January 22, 2003

If I Were a Cynic...

One thing you have to say about being opposed to this March’s Gulf War is that, there’s nothing desperately brave in being so. It’s a conceit of too many anti-war activists that by bravely striking out against this silly crusade, they’re taking on innumerable and implacable forces. In fact, in just about every country likely to take part in the actual fighting, you’re in the majority if you’re against. Moreover, those organs of applied establishment sneering, the BBC, The New York Times, that lot, they’re all your side too. And it’s precisely because it’s safe to be against that I’d recommend more people being so. On the ‘come in, the water’s lovely’ principle, a far more appealing case can be made against this war, than by reliance on the stale, self-righteous arguments of the professional, anti-Western left.

If we’re serious that we’d like to see this war itself pre-empted, then what’s needed is a good, cold dose of cynicism. The first place to start is with the weak links. Few links come weaker than Britain’s Conservative party at the moment. Its stance on this war, as expressed in the House of Commons by the shadow Defence Secretary, Bernard Jenkin, is that of support for the ‘broad thrust’ of government policy. This rather underplays the loyalty of the Official Opposition, for in truth, they’re keener still on the war than the Prime Minister is. When they fault him, it’s for not doing enough to help the Great Ally, and vanquish the forces of radical-pan-Arab-secular-socialist-theocratic-Islamist terrorism (basically, brown people). In part, the current leadership of the Tory party does this because they believe it, but in much larger part, the party as a whole consents to this being its policy because it’s afraid of the alternative.

What underlies the lack of opposition to government policy in Britain — and therefore propitiates the Prime Minister’s tyranny over his own Labour backbenchers — is the fear of what opposition would entail. The theory runs something like this: if the Government is successful (i.e. if there’s a ‘quick and easy’ war), then we’ll be damned as fools and cowards for having spoken out against it. Whereas, even if the war does in some way go ‘wrong’, why then we’ll be denounced for having being unpatriotic enough to ‘undermine our brave boys while the bullets were flying’. Either way, and this is an entirely legitimate calculation for political parties to make, there’s no gain from opposing the war. Except that this reasoning is entirely specious, as I’ll do the Tory frontbench the favour of explaining why.

My argument as to why it would be perfectly safe to engage in some cynical and opportunistic opposition is about to be set out below, but that doesn’t account for why we should consider doing it. The reason for that is it being just so: its very safety should in this instance be the spur to inaction. It’s the fact that this is a no-risk, each-way bet that makes it such an attractive proposition. To be even more boringly parochial than usual, given the state of the opposition in Britain today, it is duty bound to avail itself of every free hit against the government it can get. So what then would the consequences of opposition to the war be for the Right in Britain?

If the war goes well, and the Tory party remains adamantine in its support of this Labour government, it won’t benefit in any shape or form from that. It won’t be seen as one whit more responsible on national security issues, it won’t be seen as a wise subset of statesmen, equally deserving of being trusted, at some future point, with the ship of state. Indeed, there is the very real danger that its slavish adherence to the Blairite line is simply seeing what happened in America with the neo-conservatives happen in reverse here. With every speech by a Tory frontbencher that lauds, for want of a better term, the American position on the war, and then Tory Blair delivers on that policy, we begin to see some of our camp followers make inescapably logical choices.

There’s a group of Tories who on social issues (and for that matter, economic ones as well) have very little to distinguish between them and the Prime Minister. Should Mr Blair have his good war, thus with his and their agenda neatly and swiftly delivered, more and more of these centrist Tories (both voters and political activists) are going to ask themselves the question, ‘since the government’s doing what I want, why shouldn’t I start formally backing them, instead of this bunch of losers I’m presently stuck with?’ For a party flack, there’s no easy answer to that, short of, ‘uh, you’re as wrong as Tony Blair is, and if he achieves his foul, unTory goals, and you still support them, then sod off and join him’ [you can perhaps see why I no longer, as such, work for a political party]. All in all, supporting the Prime Minister gets us nowhere much politically, and may well be doing us much internal damage. What then can we hope for from that much promised opportunistic cynicism?

Let us imagine for a moment that the Official Opposition didn’t endorse this war, that it was at best luke-warm, and at worst, downright hostile. If the war goes badly, then we stand to benefit from our prescience; whatever way we choose to pitch it, we would, had we opposed the war, be able to attack the government. We could be the party that said that this was a foolish military adventure, entirely divorced from the national interest, ‘not worth the blood and treasure’ etc, etc. Or we could have been the party that wasn’t much enthused, and so sat on our hands. In this scenario, we stand out as the movement that refused to go along with ‘the rush to war’, so wise old us. I don’t think for one second that the war that’s liable to be fought is going to be such as to cause either Britain or America domestic problems, but if that’s a wrong shout, a party that has opposed the war will find it hard to avoid some sort of political benefit.

What then if things go ‘well’? As I argued above, the gain from backing a government that does well out of war is non-existent for an opposition, so the issue has to be, what kind of penalty will be incurred for opposing a war that’s won?

Here again, given the temper of Western electorates, I’m hard pushed to see what the punishment would be. So what if a party stand out against war, either meekly, or, less wisely, by predicting Armageddon? Voters are fickle and shallow, and oppositions are so rarely punished for being wrong. No one remembers the mistakes shadows make, but they hardly forget what government does. In other words, since so few people pay attention to an opposition, historically it’s been quite easy to avoid any serious political consequences for your rhetorical actions. By far the worst decision any government in Britain made in the nineties was to enter the old Exchange-rate Mechanism (ERM). This decision was reluctantly taken by a Tory government, and every moment of delay was denounced by a Labour opposition braying ever more keenly for entry. In the end, John Major’s government was destroyed by this mistake, and Tony Blair’s blindly pro-European New Labour romped home to a general election triumph. To state a general rule: you only pay for your actions when your actions matter.

The actions of the Conservative party today don’t matter, but they could in the future be worth something if the government fouls up. As things stand, Iain Duncan Smith’s party is loath to take advantage of the government in this way. It is the measure of Tony Blair’s political brilliance that, were positions reversed, he would not have hesitated for a second.

It can rightly be objected that this is an examination of what’s supposedly best in the interest of a 3rd rate party in a 2nd rate country. Why this matters, other than Britain’s hand in glove military and diplomatic relationship with the United States is that it could so easily be a message to the rest of the world. Instead of allowing foreign policy to be dictated by the hegemon, we could, at no meaningful cost to ourselves, set our own. With reference to how foreign countries get away with defying the United States, I will attempt next week to show why what goes for the Tory party could so readily go for Britain. To pre-empt that, whatever France can do, we can do better.

– Christopher Montgomery

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Christopher Montgomery is an historian who is currently writing a book on the historiography of the Suez crisis, and is publisher of ERO. He recently took some time out to run the Iain Duncan Smith campaign office, and for a while was working in the private office of the Leader of the Opposition. A young representative of the diehard tradition, he believes that Enoch Powell was right on everything apart from immigration. His column appears here on Wednesdays.

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