Tony Blair: The Countdown Begins

The date has been set, or at least the timeframe. Tony Blair will step down as Prime Minister of Britain within a year. This of course opens the door for Blair’s longtime rival and longtime successor Gordon Brown, with whom Blair was rumored to have engaged in a shouting match just prior to his surprise announcement.

Blair’s allies are scrambling to find a challenger for the “good of the party”. Those who read my last posting can probably see where I’m going with this. That challenger is Home Secretary John Reid, and his expert handling of last month’s “crisis” is the justification.

But who is Gordon Brown, anyway?

Surely, while Dr. Reid has been neatly groomed as the perfect challenger many questions remain, especially for those of us on the other side of the Atlantic. Who is Gordon Brown, why is the Blairite faction so determined to present a challenger to him, and what would a Prime Minister Brown mean in international affairs?

Gordon Brown has been Tony Blair’s strongest rival in the Labour Party for a decade now, and has been the Chancellor of the Exchequer from the day Blair took office. From that time, Brown has been considered the heir apparent, and from that time, Blair’s supporters have sniped at him and sought an alternative.

But why is that? A cursory glance at their respective positions reveal no glaring differences in policy. The biggest differences appear to be personal. Brown’s public condemnation of Oxford admissions policy made him a lot of enemies, particularly those close to the Oxford-educated Blair, and Blair’s support for the Euro may well have rubbed the Chancellor the wrong way, but their similarities as public advocates of “Third Way”-style New Labour would seem to make them allies, albeit reluctant ones.

What would Gordon Brown’s foreign policy be?

The $64,000 question, especially for most readers of this site, is what (if any) foreign policy changes would we see under a Brown Premiership. The answer, unfortunately, is far from clear.

For a politician who has spent decades at the forefront of policy decisions, Brown has been surprisingly tight-lipped about exactly where he stands on many issues, particularly those involving foreign affairs.

Though publicly he’s echoed Blair and Reid in their call for 90 day detentions, and touted his generous funding of the war on terror, there has been some speculation that he is increasingly annoyed at the havoc the high cost of wars is playing on his budget, and some have insinuated that this was a none-too-subtle attempt to convince those responsible for appointing a new Labour Party leader that his Premiership would not be a radical change.

One interesting rhetorical difference between Brown and Reid can be found in their domestic anti-terror policy, however. While last month Reid caused a minor stir in his insistence that freedoms would have to be curbed in the name of defeating terror. Brown, in an interview with the BBC last May, insisted that “you can have security without interfering in a deleterious way with people’s civil liberties”. What that means in actual policy differences is anyone’s guess, though it’s a good bet that Brown will be less eager to ditch Britain’s international human rights obligations.

This is much more speculative, but in the question of Gordon Brown’s foreign policy, we must not forget to mention former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.

In early April, Seymour Hersh’s article broke on the Pentagon’s plans to attack Iran, potentially including the use of tactical nuclear weapons in such an attack. A couple of days later, Straw responded publicly, rejecting Hersh’s claims, citing the lack of actual evidence against Iran, and suggesting that a preemptive nuclear attack against Iran based on what amounted to unsubstantiated suspicion would be “nuts”. Straw reiterated this several times, and less than a month later he was fired.

Why this happened is still the subject of plenty of intense speculation. Well-connected neocon economist Irwin Stelzer even claimed that the White House got Straw fired because he had a high percentage of Muslims in his district, and that led them to question where his true loyalties lay. That sounds pretty far-fetched, but the more popular theories are little better.

Early reports suggest that Straw had been cozying up to Brown as the apparent next Prime Minister in an effort to secure a spot in his cabinet, and that this didn’t sit well with Blair and his allies. Another popular theory is that the White House indeed got him fired, but rather for his opposition to attacking Iran.

Can we infer anything from this? Is Jack Straw’s vociferous objections to a preemptive nuking of Iran indicative of Gordon Brown’s potential policy? Prospect Magazine and others certainly seem to think that a Brown Premiership would be less interventionist than Blair’s. Of course their reasoning is not that Gordon would have any moral objections to starting a huge war without evidence, but rather that he would object to spending billions on such an escapade. Still, whatever the reason, the common belief is that Gordon Brown, while far from an antiwar candidate, would be somewhat less hawkish than, say, John Reid.

If joining the US on its various foreign adventures has become the defining policy of the Blair administration, perhaps the threat of a less willing Prime Minister is what worries Blair’s allies so. And perhaps that is the real reason the Blairite faction is forever seeking the “Stop Brown” candidate.

Well-Timed Terrorism?

The foiled terror plot of August 10th has had considerable effect on the news of the past week. It’s turned the airline industry upside-down in a scramble to prevent such innocuous items as bottled water from finding their way on board a jet, where they would be combined with some ill-defined collection of other liquids in an effort to create an explosive. Admittedly, this threat appears largely illusory, but it makes for very exciting news. Less well publicized is the enormous effect it has had on the British political landscape, and that’s what I hope to examine here.

British Home Secretary John Reid got his political start in the 1970’s as a member of the British Communist Party. Since then he has become one of Tony Blair’s closest allies, and a staunch defender of New Labour. Though his often controversial attacks on his enemies have long kept him in the public limelight (recall on March 18, when then Defence Secretary Reid accused tens of thousands of London antiwar protesters of supporting terrorism), he had never been more than a second-tier player in British politics. This past week, that has changed, and Reid is suddenly now considered a legitimate contender in the race to succeed Tony Blair as Prime Minister. The frontrunner remains Blair’s longtime rival, Chancellor Gordon Brown, but Reid is now being discussed as a credible rival for him.

To understand why we need to go back to the day before the plot was foiled, August 9th. Reid was delivering a talk to British think tank Demos, a third way advocacy organization very friendly with New Labour which was founded by the former editor of the British Communist Party’s journal “Marxism Today”. Dr. Reid is extremely adept at getting into the headlines, and this talk was no different. In it, he condemned the Court of Appeal’s insistence that terror detentions conform to human rights laws and declared that, in the name of winning the fight against terror, the British would have to modify (read: eliminate) certain long cherished freedoms. This declaration was enough to get him into the headlines of most British news outlets, along with more than a little grumbling from civil libertarians about the threat his policies would pose to personal freedom.

Then, the very next day, a major terror plot is foiled. In light of this “breaking news”, Dr. Reid’s speech seems almost prescient. Almost, at least, until you consider that he knew about the upcoming foiling well in advance of the speech. How do we know this? That requires us to look at the American response. On the day of the arrests, CNBC was reporting that Bush’s apparently impromptu speech on the topic was in fact written the day before. When asked about when they were informed about it, Tony Snow was evasive, as usual, but he did confirm that the White House had known about it for some time, as it was a topic of discussion during their Sunday briefing (August 6). Ultimately, since the British had informed the White House that they were scheduling the plot foiling three days before Dr. Reid’s speech to Demos, it is reasonable to assume that his speech was written with an eye towards the events of the following day.

Also interesting is the way he’s sort of “spontaneously” taken over the response to the incident in Tony Blair’s absence, much to the chagrin of Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, who Blair had initially left in charge before going on vacation. The view of Dr. Reid as the sort of person who doesn’t lose his head and can take charge in a crisis has dramatically increased his popularity, but when one considers that this “crisis” had several days of lead time to it, it is doubtful that it was all that spontaneous.

But the underlying question, and it’s one that we unfortunately can’t answer at this time, is exactly when the British government scheduled this canned “crisis”. Since they’d told the Americans at least as early as August 6, that’s the latest they knew about it. But Tony Blair went on his scheduled vacation on August 4, only two days earlier, leaving Prescott in charge. If he knew about the upcoming arrests before he left, a response that already appears to be a planned PR move may well have been a carefully orchestrated King-making event designed for the specific reason of making Blair’s ally John Reid a legitimate candidate to succeed him as Prime Minister. If any real threat existed, surely Tony Blair would not have abandoned his country and gone on vacation.

Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott’s relative inexperience and tendency towards public speaking gaffes rule him out as a reasonable candidate for Prime Minister when Blair steps down. John Reid, on the other hand, had the experience and the name-awareness to be the “Stop Brown” candidate that the Blairites have so desperately sought since their respective controversies ruined the chances of both David Blunkett and Charles Clarke, the previous two Home Secretaries. All he really needed was a crisis to handle to endear himself to the public, and he appears to have gotten that. A question that the British public ought to be asking is, how real was this crisis, and how well planned was his handling of it?

Iran’s Fault?

I’m a little sick of hearing how Iran is to blame for rising oil prices.

This week we’ve gotten a crystal clear indicator of the true cause, and it can be summed up elegantly over the past two trading days.

Yesterday: Iranian President Ahmadinejad sends a concilliatory letter to the Bush administration, suggesting possible solutinos for the current dispute. The price of oil drops precipitously. The article of the day is Crude Eases on Possible Iran Progress.

Today: The price of oil spikes back up. What’s the reason?

If the AP headline is to be believed, Oil Prices Rise Above $71 on Iran Worries. So what did those pesky Iranians do? They brought the market down yesterday and brought it up today… shouldn’t that prove the case that the high oil prices are largely Iran’s fault?

Actually, no. The answer to what Iran did today was “nothing at all”. The last thing we’ve heard out of Iran is still that letter that drove prices down. The actual cause is that the US rejected any notion that this letter might be a positive step. In short, the Iranian President offered the US an olive branch, and Condi just slapped it out of his hand.

Ultimately, nothing Iran has done is causing the price of oil to rise, it’s the Bush Administration’s saber-rattling that’s largely to blame for any “war premium” oil and gasoline are seeing. Let’s face facts: if another war happens, it’s not going to be Ahmadinejad that starts it.

Talk of NSA Spying actually goes further back than that

While we’re on the subject of the NSA and intercepting international emails, I’m surprised how few people remember ECHELON.

It’s about five years old now, but the reports of the intercepts of global communications data were troubling enough to spark an investigation by the EU Parliament. The year-long investigation confirmed the existance of ECHELON, but in the end also conceded there was little which could be done about it.

The EU Report doesn’t seem to be on the EU Parliament’s website any longer, but it can still be found here (WARNING: This 200 page long PDF is fairly large, so if you’re on a dialup, expect a wait).

It’s always something, isn’t it?

In case you haven’t heard yet, or were confused by our titles from late last night like “Bush Won’t Discuss Report of NSA Spying” and “Rice Denies Illegal Domestic Spying”… Bush has since ‘acknowledged approving eavesdropping’.

I’ll spare you any further commentary on it, since I already did so on my own weblog

Addendum: Looks like USA Today updated the article recently and now it’s more about the Patriot Act than the NSA spying. If you want to see what he actually said about the NSA spying, you’ll just have to read the transcript of his weekly radio address