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.

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