Last week a boring election grew suddenly more interesting. That is not because the issue is suddenly in doubt. The are variations in the level of support for each party in the polls, but as yet their trend still shows a fairly stable prospect of a Labour victory. My own instinct is that there will be surprises on election night with all parties making unexpected gains and suffering unexpected losses. How these will stack up in total votes and seats is anybody’s guess, but the likelihood is that Labour will win a modest majority but enough for a full term.
Last week’s excitement has come from the leak of the attorney general’s initial advice to the prime minister on the legality of the Iraq war under international law. The partial leak seemed to suggest that the AG had originally advised that the war would be illegal and that he had subsequently been leant on by the PM and ministerial “heavies” to produce a more favorable verdict. When the full advice was released, this turned out to be an exaggeration at best. But elite opinion is so hostile to Blair and the war that the reporting was heavily slanted to suggest that he had lied. My take on it is below–courtesy of the Evening Standard–but a very strong line-by-line analysis of the two documents, which defends the prime minister, was mounted on Melanie Phillips’s blog (cited below). I take a slightly different view from Melanie. So you should read her to get an authoritative view.
Meanwhile, here’s my take . . .
Blair had hoped to keep Iraq off the election agenda and to concentrate on the economy and reform of public services. As P. G. Wodehouse presciently remarked, however: “Fate, unnoticed in the background, was quietly slipping lead into the boxing glove.”
That lead struck the prime ministerial jaw when passages from the attorney general’s March 7 interim legal advice were leaked to Channel 4 last week. It intensified the already fierce controversy over whether the prime minister “lied” in order to justify the Iraq invasion. Blair’s reputation–whether he wins or loses–looks glassy-eyed and on the ropes.
So what happened?
It must first be said that Tony Blair did not tell a “lie” in claiming that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. He genuinely believed this–as did virtually every other prime minister, president, and intelligence chief in the West (including the French). Believing this, he over-interpreted the evidence that Saddam was concealing WMD stockpiles. Even so his concerns were reasonable. Saddam certainly had possessed WMD a few years before. And we know that Saddam had made preparations to resume his WMD program when U.N. sanctions collapsed.
Yet, in arguing the case for toppling Saddam, Blair made three errors.
He exaggerated the urgency of the WMD threat to Britain. He downplayed the possibility that an Iraqi intervention might be illegal under international law. And he placed insufficient stress on justifications drawn from national interest and geopolitical stability.
It is the second misjudgment that opens Blair to the charge of lying.
Did he give a deliberately misleading account of the attorney general’s advice by suppressing the doubts and qualifications expressed in the interim document? Or was he justified in not mentioning them because, as Lord Goldsmith now argues, those qualifications were merely his ruminations on the way to a final judgment?
As lawyers skilled in weighing their words past and present, both Goldsmith and Blair can doubtless secure the Scottish verdict of “not proven” on the charge of lying. But whatever the fine print, both men gave parliament and people the false impression that the case for war was legally less qualified than it was.
Why did Blair make these three misjudgments–and risk the charge of lying on the second? The reason is not that he is simply a habitual liar. Even supposing that to be the case, it would be too much of a coincidence if Lord Goldsmith was a habitual liar as well. Blair’s wrigglings proceed from something more serious–Blairism itself.
Blair’s foreign policy has been described as “muscular internationalism.” He has sent British armed forces into action in Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Iraq.
In the first two, he had the United Nations and international law on his side. In Kosovo and Iraq, he argued that the U.N. ought to have approved intervention–and would have done so if Russia and France respectively had not threatened vetoes. In the prime minister’s worldview, if the U.N. passes resolutions against oppressive actions, it has a duty to enforce those actions.
In practice, however, internationalism is not a muscular doctrine. It claims greater authority for international bodies and international law, but it places large obstacles in the way of enforcing their rules and rulings. Even rogue states have powerful patrons on the U.N. Security Council: Saddam had France and Milosevic had Russia. They use vetoes to defend their clients.
To devotees of the U.N. and international law (like most Labour MPs), that is beside the point. If the U.N. withholds its approval, then intervention is illegal–even if there are otherwise good grounds for it.
On Iraq, there were such grounds. Saddam was a human-rights violator on a massive scale, hostile to Western interests, a threat to his neighbors, and an obstacle to an Israeli-Palestinian settlement and to a wider Middle East peace. And, with U.N. sanctions failing, Saddam was escaping from his cage.
None of these dangers justified intervention to most Labour MPs and Lib-Dems. For that Blair needed the urgent threat of WMD. Nor would such reasons satisfy international lawyers. He needed a legal opinion that earlier U.N. resolutions would suffice.
In short, Blair was trapped between his muscularity and his internationalism–between his desire to topple Saddam and his own (and his party’s) commitment to an expansive view of international law and the authority of bodies like the U.N. In order to escape that trap, he resorted to his three misjudgments.
The Tories saw where this naïve internationalism led–dressing up a Russian or French veto, actually cast from squalid self-interest, as the collective moral judgment of mankind. It also treated the opinions of unaccountable law professors as binding on democratically elected governments in sovereign states. Tory support for the war was therefore robust intellectually as well as politically.
Their current stance is that they stand by their support for the war while criticizing Blair’s “lies” about it. This mixed message is defensible but looks defensive. It suggests that the Tories were themselves deceived by Blair into a war about which they may now have mixed feelings. It casts doubt on their judgment. It offers a reason for some voters to switch to the Lib-Dems.
Michael Howard would do better to direct his criticism at Labour’s naive internationalism. He might point out, understandingly, that Blair had to manufacture dubious legal justifications because Labour MPs attached excessive importance to U.N. decisions whose real significance they ignored.
He should insist that a future Tory government would base its foreign policy on national interest, alliance cohesion, and geopolitical stability.
These are not hypothetical points. If Blair remains prime minister, he will soon run into the next contradiction in his geopolitical thinking. On one hand he wishes to join President Bush in helping to establish democracy throughout the Middle East while, on the other, he is signing up to a common European foreign policy that would oppose and obstruct any such project.
What legal contortions and intellectual acrobatics will Blair perform to escape this new contradiction? They certainly won’t be pretty.
A small postscript to the above column of interest to American conservatives: Tory leader Michael Howard was on the BBC’s Question Time Thursday night and, when asked his view of the war, said (a) that he had supported it then; (b) that he supported it now; and (c) that he would have supported it even if had known that there were no WMD in Iraq.
This surprised his interviewer, the fair-minded David Dimbleby, so completely that he asked Howard several times if he had heard aright.
Did he really mean he would have supported the war if he had known there were no WMDs there in advance? If so, how on earth could he justify it?
Howard did so very effectively–it helps on some occasions that he is a lawyer and has a grasp of international law–saying Saddam Hussein was a danger to his neighbors and the West even without WMDs, and a monstrous tyrant to boot. By the end, he had won the respect of the audience even if not their unanimous agreement. He was actually slightly more effective than Blair on the same point later in the program.
I wish I could claim that my article had influenced him, but unfortunately it was published about seven hours after Howard’s appearance.
The Sun’s editorial endorsement of Blair read curiously like an old-fashioned Times editorial. On one hand, the saucy Red Top thought the Tories had most of the right policies this time; on the other hand, it concluded you should vote Labour anyway. There was a hint that it might urge a Conservative vote in four years.
That was cold comfort to the Tories, who had cherished high hopes of a Sun endorsement. Michael Howard’s press chief, Guy Black, is a friend of editor Rebekah Wade. And apparently she did consider backing Howard.
“There was a fierce debate inside the Sun,” our source tells us, but “in the end it was pretty irrelevant, as Murdoch decided the paper was going to back Blair, because he stood firm on Iraq and his relationship with Bush.”
So, if it’s a close Labour victory, it’ll be Iraq that won it.
Why have Internet blogs, those amateur freelance political commentaries on the world-wide web, played so little part in this election? Bloggers were extremely influential in the last U.S. presidential election and may have tipped what was a very narrow balance to George W. Bush.
They revived stories that the establishment media wanted to bury–notably, the allegations by the Swift Boat veterans that John Kerry had been less than heroic in Vietnam. They fact-checked the establishment media’s own stories–sometimes to destruction. When CBS and Dan Rather produced documents to suggest that Bush had shirked his National Guard duties, a blogger demonstrated they were probably forgeries within minutes. And in general they prevented the media from setting the themes of the campaign.
Nothing like that is happening here. In part that’s because blogs and bloggers are less well established in the U. K. Indeed, many British bloggers have a larger following in America than here.
Our press is also ideologically diverse, America’s monochromatically liberal. (Well, okay, there is the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page on the right.) Fewer people feel that their point of view is excluded from public debate. So they have less incentive either to produce or read blogs.
But that does not necessarily apply to all topics or to all elections. Issues on which large numbers of people feel excluded or patronized in British political debate include moral and religious topics, libertarian politics, and Europe.
For this reason Dr. Szamuely thinks that bloggers will be an influential force in the European referendum campaign. She’s almost certainly right.
With the polls still refusing to turn favorable, some Tories are looking beyond the election. The so-called Notting Hill Tories in particular (or what opera buff Frank Johnson calls i modernisti) don’t want to be left holding a failed strategy when the music stops. So their representatives and allies in the media have been sending out faint dog whistle sounds of disquiet and disavowal.
In the Sunday Telegraph one of their most talented scribblers, Matthew d’Ancona, lamented the party’s stress on immigration and its failure to exploit the “agile dynamism” of its economic strategy. In the Daily Telegraph, the New Labour columnist who is their occasional ally, Rachel Sylvester, disclosed that senior modernistia like George Osborne and David Cameron would have preferred to highlight “the party’s commitment to the public services, tackling crime, and rural post offices.” They are, she reveals, “deeply embarrassed” by the focus on immigration.
The lesser objection to these advance regrets is merely substantive.
Whatever its electoral drawbacks, the stress on immigration has compelled the government to adopt a Tory immigration policy based on the Australian points system. The agile dynamism of the Tory economic policy, however, consists mainly of endorsing Gordon Brown’s strategy for increasing the government’s share of the economy by 5 percentage points–and rising.
The greater objection is that the Notting Hill Tories have played into New Labour’s hands. Blair and Brown cited Mrs. Thatcher as their fiscal model–a tough budgetary hawk whom they suddenly admired after years of abuse. Of course, they were really mocking the timidity of the central plank of Tory policy. Immigration policy filled the vacuum–how well we shall learn, but better than nothing.
Did any journalists see this in advance? Yes, the Economist, the Business newspaper editorial writer, Daily Mail columnist Andrew Alexander, and the political correspondent of Business, Fraser Nelson.
If the Tories want to hone their agile dynamism, they know whom to read.