by Stephen Tall on April 10, 2005
The opinion polls are unequivocal, and political commentators concur – on Friday, 6th May, Tony Blair will be smiling from the steps of No. 10, assured of an historic third term. If so, it will be the most dismal re-election since, well, since President George W. Bush’s last November.
I joined the Labour Party when I was 16, and voted for Tony Blair in the Labour leadership contest in 1994. I cheered as loudly as anyone on that glorious night of 1st May, 1997, when John Major’s knackered Tory Party was swatted aside, and an ascendant Mr Blair observed, “A new dawn has broken.”
It is too glib and easy to talk of a ‘betrayal of trust’. Paddy Ashdown got nearest the truth, I think, memorably likening Mr Blair to Don Giovanni: “He means it when he says it.”
As Labour leader, and then as Prime Minister, he has always sought common ground with supporters and opponents alike, emphasising those aspects of his nuanced views he thinks will most appeal to those to whom he’s talking. Most of us do this, to one extent or another, throughout our personal and professional lives. Most of us are not subject to the same degree of scrutiny as the Prime Minister in either our personal or our professional lives.
Equally, my views have changed since I was 16, and converted myself to left-wing politics by reading Tony Benn’s diaries one summer. As George Orwell almost said: “Anyone who is not a socialist at 16 has no heart, but anyone who still is at 28 has no mind.”
Old Labour and New Labour are equally incapable of understanding the damage their obsession with state-controlled solutions can wreak on individual freedoms. The role of government is, I believe, to enable each and every one of us to reach our full potential, not to second guess our every move like an over-anxious parent desperate never to let their child learn from its own mistakes.
So I fully accept that I’ve moved away from Labour at least as much as they’ve moved away from me.
But there is one very simple reason why, with every bone in my body, with every fibre of my being, and with every beat of my heart, I ache for Labour to lose this election: Iraq. This is the issue which has defined Mr Blair’s premiership, and for which history will, rightly, damn him.
It is not simply that the Prime Minister made the decision to go to war against Iraq long before he let the British people in on his secret plan; not simply that he did so to protect an Atlantic alliance with an amoral, asinine, neo-con President; not simply that he concocted two dodgy dossiers he knew to be dismally lacking; not simply that he wilfully misled Parliament; not simply that he risked British troops fighting a war with no legal justification; not simply that his actions led to the deaths of up to 100,000 Iraqis and over a thousand British and American troops.
What you do wrong is often not as serious as the opportunities you miss to do that which is right. Mr Blair had the stature, the articulacy, the intelligence to show true leadership in Europe – rather than the boy’s own machismo with which he has learned to love to strut the world stage.
One incident defined for me the depths to which Mr Blair’s desperately ugly utilitarianism plummeted in the build-up to war. A second UN resolution authorising military action against Iraq was, the Prime Minister knew, vital to obtain before he could give the go-ahead to the right-wing, gung-ho, nut-jobs in the White House. Without it, he might not win the vote approving war in the House of Commons, and British troops might be liable to prosecution for war crimes in the international courts.
Such a resolution required a unanimous vote of approval from the nine UN Security Council members: the trouble was the UK and US could scarcely muster half that number of votes, despite the blackmail, bribes and arm-twisting to which the poorer members were subjected. So what did Mr Blair decide to do: he pulled that trusty old British stand-by – blame the French.
President Chirac had pledged to wield France’s veto against a second resolution unless robust proof of Saddam Hussein’s contravention of UN resolutions could be demonstrated. The threat was academic, as Mr Chirac himself noted, because France was not alone in this position on the Security Council: in fact, she was in the majority. Summing up, he concluded: “My position is that, whatever the circumstances, France will vote ‘no’ because she considers this evening that there are no grounds for waging war in order to achieve the goal we have set ourselves, that is to disarm Iraq.”
Mr Blair, and his Bad Angel, Alastair Campbell, spotted the chink in the Gallic armour. Though Mr Chirac had been referring simply to “this evening”, meaning the French position was not fixed in granite, it was too late: the full might of the xenophobic populist press was unleashed against the ‘French worm’ with Mr Blair’s full connivance.
The story was spun to show France deliberately and maliciously putting the kibosh into Mr Blair’s best endeavours at international consensus. It was a crude and disgraceful distortion, reprehensible ends used to justify squalid means. Mr Blair chose his destiny – American imperialism over European partnership – and now deserves all the electoral opprobrium that can be heaped upon him.
But what of the Labour Party during all this? Those anti-war refusnik pundits who are now engaged in a very public hand-wringing exercise to justify their re-conversion to the Labour cause seem to have pinned their hopes on Gordon Brown’s likely promotion to No. 10 in a third term. Yet he voted for the war, as did every single member of the current Labour cabinet. They are all stained by Mr Blair’s decision.
And at least the Prime Minister believed in what he was doing: most of those who went along with Tony for the ride did so not out of gut conviction, but out of expedience, or careerism, or ignorance.
The Labour Party is eager to reduce this coming general election to a simple choice. They are right. Elections are held for two reasons: either to vote positively for an alternative programme of policies; or to vote to remove a failing, failed government. Perhaps I am lucky to fall into both categories: I agree with enough of the Liberal Democrat manifesto happily to lend them my vote to help defeat a sitting Labour MP who voted for the war.
Many others will fall only into the second category, but feel bound to hold their nose and cast their ballot for Labour lest the Tories spring a nasty surprise. I cannot pretend for one single moment to understand how they can square this with their consciences.
To endorse the Labour Party at this election is to approve the Labour Government’s war against Iraq. There is no more fundamental decision than to send British troops into battle, and Mr Blair and the Labour Party got it wrong. That is why he and his Government deserve to lose this election.