The Limits of Conservatism

Even I was beginning to worry if I was going to be proven wrong: for the entire nine years that Tony Blair has been leader of the Labour party, I\’ve guaranteed everyone who\’d listen that \’Clare Short will do the dirty on Tony Blair\’, and nothing much happened. She lashed out a few times, in her typically cowardly and self-serving way, at Peter Mandelson (always one for the unpopular causes, our Clare), but beyond that she has clung as tenaciously to frontbench office under Tony Blair as any of her more honestly \’New Labour\’ peers did. Yet now she\’s done it – she\’s picked the moment when this vain, irrelevant gasbag of a sell-out believes she can inflict the maximum amount of damage on the man, who for no reason other than political noblesse oblige, has kept her about the place. In truth, as I believe the Prime Minister\’s saintly forbearance in axing this witch shows, the International Development Secretary, hectoring, intolerant bigot that she is, is of even less account inside the Labour government than she will be outside it. A woman who brayed for the bombing of Serbs, denouncing those who queried NATO\’s role in Kosovo, was a nasty piece of work, and she remains one in opposition to this war too. Finding oneself on the same side as Clare Short should not encourage anyone.

Thank goodness then that we\’re not, not if one believes Ms. Short\’s lies this time: that she\’s resiling for the sake of the saintly UN. We\’re not the sort of people who believe that Britain, or any other country for that matter, has delegated its sovereign right to make war to the UN\’s security council. We\’d like to think that what we like to think stems from our efforts to follow lines of thought consistent with the national interest. So here\’s some other things, being good little realists, that we ought to be thinking too, in addition to us all agreeing how odious Clare Short is: this war (in the \’one set of states knocks down the regime in another state, and sets up a new one in its stead\’ sense) will be over quickly and with relatively few Western casualties – if it isn\’t, it will be because the pro-war lobby ironically had a point, and Saddam did in fact have WMD he could effectively use; the support of the British government for the American one in this enterprise is, as the charming Mr Rumsfeld reminded us, irrelevant; and, as a general rule of political thumb, if you claim you sincerely want to help someone out, well, that\’s what you do – you don\’t do what the Official Opposition has done here, and try to cause as much political inconvenience for the Government as possible.

To take that last point first: Iain Duncan Smith\’s Tory party has gone out of its way, with characteristic heedlessness to what might actually chime with popular opinion, to back the Government in this national interest-free war against Iraq. The perverse consequence of this stance, and the way it has been executed, has been to greatly increase the difficulties that Mr Blair has faced. Silly pundits have opined that Mr Blair has found himself in a tight spot because he is coming close (he hasn\’t actually reached this point yet) to the stage where he might actually need Conservative voting support for tight parliamentary divisions over this war. Strictly speaking, which pundits sadly never do, he won\’t \’need\’ it at all, as he doesn\’t require parliamentary sanction to wage war or conduct foreign policy, but it\’s widely felt (including, no doubt, by the man himself) that it would be nice to have the backing of the House of Commons. Yet to say that this, the possible future reliance on Tory votes, is in itself the terrible fate awaiting the Prime Minister (making him an Asquith-like catspaw of the Opposition, over the ranks of his own broken party) is entirely wrong.

The scale of the Labour rebellion over Iraq has been determined precisely by the fact that it has been more or less consequence-free for those taking part in it; and it hasn\’t required entering the same lobby as those awful, jingoistic Tories. It is exactly the fact that, because the Tories will always ensure a majority, and thus no issues of confidence arise in the regime, Labour \’rebels\’ can do just that – the Labour government, Mr Blair\’s, which has led through its electoral appeal to there being all these hundreds upon hundreds of Labour backbench MPs with time on their hands to muck about, will survive, but the individuals in question will gain the immeasurable pleasure of being able to sound off in front of their constituency associations in a louchely progressive fashion. The thing people like me have to face up to is, had a fairly unlikely situation come to pass, and the Tory party was doing pretty much what we wanted, a policy of Powellite opposition to this war would have resulted in far fewer political difficulties for Mr Blair. That said, since the claim of the pro-American Conservative leadership is a desire, predicated on their understanding of the national interest, to see Britain at war beside the Great Ally, their actions in Parliament are undermining the one man most likely to bring this about.

One trivial consequence of the sort of war that I expect – that quick, victorious one – is that the Government here can expect a an opinion poll glow of sorts from the public, and if that happens the Tory leader might find himself in a bit of a pickle. His fate will be decided by the performance of the Conservative party in the May local and devolved elections – as things stand, his party will do well enough for him to cling onto its leadership. Were the government to do better than expected, he wouldn\’t. Mr Duncan Smith\’s great hope must be that as with just about all foreign policy issues (one thinks of the domestic impact in the United States of the first Gulf War, a vastly more important undertaking in its context than this one, even if it does go all the way to Baghdad), this war\’s impact on voters will be slight and transient. There is no reason to expect that it won\’t be [unless, see \’neocons are telling the truth about Saddam\’s super-weapons\’ get-out clause passim].

Indeed, I suspect that there will be a permanent political legacy to this war, which is to depress the core Labour vote in a similar, albeit vastly smaller fashion to the way John Major depressed the bedrock Tory vote in the run-up to the 1997 general election. My hunch is that some Labour voters, out of disgust for Tony Blair\’s determination, come what may, to get into this war, merely won\’t turn out to vote Labour at the next general election. They won\’t, just like their Tory counterparts, switch to another party, but they will be as adamant in their desire to stay at home come polling day. This in itself will be enough save every single Tory seat currently in danger of falling at the next election, and will send at least 30 Labour ones straight back to the Tory column, which will be passably good news for whoever happens to be leading that party come the next election.

Just as Britain (like America) doesn\’t need any more stinking UN resolutions to go to war, so too could she behave like any other nation not presently going to war: which is to say, if Britain did a France or a Germany or a Russia (or any other non-Anglosphere attack poodle nation), and sat this one out, the world wouldn\’t come to an end, and life would continue fairly much as normal. The truth of this (and remember we\’re talking about the states here that have been bothered to raise their heads above the parapet, not those non-entities that have staked a position against, in favour, or in between, or who actually cares?) is that come the much vaunted time of reckoning, well, there won\’t be any: not any that\’s worth spit.

What\’s America going to do to France? Huff and withdraw all her troops from Europe? You can just imagine the French coming over all Briar Rabbit and blubbering, \’oh please Uncle Sam, please don\’t do that, anything but that . . .\’ Or are they (the Americans – the free-trading, linchpin-of-the-global-economy etc etc lot) going to impose, what, economic sanctions against France? Even were the United States, the world\’s largest debtor nation, minded to carry out this extremely implausible threat, which she isn\’t, she plain and simply couldn\’t afford to. If there ever does come the day when there\’s a proper, big boys\’ trade war between the US and the EU (which is what sanctions on France would mean), the US will \’lose\’, that is, she, being the biggest beneficiary of free trade, has the most to lose.

One, in addition, does not have to be a Paul Kennedyesque determinist when it comes to these things, to acknowledge that when a smaller economic entity tangles with a larger one (in our real-world scenario, that\’s the United States up against the wealthier EU), the numbers are with the latter. So to repeat: as FDR put it, when you\’re big enough (as all of France, China, Britain, Russia and Germany are – only Japan, because of unhappy geography isn\’t free to choose to be brave), when it comes to your relationship to the United States, the only thing you have to fear is fear itself. There\’s nothing they can to do to you: that\’s why they\’re the good guys after all, their unwillingness to do bad things.

– Christopher Montgomery

Next week, Emmanuel Goldstein returns for a wartime special.