January 22, 2003
I Were a Cynic...
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,
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
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.