Riyadh: Saudi Arabia: Monday 25th February 2013
A child of the eighties, my earliest politics were forged in the epoch-making political struggles of that decade, and as my first political awareness blossomed into actual engagement in the last years of that decade, I came to hear repeatedly an expression that has haunted me ever since.
“The Broader National Interest.“ or sometimes just “The National Interest.”
It is easy to forget, from the perspective of 2013 and amid the legacies of informal politicians like Tony Blair and David Cameron, just how hectoring and pompous patrician Tories of the 1980’s could sound. In my young mind, a legitimate policy question being greeted with a trite dismissal such as “You know, it’s really not a question of whether Inflation is too, high for first time buyers. It’s a question of what is in the broader national interest.” Came to symbolise much of what I dislikes about the Conservative Party.
And, it was not just one of them. They all did it. Kenneth Baker, Kenneth Clarke, Michael Heseltine, Nigel Lawson, Douglas Hurd, even the redoubtable Mrs Thatcher herself, could routinely be heard uttering variations on this theme. ‘Yes,’ was the message, “I know you don’t like it, but that is because you don’t understand the real meaning and I do.”
You can imagine why to a political animal of no more than 11 or 12 years old, that sort of political lecturing would come across badly.
It is rare today to see a politician preaching National Interest over political accountability. Perhaps focus groups felt the same way as 12-year-old Crabbitat. But there are times when I wonder if there might not be a case for bringing back the patrician politics of the 1980’s Tory.
On Friday evening, as I was preparing for bed and the commencement of another week here in Riyadh, I turned on my computer, tuned into the Radio player and listened to a long running programme called Any Questions, which was being broadcast from somewhere in Central England.
The format of Any Questions is similar to that of its Television Equivalent, Question Time. Each week a panel of notaries including politicians, Journalists, Business Leaders, and assorted other opinion formers are asked topical questions by a studio audience.
Now this is critical. The point of this show, is to form part of the public’s internal debate with itself. The key word is topical. It is supposed to be about current affairs. It is supposed to be anchored in the events affecting the people that week.
Now, as a person with a pronounced interest in history, I would balk at any supposition that views of the current state of things should be divorced from history, quite the contrary. Any view which does not take account of history is condemned to be short-sighted.
But, then again, I must confess that when it comes to politics, and literature, historical narrative is very often merely a convenient plot line and as such, little more illuminating than fiction.
And so it was, that my ears perked up and my heart jolted down when a question was raised about whether the Prime Minister of the UK, David Cameron, should have apologised to India during a recent visit, for the Amritsar Massacre. There followed a vaguely interesting reprise of the arguments for and against apologising for historical events, which I do not propose to recount here. For those of you familiar with similar debates over Japanese Politicians apologising for wartime atrocities committed in Burma or The Philippines or Australian leaders apologising for the enforced adoption of aboriginal children into white families, there was nothing particularly new in the debate.
Yet one comment did illuminate my thinking in an unexpected way. One of the panel, the novelist, Jeannette Winterson, a woman of essentially left-leaning opinions (To judge from her other answers), commenced her answer to this question, with unabashed knock-about populism.
“Well I think the Government should start by apologising for the Illegal War in Iraq.” Was her opening statement. She went on to return to the subject but to judge from the ringing applause from the floor, she had already one the debate.
Now the thing is, I was against Britain’s involvement in Iraq at the time. I had no particular access to WMD intelligence that trumped that presented to the UN by Colin Powell. I did not doubt the veracity of Tony Blair’s belief that it was right to send in British forces. But, instinctively I was against it. From memory, my reservations were not particularly pacifist or political. I simply watched Powell’s presentation and saw no photos of Cuba Style weapons silos; nothing unequivocal that informed me that there was an imminent threat from Iraq. My view was that Hans Blix should be supported in his inspections and that there appeared no particular connection that I could see between Iraq and al-Qaeda. Indeed, as the debate raged, the narrative i saw, seemed to confirm this view. Certainly, from an open-minded stand point, my views hardened.
Instead, I felt only exasperation. Winterson’s automatic referencing of the Iraq War when asked an utterly unrelated question, reveals much about her political obsessions but it seemed out-of-place. Winterson and I appear to be on the right side of history in this one. We opposed the war and have been borne out by the revelations of the Dodgy Dossier and the absence of WMD’s.
Winterson may of course point out, correctly, that people lost lives and limbs in Basra, that the lives of a generation of Iraqi’s were dealt horrible blows from which recovery remains many years away. She may also argue, correctly that the misguided war effects Middle Eastern and global politics today, by empowering Iranian regional power, and destabilising the Levant .
She might, correctly, surmise that at both an intimate and geopolitical level, the effects of the decisions taken at that time remain real and dynamic and quite destructive to the lives of millions of people who neither sought nor deserved the ravages heaped upon them by a War conducted out of hubristic political theorising in Washington and London.
She might conclude by pointing out the childish naivety which must accompany the supposition that invading and overthrowing a brutal dictator of a minority regime in a complex ethnic and religious conglomeration of Peoples would be an unalloyed good and have no repercussions
And if she did, I would agree. Moreover, I am not intrinsically against a wee bit of popular rabble rousing from time to time.
Yet what depressed me about the response was the sheer reaction it elicited from the good people in that hall. They may have assembled to discuss the events of that week, but the events of the weeks and months leading up to the invasion of Iraq still, even now, caused them enough moral outrage to ensure their passionate call and response. They have remained quietly indignant. Winterson’s remark gave them a vent for anger built up over a prolonged period.
Perhaps, some of those present always opposed the war. Perhaps others supported it but felt betrayed that it had been conducted on a false pretext.
Whatever the reason, the fact remains that anger remains raw among many British people, a fact inconvenient to people such as myself, who would like us to move on to engaging with the consequences rather than the causes of the Iraq War and in so doing, begin the process of forming a view the War and the politicians who informed it in a correct historical context.
History or Current Affairs?
I was therefore confronted with the awkward reality that although the protagonists such as Hans Blix, Charles Kennedy, Tony Blair, Iain Duncan-Smith, Dick Chaney, George W. Bush, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, and Saddam Hussein, have long since passed from political relevance to the pages of Memoire or Journalistic history (By which I mean that journalists have already published extensive biographies of the era detailing the behind the scenes debates and motivations of the key players), the events they played out and the arguments they made remain current and even, to an extent, politically relevant.
And this not only depressed me but surprised me. For whatever the rights and wrongs of the British Government; whatever the on-going effects; whatever the future consequences of that conflict, in a very real sense it is now increasingly part of a historical narrative, not a political one.
The victors have submitted their self justifying accounts to posterity while the vanquished have submitted to the wider judgment of history and, like all vanquished leaders, have been condemned by history’s initial drafts. Time will tell whether Saddam or his son’s, Chemical Ali or Iraqi generalship, have any redeeming features.
The dichotomy between irrelevant figures already part of history and events that play powerfully in people’s minds and voting intentions is stark. Indeed, writing this, what strikes me most is how distant these names now appear to me.
While Iraq remains important in terms of informing the ‘Arab Spring,’ the expansion of Iranian Influence, the increasing power and authority of Hamas and of course the on-going Syrian Civil War its own war, has been distanced from us by the sequential phasing of its aftermath. From the insurgency and hunt for Saddam’s WMD’s, to the besieging of the British in Basra and our hasty withdrawal to the more effectively managed drawdown of American military presence, the personalities and the conduct of the war have been rendered distant while the aftermath continues to rear big and ugly in our political thinking.
Consequently, the Iraq war, that Winterson and so many people remain angry about, seems to me now to be something of an historical event itself. David Cameron was present in the Opposition and supported the Iraq War, but any imagined apology for it (and let’s be clear, this is purely hypothetical and will not happen), would need to be made, not on behalf of a Britain that largely opposed the invasion, but on behalf of a series of politicians who, as far as I am aware, remain convinced that they were right in terms of their motivation.
Which leaves us with a problem. For, the Iraq War, while on the one hand, well on its way to becoming history, remains vital on two levels. While its consequences are on-going and will continue to reverberate for a while to come, this need not necessarily prevent us considering it historical. We live, after all, in what we often term, ‘the post-war world,’ automatically referencing the great conflagrations between 1914 & 1945. The fact of an event being part of history need not necessarily make it irrelevant to our daily lives.
But the fact that so many people continue to harbour passionate feelings about the decision to take Britain into that conflict means that it is not yet mere history. The presence of political figures like George Galloway in the House of Commons, or the size of the Liberal Democrat Component in the Coalition are hangovers that hint at the on-going political traction that War has in Britain.
History and forgiveness
Tony Blair, remains a politician whose place in history (both that of Britain and of the Labour Movement) remains unclear. It may yet be that he is redeemed by history, as tends to happen with the passage of time. This may also happen to Gordon Brown. Yet it is equally possible that Blair will come to be condemned by historians of the left and the labour movement in general and never forgiven among those he led to power, not because of his wider failings but because of his support for a right-wing American bid for permanent hegemony in the heart of the Middle East.
Today, Labour’s first Prime Minister, Ramsey MacDonald may not have been redeemed to the point at which he is considered a great politician, but he has been redeemed to the point at which he is considered in part to have been a victim of the economic crash to affect the first weeks of his Premiership. No such redemption has been forthcoming from historians of the Labour Movement who continue to note that he is un-forgiven for having agreed to lead a Conservative dominated National Government in his second spell at 10 Downing Street.
The continuing passion exacted so effortlessly by Jeanette Winterson would hint that Blair’s legacy in the Labour Movement might forever be viewed in the context of Iraq, while it is unlikely that histories of British political history will take such a view. Blair will remain controversial and much discussed.
If Ramsey MacDonald is anything to go by, historians of the labour movement may never quite forgive Blair. But in time, to wider political historians, Iraq will form just part of his wider legacy.
Iraq and The right
How do we explain this? How do we explain how a war that increasingly looks like history, conducted by a Government whose leader is a semi-retired and increasingly irrelevant figure, can remain so current in the minds of people. Have not the economic downturn and austerity measures to shrink the State rendered Blair’s foreign adventures less important?
Well yes they have. And many, particularly on The Right of British Politics would like nothing more than for Iraq to be consigned to the past. Blair’s government can be easily condemned on the right for its adherence to light touch regulatory oversight of Banks. It can be easily condemned as having presided over a relatively sparse and crass cultural life in which tears and flowers at the funeral of the Princess of Wales and silly artistic fads such as Cool Britannia, and Diamond Clad Skulls came to define the shallow cultural milieu. The right can find a ready audience for complaints that British education or social welfare spending were not improved under Blair.
But while the continuing ire of the public at these issues serves the government well by disguising Conservative support or silence on these issues at the time, the continued anger over the Iraq War presents an altogether more difficult problem for a Conservative led government.
The problem is actually very simple. Britain used WMD’s as a pretext for going to war. What Blair cannot ever say, is the real truth behind his support for the war. Britain went to War in order to prove our continued loyalty to America and worth as an ally. Nothing more.
Actually I don’t doubt that Blair believed WMD’s existed. I don’t doubt that the contrivance of false evidence in support of this was a symptom of a corrupting desire to prove something which it was felt needed proving. But this should not disguise the fact that Britain was committed to entering Iraq from the moment the Americans requested it. WMD’s were a pretext for war, but hardly its root cause. That was a mix of an American need to be seen to be conducting a rigorous war against al-Qaeda and a geopolitical Narrative in the corridors of Washington which supposed that America could liberate Iraq and use it as a base for US operations and a Beacon for Liberal Democratic values.
In this regard, Blair’s support of the Iraq War is entirely in keeping with British foreign policy since the close of WWII. Saddam posed little threat to Britain. Indeed, we were happy in the early 1990’s to sell him arms.
We went to war because the Americans perceived it in their interests to do so and we perceived it in our interests to be on the same side.
This was not in and of itself immoral. It took no account of moral considerations at all. It was merely considered to be “In the National Interest.”
The problem for Conservatives, looking ahead to a future Conservative Government where the economy has improved and they are no longer obliged to share power with liberals, is that they will need to work out how to increase British military power to the point where we can once again be considered a relevant potential ally to the Americans. They will view this, however it is articulated, as a matter of utmost strategic national interest.
Conservative narrative on this follows a singular path. America safeguards Liberal Democracy and the free market by protecting global trade and acting as a bulwark against Socialism. Britain lacks the power and geographic isolation to fully disengage from European Socialistic market planning and therefore needs to hedge her bets by balancing European economic involvement with close alliance with America. But to do this we need to be a good and loyal ally, possess a military worth courting and be prepared to take the heat in a variety of places we don’t really want to fight in. Failure to do this will leave us isolated and powerless in Europe.
The fundamental problem with continued anger over Iraq and the reason Conservatives wish it would go away is that it acts to prevent future planning for an increase in military expenditure and increased alliance with a post Obama America. It creates an alternative narrative which entices the left to view increased military spending as war mongering and the libertarian right to view it as unnecessary state interference with a low tax, peaceful and stable economic power. It is, in short; deeply inconvenient.
And it cannot, as would have been the case in the past, merely justified by claims to “The National Interest.” In so many ways, Britain has come to far for that now; is too accountable to the sensibilities of her people.
Honour, National Interest & Iraq
Yet there is a deeper problem that the continued anger at the Iraq War sustains, namely the sheer legitimacy of the anger.
In almost every single critique of New Labour Policy it is possible to mention, the main justification is that these policies were overtly political. There was little real philosophy underpinning New Labour and the collapse in support for most New Labour policies hints at the broader truth that the left saw New Labour as a means travelling toward a more overt socialism and the right viewed it is the sort of soft left Nonsense more commonly associate with European political tinkering.
We can criticise Blair for lying about the Intelligence. We can criticise is misguided notion that it would help him gain leverage over the Americans. We can criticise him for not insisting on greater attention being given to the post war settlement.
But we cannot criticise him for his genuine conviction that he was doing the right thing. Moreover, viewed in the context of the Korean War, or the suppression of the Communist insurgence in Malaya or the deployment of troops to Sierra Leone or the Invasion of Afghanistan or the 1st Gulf War, Blair’s decision to act in support of American interests is, in reality completely in keeping with established Government strategic thinking since the commencement of the Cold War.
In other words, Conservatives did not support the War because of the pretext. They supported it because it was what we had always done; because they fundamentally agreed with the Anglo-American alliance and would have done exactly the same thing. The difference is that this time the pretext was found beyond question to be false and this has left both a lasting bad taste in the mouth and at the same time exposed a facet of foreign policy to unwelcome public scrutiny.
In the new world of informal, conversational Prime Ministers, whose belief in Democracy is predicated on having to prove in all cases that Government is open to scrutiny, from Expense claims to National Security to International Development, it is no longer possible for Patrician politicians from either Labour or The Conservatives merely to justify the sale of Fighter Planes to Saudi Arabia or the maintenance of a Garrison in Belize, in terms of “The Broader National Interest.”
And for those of us who take our politics and our nation seriously, who believe that adult politicians need sometimes to take adult decisions out of the reach of immediate public scrutiny, and ultimately will submit to the scrutiny of history for their actions, this development is not only damaging to the National Self Interest, but damaging also to the interests of effective democratic governance.
In the final analysis, I intensely disliked a political culture in which politicians could preach National Interest without moral or contemporary oversight. But I was a child.
In mature democracies, accountability is never minute by minute or Tweet by Tweet. Rather, healthy Democracy has three valves through which accountability is injected and regulated. The first is a free press, the second, regular parliamentary elections and the third, the scrutiny of history, which is often as damming and as effective a mediator of political behaviours as any journalist or voter.
For, as the historian and biographer of George Canning, Wendy Hinde, put it, “At some stage, the young always judge the wisdom of their elder’s, and as often as not, find it to be wanting.”