For Tomorrow (V) – Beneath the flag of democracy

[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.

And students.

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.

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2 Comments

  1. Anonymous
    Posted 25 April 2005 at 14:28 | Permalink | Reply

    There was article in the LRB a couple of years ago (c. May/June 03) comparing Blair with Eisner, the head honcho of the Bavarian Soviet Republic. The upshot was that you can’t just do what you think is right and say in justification ‘you should let me off becuase I thought it was right’. Other issues – like ‘is it going to lead to political disaster and tens of thousands of deaths?’ – are also important.

    Chris W

  2. Phil
    Posted 25 April 2005 at 22:38 | Permalink | Reply

    Yep – David Runciman, 8/5/03. (Oddly enough, I considered quoting a later Runciman piece on Blair as a gambler.)

    This is good stuff (excuse the long quote):

    speaking in the House of Commons on 28 April 1999, during one of the ‘difficult’ phases of the Kosovo conflict, when innocent civilians were being killed by stray bombs but little progress was being made, Blair defended himself in these terms: ‘The difference’ – between us and them – ‘quite simply is this. Whenever there are civilian casualties as a result of allied bombs, they are by error. We regret them, and we take precautions to avoid them. The people whom the Serb paramilitaries are killing are killed deliberately. That is the difference between us and them.’ This statement contains the three classic elements of Blairite self-justification in wartime. ‘We’ are to be distinguished from ‘them’, first by our ‘regret’, second by our ‘precaution’, and third by the fact that in our case the killing is not ‘deliberate’ – it is unintended.
    < ...>
    The American conduct in recent wars, whether in Kosovo, or Afghanistan, or Iraq, has occasionally been cautious – the high altitude from which the bombs were dropped on Kosovo, for fear of Serb artillery; the ‘operational pause’ before Baghdad while the Republican Guard was pounded into dust – but this is not the same as taking precautions against the unnecessary loss of life among non-combatants. In fact, it’s the opposite. Taking precautions in Kosovo would have meant flying bombing missions at a low enough height to make accurate identification of targets possible.
    < ...>
    So, that leaves regret and good intentions. What does Blair mean by regret? Presumably he means that ‘we’ take the deaths of the civilians seriously, that we do not discount them or consider them nugatory in the light of the justness of the cause, that we do not simply accept that some people’s lives are means while others’ are ends. It is true, in war, that some people’s lives will be means in the cause of saving others, but this is not a fact without moral significance; on the contrary, it is precisely because it is morally significant that these deaths are regretted notwithstanding the justness of the cause.
    < ...>
    in the same breath as expressing his sense of responsibility, Blair also employs the argument from good intentions, by stating that these are deaths by error. In other words, if we discount the line about precaution, he is saying that the difference between him and Milosevic, or Osama bin Laden, or Saddam, is that, on the one hand, he (Blair) regrets what has happened, and, on the other, he has less to regret, because he did not mean to do the things he regrets. Which somewhat diminishes the quality of the regret.

    I’m afraid there’s no end to the man’s capacity for exculpatory self-delusion.

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