Betting big, winning small

David Runciman on our risk-averse, high-stakes prime minister

Is Iraq Tony Blair’s Suez? The parallels are certainly hard to avoid, and Blair’s critics have not been slow to point them out. First, there is a strong suspicion that, like Suez, the whole Iraq escapade was the result of a private deal cooked up between the belligerents. The decision to send British and French troops to Egypt in 1956 was sealed during a secret meeting at Sèvres in France, where British, French and Israeli representatives agreed on a plan that would allow the Israelis to attack the Egyptians, and the British and French to intervene in order to separate them, reclaiming the canal in the process. The decision to send British and American troops to Iraq appears to have been sealed at a meeting between Blair and Bush at Crawford in Texas in April 2002. We cannot know for sure what was said, but it seems likely that an understanding was reached whereby Bush made it clear that he was going to disarm Saddam by force come what may, and Blair made it clear that, come what may, he would help him.

If so, then there is also a strong suspicion that Blair, like Anthony Eden in late 1956, misled Parliament and the public over the nature of the undertaking on which he was engaged. Eden insisted that he had had no direct foreknowledge of Israeli intentions; he was able to respond decisively, he said, only because he had prepared for such a contingency, not because he had initiated it. This was a lie. The Israeli action was a pretext for British and French intervention, and Eden himself had helped to concoct it. Tony Blair has repeatedly insisted that the diplomatic manoeuvres of the autumn and winter of 2002-03 were not intended to serve as a pretext for armed intervention in the spring, but were genuine attempts to avoid their use of force by persuading Saddam to disarm peacefully. It is not possible to demonstrate that this is a lie, but it remains very hard to believe, if only because nothing Saddam could have done would have persuaded the Americans and British that he could be trusted to disarm without the use of force.

Like Blair, Eden went through the motions at the UN, though without even the appearance of conviction, which Blair possessed in spades. Yet it is the appearance of conviction that now looks so suspicious, because so much of the evidence of Saddam’s weapons programmes produced by the British and Americans at the UN turns out to have been unfounded. Like Eden, Blair has committed himself to a story that becomes harder to sustain with each retelling. If he still believes it, then he must be self-deceived; if he ceased at some point to believe it, or never believed it to start with, then he has been deceiving everyone else.

Above all, though, what seems to unite Eden and Blair is the sheer recklessness of their military adventures, their willingness to stake everything on wars they could have avoided if they had wanted to. Both Suez and Iraq were huge, and seemingly foolhardy, political gambles with the futures of their respective governments. Neither prime minister was in entirely clear political waters before he went to war, but each was in a pretty secure position: both had recently won decisive election victories, and though both had critics within their own parties, there was nothing there or on the opposition benches that called for drastic action. Certainly nothing in domestic politics demanded from either of them an all-or-nothing roll of the dice. Yet while it is true that both Eden and Blair were ready to risk everything on the outcome of military conflicts they could not ultimately control, these were in fact very different kinds of gamble, from very different kinds of gambler. Blair’s Iraq is distinguished from Eden’s Suez by the different attitudes towards risk that these episodes reveal. The differences are as telling as any similarities between them.

No one is entirely rational about risk, certainly no politician. Everyone’s perception of danger and uncertainty is shaped in part by what they are familiar with, and by what they choose to recognise. This is one of the reasons most politicians take the threat of terrorism so seriously, regardless of the relative risks. Violent threat is what they are familiar with, so they see it as more threatening; this is what you would expect of anyone who was forced to spend much of their time in the company of soldiers and police officers. But as well as being shaped by professional circumstances, individual attitudes to risk are also shaped by personal temperament. Some people like to take chances and some don’t. Some like to take chances on certain things – their health, say – but are extremely conservative when it comes to other areas of their life – their money, for example.

It is hard to know what chances Tony Blair is willing to take in his private life, though he does seem to be a bit twitchy about his health (of which more later). However, it is possible to surmise what his general risk temperament is, on the evidence of his ten years as party leader and seven as prime minister. Tony Blair is a highly risk-averse politician who nevertheless likes to play for very high stakes. This is not quite as crazy, or as uncommon, as it sounds. Some poker players like to wait until they have what they feel certain is a winning hand, and then put everything on the table, even if it risks driving everyone else out and shrinking the size of the pot. The thought that they can drive everyone else out is what reassures them. Some roulette players believe that the way to play is to be willing to bet big, in order to be certain of winning something, however small. If you put £100 on red, and then if you lose put £200 on red, and then if that loses put £400 on red, and so on, you will eventually win £100 when red comes up. Or at least, you would be guaranteed to win if there wasn’t the danger of a bad run of luck bankrupting you before you get the chance to reclaim your losses. This superficially risk-averse strategy is said to have been responsible for more suicides at Monte Carlo than any other. Its appeal lies in its veneer of security; its danger lies in the certainty of ruin, if you play it regularly against the bank, or against anyone else who can sustain a longer run of misfortune than you can.

Tony Blair has not committed political suicide, not yet anyway. It is one of his great strengths that he has a pretty sure sense of when he has more political capital in the bank than his opponents. When he does, this is the risk strategy he likes to adopt: to be ready to stake everything to guarantee some success, even if the rewards are relatively small. They are not always small, of course. One early example of the strategy was Blair’s approach to the reform of the Labour Party constitution, which established his reputation for being willing to lay everything on the line. In that case, his opponents stayed in the pot long enough for the eventual victory to be well worth winning. The apogee of this kind of brinkmanship was probably Kosovo, when Blair’s absolute confidence that he had more political reserves to draw on than Milosevic led him to offer a personal guarantee to the thousands of Albanians fleeing their homes at the start of the campaign that he would return them to their homes before it was over, which he did.

But still, this is an approach to risk that always carries the same hazards, no matter how it is played, or by whom. An extended run of bad luck, or a single moment of spectacular misjudgment, can be fatal. And even when it does not result in ruin, there are bound to be times when having to empty your pockets and borrow everything in your friends’ pockets as well, just to win that elusive £100, will look pretty undignified. Blair’s performance in the run-up to January’s vote on tuition fees was an embarrassment, however you dress it up. He was trapped into risking too much for too little, and very nearly lost everything. It left him with a huge amount riding on the Hutton Report, which appeared the next day. Here, however, Blair could be pretty confident that his luck would hold. He knew, as we all know now, that Lord Hutton’s wheel was tilted heavily the government’s way. It was Gavyn Davies and Greg Dyke of the BBC, foolishly trying to play Blair at his own game, who bet the farm, and lost.

This risk-averse, high-stakes strategy is one of the things that set Blair apart from the two other most significant British politicians of the last decade. Gordon Brown is another risk-averse politician, but one who prefers to play for low stakes, endlessly and tirelessly working the percentages to build up his political reserves. Ken Livingstone, by contrast, is a politician who seems genuinely happy to take big risks, and to gamble everything on uncertain ventures that offer the prospect of spectacular rewards. Blair has frequently been frustrated by what he sees as Brown’s excessive caution, particularly over the euro, about which the chancellor is not willing to take any chances. Likewise, Blair has invariably been appalled by Livingstone’s cavalier disregard for the safe option, and for the finer details of political calculation. Nevertheless, he has enough in common with each of them to be able to work with both. With Brown he shares a loathing of wishful political speculation; their risk-aversion was jointly forged by having to listen to fantasies of Labour election victories during the 1980s. Also, Blair can feel relatively safe with Brown, because he knows that however much political capital the chancellor accumulates, he will not want to wager it all in one go, which is one of the reasons Blair is prime minister and Brown is not. With Livingstone, Blair shares a readiness to play for high stakes once it is clear how the cards are stacked. The popular success of Livingstone’s congestion charge, and the failure of the Labour Party to find a mayoral candidate who stands a chance of defeating him, has persuaded Blair to throw in his lot with the man he once warned would be a disaster for London. For Blair it is worth courting ridicule in order to end up on the winning side. But this is too reckless for Brown’s tastes, and he opposed Livingstone’s readmission to the party every step of the way. Indeed, when it comes to risk, Brown and Livingstone have nothing in common, and they can’t stand each other as a result.

Blair’s attitude to risk helps to explain why he was ready to commit himself so early to Bush’s military plans for dealing with Iraq. In one sense, this represented a huge gamble. By allying himself with a staunchly right-wing American president, against the wishes of many in his own party and a large section of British public opinion, Blair was risking his own political reputation and that of his government on what appeared to be a whim. But in Blair’s eyes, this was absolutely not a whim; rather, it was the only risk worth taking. Blair is drawn to the Americans because of their overwhelming strength. He recognised that nothing would stop Bush getting his way in Iraq in the end. In the circumstances, he seems genuinely to have believed that it was too risky to allow the United States to go it alone. Everyone involved in the Iraq crisis thinks that everyone else has been reckless in one way or another (‘reckless, reckless, reckless’, Clare Short said shortly before she failed to resign). Blair’s view is that those who opposed the war, including the French and German governments, were risking the unity of the West for the sake of an argument they could not win. It is not in Blair’s nature to believe that it is worth taking a chance on weakness rather than strength. But nor is it in his nature to believe that once you take a chance, it is worth holding anything back.

This is what makes Iraq so different from Suez. Both were huge gambles, but Eden’s government staked its reputation on what was essentially an enormous bluff. To succeed, it needed its opponents to believe that it was stronger than it was. When Eisenhower’s administration withheld military and financial support for the operation, that illusion could not be sustained, and the bluff was exposed. It is inconceivable that Blair would ever allow himself to get into such a position. This is in part a matter of temperament: he just doesn’t feel comfortable bluffing. But it is also because Blair’s personal attitude to risk coincides with the lesson that the British political establishment drew from the Suez debacle: it is never worth bluffing the Americans. In this respect, Blair’s Iraq policy is an inversion of Eden’s recklessness at Suez, because the one thing Blair was not willing to contemplate was being frozen out by the US. Indeed, he seems to have been prepared to risk almost anything to avoid that fate. He rationalises this position by claiming that the Bush administration will be open to influence only by those who offer it unquestioning support, despite all the evidence that it, like most other administrations, is open to influence only by those who offer it either money or votes. But the truth is that Blair does not believe in placing bets against the biggest player at the table. He had no choice but to stand shoulder to shoulder with Bush, because that is the only way he could see what was in the president’s hand.

That Blair’s attitude to risk matches the British political establishment’s is not a coincidence. He is the first prime minister for more than a generation to have been brought up squarely within that establishment. He is not old enough to remember Suez at first-hand (he was only three in 1956), but he is old enough to have seen something of what it meant to the world to which he belonged. Fettes, the ultra-establishment public school that Blair attended, was one of the places where the humiliations of Suez would have been most keenly felt. Selwyn Lloyd, Eden’s hapless foreign secretary and go-between at Sèvres, was a former pupil, and the school was very proud of the link, even though Suez did his reputation great damage. Moreover, it had been at Fettes on 5 November 1956, at the very height of the crisis, that an effigy of Hugh Gaitskell (a Wykehamist, and leader of the Labour Party in its opposition to war) was burned, in order to remind the boys what treachery still meant. This event would have been part of the folk memory of the school when the young Anthony Blair, then still a Tory, arrived in 1966. Suez offered a young man with an interest in politics a series of case studies in the price to be paid for political recklessness, whether it was the recklessness of those who embarked on a war they could not finish, or the recklessness of those who opposed a war they lacked the means to prevent. Blair’s political career has been marked by a determination to avoid all such risks.

One of the ironies of Suez, and one of the contrasts it offers with Iraq, is that the risks taken were out of character for many of the leading players. The highly respectable Selwyn Lloyd was not used to doing secret deals at clandestine locations in the French countryside, and the French and Israelis found his evident discomfort at Sèvres almost comical. Gaitskell talked himself round from a position of cautious support for the government in the summer of 1956 to passionate opposition by the autumn, which left him with little room for manoeuvre. Eden had previously shown himself to be an expert player of the game of international power politics; the recklessness of his Suez policy was shocking to many who knew him, in part because it was so unexpected. The one person who seems to have behaved in character is also the only senior British politician who benefited directly from the crisis. Hugh Thomas, in The Suez Affair (1967), describes the behaviour of Eden’s chancellor, Harold Macmillan, as that of someone who derived ‘an almost aesthetic satisfaction from danger and risks’. It was Macmillan who did most to persuade Eden that an Anglo-French invasion of Egypt without either US or UN backing, though clearly risky, was a gamble worth taking (he is said to have put the chances of success at 51 to 49, odds to make even the most nerveless politician blanch). Yet it was also Macmillan who pulled the plug on the invasion after less than a week, when he told the cabinet that he could not stem a run on the pound. He revealed himself to be a born risk-taker who was happy to play for high stakes, so long as the stakes were not his own. When he was gambling with Eden’s reputation, he was willing to risk everything, but when his own reputation as chancellor was at stake he was no longer willing to play. Macmillan was as responsible as anyone for the disaster of Suez. But it was Macmillan, rather than any of his more circumspect colleagues, who succeeded Eden in January 1957. Thus Suez also offers a case study in how a chancellor can use an unpopular war to supplant an otherwise secure prime minister, but only if he is a risk-taker of a particularly unscrupulous kind.

Because the risks involved in Suez were different from those involved in Iraq, the lies were different, too. Eden had to persuade Parliament that the Israeli invasion of Egypt, an event over which he exercised almost complete discretion, was actually a fait accompli, and so beyond his control. Blair, by contrast, had to persuade Parliament that the American invasion of Iraq, an event that he knew to be inevitable, was not a fait accompli, but something over which British politicians might be able to exercise some control. Eden dissembled in Parliament because the gamble he had made depended on secrecy for any chance of success. As he told the 1922 Committee on 18 December 1956, when it was all over: ‘Some half-truths were necessary, and always are, in this sort of operation, which demands extreme secrecy for its operation.’ For Blair, the opposite was true. The half-truths he told, in the two dossiers he published about Iraq’s WMD, were demanded by the need he perceived for complete openness. He had to persuade Parliament and the public that there was a case for going to war beyond the fact that the Americans were going to war anyway. Blair had to put everything he had on the table, so that he could pretend to be a player in his own right. Eden’s problem was that he was a player in his own right, and increasingly out of his depth. He had to keep everything as close to his chest as possible, in the hope that no one would find out.

In many ways, the Iraq crisis offers a mirror image of Suez, with everything the same, and everything different. The Iraq war was fought over the issue of WMD, but when it was won, and the weapons weren’t found, it became a war about something else – the wider threat of global terrorism. The Suez conflict was fought over a canal, but when it was lost, and British ships carried on using the canal anyway, it became a war about something else – the wider threat of Soviet domination. In 1956, the British government downplayed the nuclear threat before the war, because it was so real – there really were Russian WMD pointed at London. In 2003, the British government played up the nuclear threat before the war, because it was so unreal – there weren’t even Iraqi WMD pointed at Cyprus. Suez and Iraq both did considerable damage to the reputation of the UN in the run-up to war, because of the brazen way in which the major powers used the Security Council as a place in which to play the game of high politics. But both conflicts succeeded in enhancing the reputation of the UN once formal hostilities were over, as it became clear that the major powers would not be able to sort out the mess they had made without UN help. The same arguments were heard on both occasions, only with the leading roles reversed. In the autumn of 1956, Eisenhower asked: ‘What was the purpose of the French and British going to the UN? Was it a sincere desire to negotiate a satisfactory peaceful settlement? Or was this merely a setting of the stage for the eventual use of force in Suez?’ The French president would be asking almost exactly the same of the Americans nearly fifty years later.

Suez broke the health and the career of the British prime minister. Eden had fallen seriously ill at the beginning of October 1956, with a fever that reached 106°F, and it seems likely that he was heavily medicated from then until the final collapse of his Suez policy in November, when his health deteriorated further and he was advised by his doctors to take a holiday. He reluctantly agreed, spending three weeks at Ian Fleming’s somewhat spartan Jamaican hideaway, even though British troops remained on the ground in Egypt. When he returned, it soon became clear that he could not continue in office (at the 18 December meeting of the 1922 Committee Eden was forced to admit that he no longer ‘held in his head’ the details of Britain’s treaty obligations in the Middle East, at which point even his most loyal supporters lost confidence in his ability to carry on). In January, he resigned on the grounds of ill health, allowing his chancellor to succeed him.

There is some speculation that Tony Blair, whose health also appeared to suffer during the Iraq conflict, will do the same. But this may well be wishful thinking. Blair is in all probability a perfectly healthy man who sometimes looks ghastly; Eden was a seriously ill man who did his best to appear well. Blair also took a Caribbean holiday when the war was over (staying at Cliff Richard’s luxury holiday home on Barbados), but unlike Eden, he showed no sign of having lost either his appetite or his nerve on his return. Indeed, Blair and his colleagues – with their jogging machines and their smoke-free workplaces and their infant children – seem almost ridiculously healthy compared to the Suez generation of politicians, most of whom appear to have been ill (not only Eden but Eisenhower, Dulles and Ben-Gurion were incapacitated at one point or another during late 1956). Only Dick Cheney remains as a throwback to the days when politicians were prepared to wreck their health in the selfless pursuit of wealth and power.

Though Eden forfeited his premiership, his physical wellbeing and his peace of mind as a result of Suez, the one thing he did not sacrifice was his popularity with the British public. Where Blair’s approval ratings have steadily declined since the end of a war he won, Eden’s approval ratings steadily rose following a war he lost. In late November 1956, when the ruin of what Eden had tried to achieve was laid bare for all to see, more than 60 per cent of the British electorate said they approved of his performance as prime minister (and among Tory voters the figure stood at a mind-boggling 95 per cent). Even a year later, long after he had resigned, both Eden himself and the war that ruined him were recording positive approval ratings in the opinion polls. That Eden had gambled, bungled and lost counted for less than that he had stood up for what he believed in, against overwhelming odds. In the words of one commentator at the time, Eden became in the public mind the man who ‘lost everything save honour’. Blair, by contrast, is the winner who seems unable to do anything to reclaim his honour. The risk Blair took in going to war in Iraq was not that he would lose, but that he would win too little for what he had been willing to stake, and end up looking like a fool. This now appears to be his fate. After the traumas of Suez, the Tory Party sought, in the words of the then Liberal leader Jo Grimond, ‘to put the country back to sleep’, and they more or less succeeded: Macmillan won the 1959 election comfortably, fighting on domestic issues, and Suez hardly featured at all during the campaign. While prime minister, Macmillan steadfastly refused all opposition demands for an inquiry into the events that led to the Suez debacle. Blair has already had to concede more than one inquiry, because he desperately wants people to understand what he was doing, and why he was tempted to stake so much for so little. As a result, it is hard to see how he can put the country back to sleep. He could resign, of course, and make way for Brown. But why should someone who is in good health, whose parliamentary majority still stands, and who successfully risked everything on a war that he won, resign? This is the trouble with Blair’s attitude to risk. He just doesn’t know how to lose.

Postscript

And now Blair has another reason not to resign: he must see through his latest high-stakes venture, a referendum on the new European constitution. This is being routinely described by both friends and enemies as ‘the gamble of his life’. In truth, it is just the sort of gamble he has been taking throughout his career. No one can be sure which of various risk-based calculations was decisive in changing his mind, but the broad outlines of what he is up to seem clear. He did not want to find himself having to stare down the Murdoch press on the issue during the European elections this summer and in a general election next spring. If 1956 made it clear to the British political establishment that you don’t bluff the Americans, 1992 made it clear to the New Labour establishment that you don’t bluff Murdoch. It seems highly unlikely that either Blair or Brown seriously thinks that a press campaign on this issue could cost them the general election. But both will have calculated that it could cost them seats, and both know that winning with a much reduced majority can be as bad as a defeat (just ask the Tory Party, who would presumably now give anything to have lost the 1992 election, rescuing them from John Major, Black Wednesday, and the ratification of Maastricht in one fell swoop). If Labour get back next time with a majority of, say, only twenty, it will for the most part be the loyalists who are gone (those who won their seats on Tony’s coat-tails in 1997 and 2001) and the troublemakers who remain. In these circumstances, the party that Blair hands on to Brown might be practically unleadable. One thing is certain: if Blair and Brown agree that conceding a referendum at this point is the right thing to do, it is because they agree it is the least risky option.

Of course, it remains true that the stakes are high. But they are much higher for Blair than for Brown. If a referendum is fought and lost next autumn (and assuming that all potential successors to Blair are required to campaign for a yes vote), then this increases rather than decreases the chances that Brown will be prime minister by the end of 2005. It also practically eliminates the risk that a Brown premiership could be wrecked by a referendum on the euro. For Blair, a defeat could be fatal. It may be that this is indeed the final gamble that ruins him. But he will have calculated that there are a lot of spins of the wheel to come before the moment of truth. The constitution still has to be agreed, and may not be. Many other countries will hold their referendums before Britain. If any say no, Blair is probably off the hook. If they all say yes, it immeasurably strengthens his hand in arguing that this is a referendum about whether Britain wants to be a part of Europe or not. It is true that in the interim he will have to endure a certain amount of ridicule for the spectacular way in which he has reversed his previous position. But he doesn’t mind the ridicule, especially if it adds to the impression that he is putting everything on the line. The gamble Blair is taking by calling a referendum on the European constitution draws attention away from his last big gamble on Iraq. By allowing us to believe that he is willing to lose everything on this issue, he invites us to agree he still has everything to lose. So the game begins again.