Almost everyone assumes, whether they are pro or anti, that Britain will go to war against Iraq. President Bush seems set on invasion whatever Hans Blix and his team of inspectors do or do not find. Tony Blair would appear certain to follow: the Foreign Office believes that at least a token presence is necessary if we wish to retain our status as a permanent member of the UN Security Council and to feed the illusion that we are still a second-rank world power; while Blair cannot easily resist the blandishments and endearments of George W. But there remains the little matter of British public opinion. Could even Mr Blair go to war if 60 or 65 per cent of people were opposed? Probably not. It follows that public opinion must be softened up. We have to be conditioned into believing that war is both inevitable and just, and that it forms part of a wider strategy against the forces of international terrorism. And the message is delivered via our dear, compliant media.
Much of the press needs no persuasion. The Sun and the Daily Telegraph have made up their minds that Saddam Hussein is harbouring weapons of mass destruction which he intends to use against us at any moment. But even the newspapers which harbour doubts (e.g. the Daily Mail) or are openly opposed (the Daily Mirror and the Guardian) are sucked into the plot. For months we have been treated to stories variously leaked by Downing Street, the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence about the probable involvement of Our Boys. I have lost count of the number of graphics I have studied which show pictures of imaginary British planes, ships and troops in the Gulf, each identified by a small Union Flag. Of course the graphics are always different. One moment, we are committing a full armoured division, the next offering a few marines and some special forces. But the effect is the same. Our rulers know that there is nothing that so softens the heart of the British journalist as the prospect that our servicemen will be asked to fight. It kills debate.
And then the government has been creating a climate of fear which is surely calculated to confuse the threat of Saddam Hussein with that of al-Qa'eda. I do not deny there is a danger of a terrorist attack. I fear there will be one sooner or later. But does that threat justify the degree of government-sponsored scaremongering? Last month, on the eve of the UN vote on Iraq, the Home Office mysteriously released two versions of a counter-terrorism assessment which were supposed to make our blood run cold. There have been stories of probable smallpox epidemics, anthrax attacks and sarin gas in the Underground which cannot have been entirely dreamt up by overimaginative journalists. The threat usually includes al-Qa'eda by name, but Saddam Hussein is rarely excluded.
A characteristically spine-chilling story appeared in the Sun on 19 December. The paper informed us that Tony Blair had revealed, on the previous day, that 'British intelligence services have already foiled al-Qa'eda terror plots in the UK'. (How many? When and where?). The Prime Minister 'admitted that Britain will remain at risk of attack for years to come'. The paper then wheeled out an unnamed official who intimated that 'Mr Blair has also been told that the terror warlords are determined to launch a smallpox or sarin gas attack in the UK. Sources also confirmed that attacks using