[Written Friday, eaten by Blogger and rewritten Saturday, revised Sunday, revised again Monday. Must... stop with... the... revisions already...]
You know, I wasn’t going to post about the war. I was going to post about Howard Dean and what Clay Shirky said about him, and about Richard Neville and his inch, and all sorts of nice stuff. I didn’t think the war was all that relevant to the topic of tactical voting. (We need a new phrase, I think. What I’m talking about is much less cynical than tactical voting. Come to that, it’s less cynical – less hold-your-nose-and-do-it-anyway – than voting according to party loyalty. We could call it ‘principled voting’, maybe.)
But I was wrong about the war not being relevant. I was also… well, kind of wrong-ish… about Backing Blair. I still think they’re idiots to suggest voting Tory, but this… now, this is a breath of fresh air. If you haven’t read this, please do. It’s excellent.
I started thinking seriously about the war and the election when I read this thing by Jonathan Freedland. The war has Freedland puzzled; he can’t see what it has to do with the election, which is after all a contest between Labour and the Tories:
Neither the government nor the opposition talk about it much. In contrast with recent elections in Spain and the United States, the two main parties were on the same side over Iraq.
And yet, people keep talking about the war. Well, some people do. Muslims, obviously:
For Mr Raza, Iraq is just one part of a process that began on September 11 2001 and saw him feel newly uncomfortable, even rejected, in a country he had grown to love.
Racism’s bad, m’kay? Better do something about that. Muslims, check. And then there’s That Bloody Man, of course:
In Bethnal Green and Bow in east London, where Respect’s George Galloway is challenging Labour’s Oona King, who backed the war, Iraq is the decisive issue.
Student towns report high interest too.
I mean, students – what are you going to do? But apart from the Muslims and the students (and That Bloody Man, obviously) it’s really just an issue for the Italian Bread-Eating Classes:
Others draw a distinction between traditional Labour seats, especially in the north, where Iraq is hardly mentioned, and “Guardian reading” constituencies, where it can dominate. Hornsey and Wood Green in north London, where former minister Barbara Roche faces a stiff Lib Dem challenge, is the prime example of the latter.
In the former, said one Labour candidate, the issue surfaces in a less direct form – cited as proof that Mr Blair is out of touch, off pursuing “a baseless diversion” when he should have been sorting out problems at home.
There you are, you see. In proper Labour seats up North, where men are men and nobody’s voted Tory since Albert Tatlock was a lad, they don’t talk about the war. Or rather they do, but not because it was a bad thing as such – just because it’s one of Mr Blair’s “baseless diversions” (bit of a Guardian-reading turn of phrase, that, but let it pass).
Hardly anyone else cares, either. Apart from the Conservative voters:
Tory Nicholas Boles, trying to overturn a Labour majority in Hove, has been struck by the number of elderly, “culturally conservative” voters who raise Iraq.
“It’s mentioned to me much more than I expected,” he said. “They talk of Blair’s lies and Blair’s deceit. Women say ‘it could have been my son.’ There’s definitely real anger there.”
And the Labour activists:
Mr Boles’s Labour opponent, Celia Barlow, is opposed to the war: if she wasn’t, Mr Boles speculates that Hove’s Labour activists would not be stretching too many sinews to get her elected.
Hardly anyone, really. Freedland sums up:
Labour is feeling it most keenly – among its activists, but also among what party tacticians call its “intelligentsia” vote, among students and among Muslims.
(But apart from that, when did the Romans mention the war?)
Elsewhere it is symbolic of a much larger theme: trust in the prime minister.
Finally, we reach the crux of the biscuit. Perhaps it’s because I’ve never trusted the blighters, but it’s taken me a while to understand this. The point is, war is the ultimate trust issue. What a war boils down to, in terms of our relationship with our government, is simple: They declare a war, and We go out and get killed. It’s hardly surprising if We insist on Them telling us exactly why it’s a good idea.
And that’s just what hasn’t happened. Instead, we’ve had a war whose justification actually changed while it was being fought. We’ve had an invasion which has killed… well, nobody actually knows how many people, but a lot; really rather a lot. And we’ve had a plan for regime change which seems to have been designed as a kind of macabre homage to the Underpants Gnome business model – except that in this case they can’t even tell us what stage 3 is. Iraq is the hippopotamus in the room (one of them, anyway); the way it’s currently being ignored by all the major parties is genuinely shocking as well as being disgraceful. If an initiative like this can do something to change that, I’m all for it.
Because the people who took this country into Iraq aren’t just asking us to ignore what they did; they’re actually asking us to put our trust in them all over again. The fact that those people are New Labour makes it all the more blatant – New Labour’s all about trust. Or rather, it’s about trust, ruthlessly efficient machine politics, Economist-reading power-worship and motivational-poster managerialism – but the greatest of these is trust. You could sum up the basic proposition in one line: “It’s not Old Labour. It’ll work. Trust me.”
The trouble with this is that if you lose trust, you’ve lost everything. From a purely tactical standpoint, for Blair to stake his biggest asset on Iraq was a huge gamble. Even Martin Kettle seems to have picked up on this, as far as you can make it out through the clouds of incense:
Labour’s election in 1997 (and to some extent in 2001) was a collective attempt, articulated by and through the uniquely qualified person of Blair, to reassert some sense of lost community and nationhood amid the disintegration. If that is so, then Labour’s great tragedy is to have disappointed that yearning – and the Iraq war was the pivotal moment in that process.
But Blair is a gambler – and at this election he’s playing for double or quits. Reading the Independent interview Nick quoted, what struck me was just how little Blair was actually conceding. He won’t assume that every Labour voter backed the war, fair enough. The real question is whether he will recognise the possibility that we were right and he was wrong. There’s no sign of that in the interview – just the usual moralistic squid-ink that Blair produces whenever his decisions are questioned (you know the kind of thing – …I’m honest enough to accept that I may have been wrong, but I would hope that people would recognise that I sincerely believed…). Ted Honderich skewered this stuff in the Guardian a few weeks ago:
“He is always asking to be judged by the morality of his intentions,” he spits. “He doesn’t understand that no one cares about his fucking morality. We judge him by the consequences of his actions. In any case, his morality is so muddy and ill-considered. I’m increasingly coming to the opinion that Blair’s main problem is that he’s not very bright.”
Be that as it may, if Blair’s government gets re-elected with a workable majority, Blair isn’t going to see it as his cue to introduce PR, abolish the monarchy and bring back Jackanory. He’s going to see it as a vote of confidence in his government, past and present – Iraq included. More to the point, that’s how it will be seen by a lot of other people – to the point where, a few years down the line, that will have been part of what it meant. As Norm says, “Election results have a way of affecting what it makes sense to go on saying, and what it doesn’t.” If Labour are re-elected with a majority of 80-100, we will have officially drawn a line under Iraq and moved on; we will have told Blair, loud and clear, that we do trust him after all.
Is that what you want? Because that, frankly, is what’ll happen.
One word: Iraq.