LONDONBritain's mostly unqualified support for the United States on Iraq may be
heart-warming for a Washington which is getting a chilly response from the rest
of Europe. But there are signs that the Blair government's once overwhelming
dominance of public opinion is eroding. This is only one of several issues on
which it is, finally, beginning to look vulnerable. The teflon is wearing off.
On the face of it, Prime Minister Tony
Blair might be said to be taking a political risk on a question of principle.
The prospect of war with Iraq does not appear to be a vote winner, at least
according to the opinion polls, and is causing dissension within the Labour
Principle is not something hitherto
associated with this government, which has a long record of news manipulation.
Its spin-master, Alastair Campbell, is a product of the Robert Maxwell school of
British tabloid journalism. Campbell, director of communications and strategy,
is seen as more powerful than most of the members of the cabinet. Hence it was
no surprise when Blair's recently published dossier on the casus belli, the
growing threat of the Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, was greeted with
skepticism even by some of the most fervent British supporters of the United
So why does Blair appear willing to be
seen in the eyes of much of the local media, as well as overseas, as "Bush's
First, Blair has an image of himself as a
presidential leader who prefers to treat his cabinet, as well as Parliament, as
a rubber stamp. He also wants to maintain his presence on the world stage, which
is more easily achieved by standing shoulder to shoulder with President George
W. Bush than equivocating in the manner of President Jacques Chirac of France or
Chancellor Gerhard Schröder of Germany.
Second, he knows this is an issue on
which his Conservative opponents will not challenge him. Instinctively they are
more pro-war than Labour. The Liberal Democrats are the only specifically
Third, but most important, Iraq distracts
from the government's multiple failures on key domestic issues. Although the
economy continues to outperform most of Europe, the abysmal state of Britain's
public services has become the center of attention. The health service is
chronically short of funds and facilities. The railroads are a tale of woe.
Promises to improve education, arguably the worst of any major European country,
are looking hollow.
While many problems stem from years of
underinvestment and ill-managed privatization during Conservative rule, Labour
has now been in power long enough to take the blame. Ministers have tried hard
to make civil servants scapegoats for their own failings but a mass media that
used to eat out of Campbell's hand is becoming more critical.
The unhappiness of Labour members of
Parliament over the government's record on public services has caused Blair to
throw them a class war bone - a bill to ban the ancient rural activity of
hunting with dogs. This concern to save foxes and other mammals from hounds does
not extend to protecting them from more painful death by poison, trap or gun.
Far from being an exercise in animal
welfare, it has all the hallmarks of authoritarianism as well as contempt for
rural interests. Authoritarianism is in evidence, too, with proposals such as
reducing the role of juries and harsh measures to crack down on illegal
immigration. All this is in addition to a slew of "security" measures mimicking
the illiberal post-Sept. 11 moves in the United States.
Hunting is also the sort of class issue
that distracts attention from the habits of Labour's new upper class - an
in-group, many of them lawyers, who pick up lucrative positions and contracts
with the quangos (quasi nongovernmental organizations) which have proliferated.
Cronyism started early in the Blair administration.
Labour members of Parliament are mostly
remote from the party's roots in the working class and the socialist
intelligentsia. The lack of ideology is palpable and should ensure that Blair
can get away with policies on the economy and Iraq that would have appalled an
earlier Labour generation. Resignations on matters of principle are outmoded.
Blair has little to fear from a
rudderless Conservative Party that has not been able to capitalize on government
failings. Yet an Iraq venture that went wrong could be Blair's undoing, uniting
the party's left and its opportunists in a bid, reminiscent of the ousting of
Margaret Thatcher, to change the leadership while the Conservatives are still
floundering and before too many crony scandals are exposed.
Happy to talk war, Blair is probably
praying it will never happen.