8 October 2003

How Blair Lost by Winning

Someone who saw through this was Hugo Young, the longtime columnist for The Guardian, who died last month. Mr. Young was a man of very high principle, who despite all he had seen retained a capacity to be shocked by political mendacity. He was also a liberal centrist with much fondness for America, if not for the Bush administration.

Shortly before his death (when Tony Blair, needless to say, fulsomely joined in the tributes to Mr. Young's career), and maybe with an urgent sense of mortality, Mr. Young wrote a series of devastating columns. He put his finger on 'the great overarching fact about the war that Blair will never admit but cannot convincingly deny.' This was that 'he was committed to war months before he said he was.'

He was committed because he had persuaded himself - though not the British people - of the necessity of following the United States, come what may. Mr. Blair even elucidated this (albeit only in private, as reliably recorded by the journalist Peter Stothard): 'It would be more damaging to long-term world peace and security if the Americans alone defeated Saddam Hussein than if they had international support to do so.'

And so what he insistently calls 'my decision' was, in truth, made for him in Washington. After that, it was simply a matter of finding what the deputy secretary of defense, Paul Wolfowitz, has called 'bureaucratic reasons' for war. And on that count, Mr. Blair performed a very useful service for President Bush.

When the Cuba correspondent in 'Citizen Kane' cables back to the newspaper that he could 'send you prose poems' about the scenery but that 'there is no war,' Charles Foster Kane replies, 'you provide the prose poems - I'll provide the war.' That, in effect, was the deal between George Bush and Tony Blair.

And provide them Mr. Blair duly did, even if some of the prose rhapsodies - particularly those about 45-minute missile deployment and exotic minerals out of Africa - were just a little too fanciful. Now even the prime minister must begin to see the perverse consequences of this: far from a greater closeness between the two countries, there is now a palpable estrangement.

Although no cleverer or nicer than the Americans, the British are perhaps more literal-minded, with an innate distaste for being misled. More and more they sense that they were taken into war on false pretenses. And, no, they do not think that this was such a beautiful thing.

I think this is broadly true of John Howard as well, although his chances of managing a prose rhapsody are perhaps more limited. The Howard government has been more fortunate in that the ADF has suffered no casualties, the war has had little impact on our budget, and there was probably a bipartisan consensus on the importance of Australia's role as hyperally. Those saving factors do not exist in Britain and Australia has yet to see opposition to the war from people at the same level as Robin Cook.

Despite that, I suspect the long run will be no kinder to Howard's government than to Blair's. Life will get tougher as more information emerges about the actual date on which Howard committed Australia to war - presumably not long after Blair. Life will get even tougher once the Hutton inquiry reports and the number of occasions that Howard was not told anything grow and grow.

No comments: