21 October 2004
The highly charged and politically dangerous row over the redeployment of British troops has echoes with the raging debates about the war itself. What are we doing dancing to American tunes and what about the timing of those tunes? In this case why are we contemplating a new form of military co-operation in advance of a presidential election?
The simple answer explains everything that has happened over the past few years. Britain will contemplate such sensitive co-operation because the United States has asked it to do so. Britain's alliance with the US, or to be more precise Tony Blair's view of the relationship, dwarfs the other factors that led Britain into the war, and will overwhelm other complex issues as he responds to this latest military request.
As usual the Government is not fully in control, although ministers under the relentless media gaze must appear to be so. It is the junior partner in alliance with a divided US administration. British ministers will not know for sure the precise motives for the request to redeploy British troops. How can they? Ministers protest that this is purely a military matter. Perhaps it is, but few Labour MPs believe the timing is a coincidence. I have not known so many of them worked up about an issue. Many fear that Mr Blair's unswerving alliance with President Bush will lead inadvertently to a bizarrely bleak conclusion: together they will defeat Mr Kerry. Labour MPs - and quite a few Conservatives - are desperate for a Kerry victory.
It is easy for those of us who oppose the war from the comfort of newspaper columns to dismiss Mr Blair's view of the "special relationship". We would be wrong to do so. Mr Blair seeks constantly to reconcile differences between the US and Europe, alert to the dangers of a divide between the two. In alliance, he is optimistic that Europe and the US will encourage the likes of Russia and China, the other great superpower, within a decade or two, to move in a similar democratic direction.
If Europe and the US turn on each other he fears that Russia, with its fragile democracy, and the increasingly powerful China will also go it alone with appallingly grim consequences. More narrowly he urges an insular US administration to engage with allies or potential allies and lobbies for a renewed Middle East peace process.
These are worthy aims. I have no doubt they formed part of the Prime Ministerial calculations as he attached himself so firmly to the US. But I suspect there were other considerations too. Mr Blair decided long ago that as an inexperienced centre-left Prime Minister and a pro-European in a Eurosceptic country his own political interests would be best served by unswerving support for the US. He was one of the few international leaders who supported President Clinton when he bombed Iraq at the end of 1999. The purpose of the operation was unclear and many suspected at the time that it was a diversionary ploy at a point when the Monica Lewinsky affair was at its most feverish. Mr Blair gave it his full backing, arguing that the Lewinsky affair was "not a reason for not dealing with Iraq". Yes, but what was the reason for dealing with Iraq?
Even before that fleeting military action I suspect he was preparing for the bigger conflict. It was always possible that President Clinton would launch a full-scale war. Paddy Ashdown's illuminating diaries include a reference to Mr Blair's alarm about the intelligence on Saddam's weapons early in his first term. Some have cited this as evidence that Mr Blair was already concerned about the threat posed by the tyrant. Perhaps this was the case, but he was also hoping to get the backing of the Liberal Democrats for a war he was gearing up to support when the moment came, when the US gave the signal.
When Mr Blair was preparing the new Clause Four while he was still in opposition, Peter Mandelson suggested a beefed-up section on defence: "Will a Blair government not fight a war?" Mr Mandelson scrawled across a note. Labour had been soft on defence. New Labour must be seen to be tough, like Margaret Thatcher and John Major who were popular as they supported the first war against Iraq in alliance with the US.
This is the tragic fate of Labour prime ministers. Feeling like intruders in a Conservative country they seek ways of proving their respectability and credibility. In doing so they fall into terrible traps. In the 1960s, Harold Wilson failed to take corrective measures on the economy partly in an attempt to show that a Labour government would not panic, that it could be trusted to manage affairs like its Conservative predecessors. As a result of his contrived complacency Mr Wilson was forced into a humiliating devaluation from which he never recovered. He was tormented by the newspapers that he had sought to reassure.
On several levels Mr Blair miscalculated. Europe and the UN could not be swayed. As he said in his speech at Labour's conference last month, "There was no third way over this. Believe me I tried." More importantly and uncharacteristically he underestimated the extent of opposition in Britain in advance of the war. This was one of the reasons that unreliable intelligence acquired a greater significance, becoming the pivotal ingredient in persuading voters to support a course he was already navigating. Those close to Mr Blair tell me he wishes now the Government had published the intelligence raw and kept out of the whole process.
Britain's so-called "special relationship" with the US will change as a result of the war. I predict that this will be the biggest consequence - of much greater importance than the endless vacuous debates about whether politicians are worthy of trust.
In the same way that Mr Blair was guided partly by Mrs Thatcher's seemingly triumphant Atlanticism, future prime ministers will seek to learn lessons from Mr Blair's political nightmare. Most specifically I suspect future governments will make clear that while they have close ties with the US there is scope also for more open differences. The most damning criticism of Mr Blair's approach came from the former Washington Ambassador, Sir Christopher Meyer, who revealed that he did not observe much private candour in discussions between the President and the Prime Minister.
Evidently Sir Christopher has a point in relation to the war, but not on other policy areas. One of Mr Blair's best speeches in the second term was delivered in Washington in the summer of last year. He was supportive of the US, but raised the importance of dialogue with other countries, the need for more robust policies on the environment and expressed his opposition to the steel tariffs. Within hours Dr David Kelly's body was discovered in the Oxfordshire woods. The striking speech was forgotten.
Nothing changes. This week the Government planned to highlight plans for schools and hospitals. Instead it is Iraq again. Like it was last week. It will always be Iraq. Mr Blair can never escape from the decision he made many years ago to be the most loyal ally of the United States.