MPs set off on their holidays this week amid a mood of national consensus. Tony Blair’s reputation has never stood so high, and its lustre stretches across all parties. Conservative MPs look at him nowadays with adoration. They laugh when he laughs, and grimace when he grimaces.
One of the main candidates for the Tory leadership, the moderniser David Cameron, has come to base his candidacy on the sublime proposition that he is the natural successor to Tony Blair. Cameron’s supporters openly claim that just as Blair, not John Major, was the inheritor of Thatcher, so Cameron rather than Gordon Brown will take on the gleaming Blair legacy.
Meanwhile, leading figures from all parties have come together to confront the national emergency. Charles Kennedy, Michael Howard and Tony Blair sat around the Cabinet table in Downing Street this week to express their common opposition to terror.
This kind of unanimity is rare, though far from unknown, in politics. Readiness to set aside party difference displays unity and common purpose. As Tony Blair remarked at the Downing Street press conference on Tuesday, ‘When the main political parties present a united front, then it sends an important signal to the terrorists of our strength and our determination and our unity to defeat them.’
Doubtless this is the case. But there are dangers in political consensus, as Britain has learnt many times to her cost. Consensus entrenches intellectual fallacy, and stifles original and honest thought. Politicians of all parties huddle together less for strength than for comfort. They often reassure themselves in error rather than confront the truth in a clear-headed way.
It is an uncomfortable fact that the very occasions when the political establishment has concurred most on an issue have coincided with the times they have been disastrously wrong: the outbreak of the first world war, the economic depression of the 1930s, the appeasement of Hitler. In each of these cases the accepted analysis of the mainstream political class proved to be based on premises that turned out to be false. In each of these cases the analysis of a small and ridiculed minority — Morley, Henderson and MacDonald in 1914, Keynes and Henderson in 1931, Churchill and Eden over appeasement — turned out to be right.
This weekend, as the British political class congratulates itself on its patriotic sentiments and common purpose, there are uneasy echoes of the same syndrome. I was away (and in Iraq) when the London bombs struck, but have since been baffled by what I read from afar. There was unanimous praise for Tony Blair for his denunciation of the suicide bombers, a sentiment with which it would be hard to disagree. But almost everything else that has been uttered by the Prime Minister, his Cabinet, and the opposition parties has been pure gibberish, amounting to a wilful failure of analysis.
There have been two central, though related, fallacies. The first is the assertion, handsomely articulated by the Prime Minister and shared by the mainstream establishment, that the invasion of Iraq played no special role in bringing about the London bombings. The Prime Minister insists that the perpetrators were animated not by Iraq or by anger at the Western presence in the Middle East but by something altogether more inchoate. As he told the House of Commons on 11 July, ‘It is a form of terrorism aimed at our way of life, not at any particular government or policy.’ The Tory leader Michael Howard has endorsed this proposition, and so has almost everyone else. Indeed it has been regarded as a breach of good taste to challenge it, almost as though one were endorsing terrorism.
In fact, there is very little evidence to support the Prime Minister’s account of the terrorists’ motives, and a great deal that directly contradicts it. As David Morrison of the Labour & Trade Union Review argues in an important new paper, ‘Britain’s Blood Price’ (I have drawn from Morrison for this article; he can be read on www.david-morrison.org.uk), the proposition that Islamic terrorism is purely nihilistic is false. Al-Qa’eda and its associates may indeed be deeply disturbed by aspects of modern Western civilisation — who isn’t? — but they have no interest at all in changing Western society either for good or ill. Their objective is far more specific: to change US policy towards the Islamic world, and in particular to remove US and allied forces from Arab soil. It is possible to disagree with these objectives, and there is no doubt that the methods are foul. Nevertheless, their aspirations are not irrational or confused, as Tony Blair affects to believe. They are neither more nor less reasonable and legitimate than the IRA terrorists who sought the removal of the British presence from Ireland.
The various pronouncements from Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants could not be clearer on this point. Consider, for example, the video message from Osama bin Laden broadcast on al-Jazeera on 1 November last year. It read as follows: ‘Free men do not forfeit their security, contrary to Bush’s claim that we hate freedom. If so, then let him explain why we don’t strike, for example, Sweden.’ Bin Laden concluded that ‘every state that doesn’t play with our security has automatically guaranteed its own safety’.
It is easy to understand Tony Blair’s refusal to acknowledge the connection between Iraq and the London bombs. He would be forced to recognise that his policy of blanket support for the United States has played a major role in fuelling domestic terrorism. Ministers may further fear that acknowledgment of a direct connection between the London atrocities and the Iraq war could lead to calls for British withdrawal. I cannot see why that should be the case. The British people are made of stern stuff and we have never been accustomed to yield to blackmail from terrorists or anyone else: quite the contrary. We are, nevertheless, entitled to expect that our political leaders should share the truth with us. If they do not trust us, why should we trust them?
That is why this series of false and misleading statements about the causes of the London bombings from the Prime Minister and his allies from all parties is a major problem. Britain today is facing one of the gravest crises in our history, the emergence of an ‘enemy within’, something which could possibly mutate into a ghastly form of civil war. It has been gestating for several years, and the security services reportedly believe that it could persist for a generation.
If we are to address this monstrous crisis effectively, it is essential that we do so in an absolutely clear-headed and open-eyed way. So far we have had little but muddle, confusion and deceit from the Prime Minister and his numerous allies. They have misled us at every step about the Iraq war and its consequences. First they made false claims about WMD, and about the links between al-Qa’eda and Saddam Hussein. Then they deceived us in the aftermath of war about the circumstances surrounding the death of the late Dr David Kelly. Now we are being misled about the links to the London bombings. It is time they started to tell us the truth.