language of alarm has become increasingly shrill and the Government ever readier to infringe our liberties – as if otherwise we are not doing our bit – despite the fact that the public strongly supported the United States after 11 September and the Prime Minister during the Afghan war. The consequences for our relations with Europe are obvious. There is a sense that Blair now merely goes through the motions of being a European, and the way the whole of the Cabinet (taking their cue from the Americans) blames the French for our unilateral actions in Iraq – when it is clear there never was a majority in the Security Council for a war – suggests how little in reality Europe now matters to the Government. Even Blair’s vocabulary is determined by American usage: during the second Parliamentary debate he spoke of ‘this government’ and ‘this prime minister’, as the Americans speak of ‘this administration’ and ‘this president’.

What has brought us to war, therefore, is Blair’s personal inclination to alliance-building, which in this case failed, a tradition of radical reforming rhetoric and moral crusade which has been decanted from domestic to foreign policy, and a deep attachment on the part of the Government to the political, social and economic culture of the United States. His actions also have internal political consequences. The comparative facility with which he has taken us to war highlights once again the deeply flawed relationship between the Parliamentary Labour Party and the Government. The Prime Minister actually has had it pretty easy. The Cabinet, mostly made up of like-minded individuals with the same rhetorical inheritance and the same crabbed and fearful view of domestic politics, has, with the obvious exception of Robin Cook and in a barmy way Clare Short, been utterly passive. Were the Parliamentary Labour Party able to exercise any real oversight of the Government it would almost certainly have been much harder for Blair. Throughout the last six years backbenchers have repeatedly found themselves being driven by the whips into supporting policies they have had no part in framing, and have been further hobbled by the belief many of them have that they owe their seats to the Prime Minister. Unless the relationship between the Parliamentary Party and the Cabinet is formally changed these kinds of demoralising crisis will never disappear. The new backbencher Robin Cook might make a difference. He was the only member of the Cabinet who understood that the democratisation of our institutions is essential to a New Labour programme. But he was wasted as Foreign Secretary and never made the most of his position as Leader of the House. There has always seemed to be a certain defeatism in his political demeanour, and he has had no power base within the Labour Party. But perhaps he is best and most useful in opposition, as so many of the commentators on his resignation implied – and the post of Leader of the Opposition is undoubtedly vacant.