If were serious that wed like to see this war itself pre-empted, then whats needed is a good, cold dose of cynicism. The first place to start is with the weak links. Few links come weaker than Britains 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, theyre keener still on the war than the Prime Minister is. When they fault him, its 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 its afraid of the alternative.
What underlies the lack of opposition to government policy in Britain and therefore propitiates the Prime Ministers 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 theres a quick and easy war), then well 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 well 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, theres no gain from opposing the war. Except that this reasoning is entirely specious, as Ill 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 doesnt 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. Its 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 wont benefit in any shape or form from that. It wont be seen as one whit more responsible on national security issues, it wont 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.
Theres 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 governments doing what I want, why shouldnt I start formally backing them, instead of this bunch of losers Im presently stuck with? For a party flack, theres no easy answer to that, short of, uh, youre 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 didnt 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 wasnt 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 dont think for one second that the war thats liable to be fought is going to be such as to cause either Britain or America domestic problems, but if thats 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 thats won?
Here again, given the temper of Western electorates, Im 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 its 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 Majors government was destroyed by this mistake, and Tony Blairs 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 dont matter, but they could in the future be worth something if the government fouls up. As things stand, Iain Duncan Smiths party is loath to take advantage of the government in this way. It is the measure of Tony Blairs 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 whats supposedly best in the interest of a 3rd rate party in a 2nd rate country. Why this matters, other than Britains 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.