16 March 2004
The terrorists have changed the course of an election campaign. The swing in favour of Spain's Socialist party in the aftermath of the bombs in Madrid was as shocking as the tragedy itself. No elected government immediately lost power as a result of what happened in New York and Washington on 11 September 2001. In one sense therefore 11 March 2004 was an even bigger coup for the terrorists.
In spite of the pious nonsense being expressed in parts of the media in Britain and elsewhere, this does not mean that the voters in Spain were wrong to switch sides. The bombings in Madrid and the government's response to the atrocities changed everything. It would have been absurdly unrealistic for voters to head stoically for the polling stations as if the attacks had not occurred. The voters did not give in weakly to the terrorists. They responded to a dramatically changed political context.
The same unrealistically pious note used to ring here in the aftermath of IRA attacks: we should not let the terrorists change our way of life. But of course the terrorists managed to do just that. Look at the security measures that stifled British politics for decades. On a much bigger scale, last week's attacks in Madrid raised immediate, unavoidable political questions. Inevitably those questions became central to the outcome of the election. How could they have been wished away in order to deprive the terrorists of their political victory?
In Spain, as in Britain, credible opponents of the war had warned that their countries would become more tempting targets for terrorists. In isolation, this argument would have been pathetic, an argument for cowardice in the face of the terrorist threat. But the argument was not advanced in isolation. The same voices stressed also that the war against Iraq would heighten the risk of terrorism more generally. Britain, Spain and one or two other countries were placing themselves at greater risk to support a war that would make the world less safe.
That was the point. If the war against Iraq had been a logical and reasonable response to 11 September, the argument about Britain or Spain becoming a greater target would have had no moral basis. Instead, the bombings in Madrid were another tragic vindication of the opponents' case.
In his speech in Sedgefield earlier in the month, Mr Blair erected a false dividing line, suggesting that the main debate between supporters and opponents of the war was about the scale of the threat posed by international terrorism. This is not the case. After 11 September there was an extraordinary coming together of disparate countries resolved to address the threat posed by al-Qa'ida. Within countries, including Britain and Spain, the resolution was equally strong. Mr Blair's popularity rating soared in Britain as he articulated the threat posed by terrorists more vividly than any other international leader. The genuine divide was over whether invading Iraq was the appropriate response to the new threat.
The bombing of Madrid was the latest example to suggest that the war was at best an irrelevance, and at worse provided a significant boost for al-Qa'ida. Most immediately, the conflict blew apart the international coalition that had formed spontaneously after 11 September, a tragedy as international co-ordination of intelligence is the most important weapon in dealing with the terrorists.
Next, in a way that is underestimated, the war against Iraq diverted US attention away from Afghanistan, making it easier for al-Qa'ida to regroup in areas outside Kabul. When Clare Short was still a respected International Development Secretary, she warned about the regrouping of the terrorists following a visit to Afghanistan in September, 2002. Her warning was echoed by other senior figures that visited Afghanistan around the same time. Instead of addressing this renewed threat, President Bush and his allies chose to focus attention on Saddam, a tyrant who loathed al-Qa'ida. There have been some bizarre alliances between tyrants and terrorists, but there was no evidence that the Iraqi leader had united with Bin Laden against their common enemies in the West.
Now Iraq, as well as parts of Afghanistan, is awash with terrorists. Mr Blair was warned by the intelligence services that a war would increase the risk of terrorism. He chose not to publish this particular intelligence, although it seems to have been more accurate than much that was published in the Government's dossier. Now, in a peculiarly unconvincing contortion, the political leaders who supported the war cite the increased terrorism as a justification for their position. In his Sedgefield speech for example Mr Blair spoke of terrorists currently "pouring in" to Iraq. But it was the war against Iraq that enabled the terrorists to pour in.
To become a target for supporting a war that makes the world a less safe place is an act of perversity that inevitably becomes a pivotal issue when a country that backed the war is attacked. Of course Spain was vulnerable before the war against Iraq. Mr Blair is right about that. September 11 changed everything and virtually every country around the globe became less safe. But there is already enough horrific evidence to suggest that countries that supported the war are the most vulnerable of the lot.
This is where the British government is currently being disingenuous. On yesterday's Today programme, the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, insisted that Britain was not a target because of the war against Iraq, pointing out that non-combatant countries had also been attacked. Yet in Turkey the targets were British diplomats and commercial interests. In Bali the main victims were Australian tourists. Now Spain has been attacked. The terrorists are indiscriminate in that they do not mind who they kill, but there is some method in their madness and that appears to include victimising the countries that backed the war.
The British government finds itself trapped in another war-related dilemma. If it admits that Britain is more vulnerable to a terrorist attack the rows about the conflict with Iraq will erupt once more. But another lesson of the Spanish election is that voters prefer candour from their rulers rather than evasiveness or attempts to mislead them. The early claims by the Spanish government that the attacks had been carried out by Eta appear to have been a decisive blunder. British ministers should take note.
Not that there will be an equivalent political coup for the terrorists in Britain. Here the Conservatives were at least as enthusiastic in their support for the war. If a tragedy on the same scale were to happen during a British general election campaign the voters would have no constructive way of registering their protest.
Spanish voters had an alternative governing party that opposed the war. Indirectly, the terrorists have removed a ruling party, but it was President Bush and his allies that provided a context in which they were able to secure their appalling victory.