Peter Oborne

A bad summer in Iraq will open the way to new regimes in Britain and the US

A bad summer in Iraq will open the way to new regimes in Britain and the US

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The most significant purely domestic event in what has turned into a terrible week on the international stage was a speech by Jack McConnell to Labour’s Scottish conference in an arctic Inverness. McConnell looked ahead to next year’s general election, as all politicians are beginning to do, and emerged with a subversive proposition: Labour should fight on the economy.

There is a litany of statistics that will enable Labour to go into the general election with a winning hand on this front: inflation and unemployment at their lowest since the 1960s, seven years’ uninterrupted growth, spending on health and education powering ahead, etc.

The McConnell proposition is subversive because it has a subtext: Labour can now move away from the issues stressed by the party in 1997 and 2001. McConnell has made the first public contribution to a question growing ever more urgent within the Labour party: will the 2005 election manifesto be a manifesto for government by Tony Blair or by Gordon Brown?

There has always been fierce argument about this — so much so that the contrast of vision between the Chancellor and the Prime Minister has paralysed domestic policy-making for the last six years. But in 1997, and even in 2001, few seriously doubted Tony Blair’s readiness to serve a full term. The critical difference this time is that nobody — with the touching exception of Lord Chancellor Falconer, the Prime Minister’s former flatmate — thinks that Tony Blair will stay on for long after next year’s election.

An embattled and exhausted Prime Minister has lost the energy to fight for his most cherished personal beliefs, and in any case their time has come and gone. Proportional representation is long buried, while the formal obsequies for the euro will be read out by Chancellor Gordon Brown in this month’s budget. Public-service reform — despite Tony Blair’s plucky attempt to keep the issue alive by pressing through with tuition fees — has never really taken off. International affairs, the one area where the Prime Minister has truly left a mark, has now become a hideous problem.

The Iraq invasion is now linked to Tony Blair as indelibly as the miners’ strike was to Margaret Thatcher. As with Thatcher after 1984, from now on a large minority of voters will hate him, come what may. He and his supporters continue to argue that in the long term history will judge them well, just as history has concluded that Margaret Thatcher did the right thing. They are entitled to do so. But Tony Blair, who hoped to take Britain into the euro, has defined himself instead through Iraq.

Until this week, British debate about the war had been shamefully inward-looking. Last week’s controversy over the bugging of Kofi Annan, set off by a wholly discredited Clare Short, was an inane distraction. The argument over the Attorney General’s decision that invasion was legal is indeed of high importance, but mainly local in consequence. The invasion will be justified or discredited according to events within Iraq itself, which is now on the edge of civil war.

It was curious to observe how many British newspapers did not seem to grasp the significance of those awful televised suicide bombings. The Daily Telegraph, so often ready to highlight tiny alleged triumphs for the Iraq coalition, chose to lead the paper with an alleged snub to the Queen by David Blunkett over the prison service, as if we were in the middle of August and there was nothing else to report. In a sense one can understand: the reality is wretched to contemplate. Tony Blair sensed it well enough, as camera pictures of his white, anguished face at the Downing Street photo-call with King Abdullah of Jordan demonstrated. The grand coalition strategy he worked out with George Bush, supposing it ever existed in a properly worked-out form, is close to collapse. The possibility can by no means be ruled out that the removal of Saddam Hussein from Iraq is having the same effect as the death of Tito on Yugoslavia, i.e., not bringing about the arrival of liberal democracy but unleashing civil war, clan politics and in due course genocide.

I am still haunted by Tony Blair’s speech to the Labour party in Brighton 2001, three weeks after September 11, when he gushed about his mission to solve the problems of the world. This Iraqi invasion was very personal to Tony Blair. It blended his own brand of Islington-reared, liberal interventionism with the US deputy defence secretary Paul Wolfowitz’s hard-headed neo-imperialism. History may well show, however, that Wolfowitz was even more naive than Tony Blair. It is unlikely that the United States would have gone to war if it knew what we know today. Wolfowitz’s plan was based on the proposition that once Saddam went, comparable tyrannies would fall as well, as happened in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

But history has already taught the dangers of attempting to impose Western democracy on countries unwilling or unprepared to embrace it. The plan remains for elections in June, even though the United Nations envoy Lakhdar Brahimi has voiced his doubts about the suitability of the security situation. He has a point: Tuesday’s televised slaughter was the opening, but not the final, salvo of someone’s election strategy.

Britain and America, however, are committed to their imperial mission, and have little choice but to live up to it. It is dangerous to stay, worse to leave. It remains to be seen how long the American strategy of increasingly confining its own troops to base, while allowing Iraqi security forces — 600 of whom have been killed since the so-called end of the war — to bear the brunt, will continue to work or to be morally acceptable.

It is not just the Iraqi election that will be won and lost over the spring and summer months. The destiny of Tony Blair and George Bush will be decided, though far graver issues are at stake. Tony Blair’s fortunes no longer depend on familiar domestic issues like the health service and law and order. The issue for him now is whether the Shiites — who have suffered the desecration of two sacred sites and the murder of their greatest religious leader — continue to exercise their heroic fortitude and restraint.

A bad summer in Iraq will open the way for new regimes in both Britain and the United States. John Kerry is ready and waiting in the United States, while here the contender is Gordon Brown, whose supporters this week were once again muttering that the Chancellor had privately warned the Prime Minister against war. Brown alone can ‘move on’, to use a term beloved of New Labour spin-doctors, from the war. Domestic policy is in his hands, and his budget on Wednesday week will set the terms for next year’s election. Meanwhile, Blair has no choice but to stay behind and wrestle with the dark and menacing consequences of his audacious decision to intervene in Iraq.