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Tony Blair has won in the Commons; now his fate is in the hands of the generals

Tony Blair has won in the Commons; now his fate is in the hands of the generals

22 March 2003

12:00 AM

22 March 2003

12:00 AM

For some reason Britain is always sunny on the outbreak of war. London basked under a heat-wave in August 1914 as Asquith almost casually condemned Britain to four years of slaughter. It was the same in September 1939. This week has seen a succession of cloudless spring days. I suppose there is always the remote hope that something will intervene, but it looks all but certain that bombs will be falling on Baghdad by the time these words are read.

It is a new kind of war, corresponding to the latest manifestation of American imperialism. Old-style US conservatives, like Henry Kissinger, were pessimists. They worked with the world as they found it, merely seeking to mould intractable materials as best they could to US interests. The new generation, like Donald Rumsfeld, take a more radical approach. This involves deciding what kind of world they would like, then creating it afresh. Rumsfeld and George Bush intend – as the US President’s ‘axis of evil’ speech made clear – that war in Iraq will be followed by an attack on North Korea, then Iran, then a pause for thought.

This new strategic doctrine has smashed, in an incredibly short space of time, the structures of the postwar era. Nato is broken. The only hope for the UN, supposing that the invasion of Iraq is successful, is to convert itself into an uncomplaining instrument of the United States. The new US policy, with its disregard for international institutions, shaky legality and ostentatious exercise of naked power, amounts to a transformation in the conduct of world affairs. That is why it is being resisted by, among others, the architects of the last Gulf war: George Bush Sr, Jim Baker, John Major, Douglas Hurd and virtually all the British foreign-policy establishment.

Paradoxically, this kind of wide-eyed, interventionist vision of US foreign policy, with its strong echoes of Woodrow Wilson and John F. Kennedy, resonates with liberal internationalists. This is one important reason why it finds a cheerleader in Tony Blair. It helps to explain why he carries these days an air of radiant conviction: a characteristic which helped him sway his audience during Tuesday’s debate in the House of Commons. During the debate the Conservative backbencher Andrew Mackay remarked that it was the most important day in his 26 years in the House of Commons. This was because it did not merely – like the Falklands – raise the curtain on war. It marked the passing of an age and ushered in a world system that is profoundly uncongenial to the great majority of Labour MPs.


This is why the key point about Tuesday night was not that Tony Blair won the vote. The essential fact was that he did so without the destruction of his hold over his party, the outcome that seemed all too likely last week. It would be wrong to diminish the importance of the fact that more than half the non-payroll vote opposed the government. Nor should the loss of one Cabinet minister, two junior ministers and a handful of parliamentary aides be too lightly dismissed. But the revolt did not come close to reaching that overwhelming point where the government’s authority is fatally damaged.

Tony Blair was helped by the ineptitude of his opponents. On the Liberal Democrat benches Charles Kennedy has been given an extraordinary opportunity to lead the anti-war party: he lacks the moral weight to do so. He has been flimsy and opportunistic throughout. On Tuesday night Kennedy’s foreign affairs spokesman, Menzies Campbell, who has been very ill, reappeared in the Commons, a glaring reminder that the Liberal Democrats simply cannot do without him. But the biggest failure has been on the Labour left, which has been poorly organised and narcissistic. The attempt by the Campaign Group to try to convert argument over the war into a leadership issue sent dozens of votes back into the arms of government Whips.

The case of Clare Short, who, having promised to resign in the event of war without a second resolution, then failed to honour her pledge, calls for special treatment. It is almost always a mistake for a politician to take the initiative in calling a journalist rather than the other way around. Ms Short’s petulant Sunday-luncheon call to Andrew Rawnsley, presenter of The Westminster Hour, has similarities with a telephone conversation which led to the downfall of Denzil Davies as shadow defence spokesman in the late 1980s.

Davies rang Chris Moncrieff, the political editor of the Press Association, at 1.30 a.m. He was stimulated to do so by a sense of late night irritation with Neil Kinnock, the Labour leader. Davies may have been right to feel this way, or he may not; it is impossible now to tell. What is certain is that he gave Moncrieff, famous for his immaculate shorthand note, the full benefit of his views, banging on for a very considerable length of time before bringing matters to a sensational close with the announcement of his resignation. This disturbed Moncrieff, a kindly soul who takes an avuncular interest in his politicians. He urged Davies to sleep on the matter, pointing out that things might look very different in the morning. But Davies was not to be deterred.

Unluckily for Clare Short, Andrew Rawnsley lacks Moncrieff’s kindliness. The moment that the International Develop-ment Secretary uttered her dramatic threat, he was arranging for the fastest driver in the BBC taxi fleet to bring her straight to Broadcasting House before she could change her mind. The fact that she has since done so does not diminish Rawnsley’s scoop, but it is now all up with poor Ms Short. It was wretched to watch her turn up at Tuesday’s debate. She shamefacedly chose a point as remote as possible from Tony Blair while still actually sitting on the Treasury bench. But an aide was at once dispatched to order her forward from this hiding-place, and sit her close to the Prime Minister where she could be publicly inspected, like a trophy. When Tony Blair sat down, she had no choice but oleaginously to congratulate him. Last week I criticised Tony Blair for failing to sack Short. I was wrong: he has destroyed her far more effectively by wooing her with his special arts and keeping her in.

The public debate that led up to this war has established a great deal. There is no evidence of more than the loosest links between Iraq and al-Qa’eda, none at all that Iraq has ever exported weapons of mass destruction. The assertion by Robin Cook, in his distinguished resignation speech, that ‘Iraq probably has no weapons of mass destruction in the commonly understood sense of the term’ carries weight, coming from someone who has seen secret Cabinet papers. Everyone agrees that Saddam is a very bad man, though no worse than he was five or ten years ago when we were content to let him be. But Tony Blair, producing one of his finest performances, turned Parliament round on Tuesday. He has secured his domestic base. Now it is out of the hands of the politicians. Their fate, everyone’s fate, is in the hands of the generals.


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