By Geoffrey Wheatcroft (THE GUARDIAN, 07/02/07):
As he approaches the end, disliked, dishonoured and quite possibly disgraced, his whole career ruined by a needless, illegal and disastrous war, is there anything to be said in favour of the prime minister and his foreign policy? Maybe someone who has just written a polemical attack on him is the right person to make this defence: whatever else is said about him, at least Tony Blair comes out of Iraq better than Gordon Brown.
Throughout his career, Blair has been very lucky in his enemies, notably the chancellor. Even now Labour can see for itself which is the more plausible, and a perceptible shudder runs through the party whenever it contemplates its seemingly unavoidable next leader. MPs may have lost faith in Blair, but he can still – as last September’s ludicrous abortive putsch confirmed – remind Brown of Charles II’s taunt to his brother, the Duke of York: “They’ll never kill me, Jamie, to make you king.”
In Roy Jenkins’s wonderfully patronising phrase, Blair has a second-rate intellect and a first-rate temperament, while Brown is the other way round. And Blair’s was the better combination for politics, Jenkins added. There is ample evidence that the grand old man was right, and that the chancellor lacks certain crucial human qualities, from amiability to courage.
No one who has studied him can doubt that there is something odd about Brown’s personality. It might have been tactless of George Osborne to call him autistic – if he did: perhaps he meant to say “artistic”, though that seems even less apt – but he is not, as they say, a people person. There are indeed times when one has thought that the jibe “psychologically flawed” may have been the truest words Alastair Campbell ever spoke, even if that’s not saying much.
And it’s characteristic of this inept man that he thinks he can dissociate himself from the policies of a government to which he has belonged for 10 years as a central figure. When asked the other day about the hot topic of gay adoption, Brown said that it wasn’t a Treasury matter. Actually, everything is, but in any case does he really think that kind of evasiveness impresses anyone?
Perhaps the chancellor would like us to think that Iraq isn’t a Treasury matter. It’s true that he is not alone in having contracted Blair’s own gift for selective amnesia. Sundry ministers and MPs contrive to give the impression that when the decision to invade was taken four years ago they were all taking part in an Antarctic expedition, or visiting a space station. But they were in fact at Westminster, and must share the responsibility for what has happened since.
To be more exact, there is a declension of blame. Blair comes out of Iraq not better but worse than George Bush, and the Labour MPs who voted for the war come out not better but worse than the much-abused Washington neoconservatives. The neocons had always quite openly wanted a war of revenge to destroy Saddam Hussein: regime change for the sake of regime change. How many MPs can say the same?
As to the chancellor, it took a great octogenarian novelist to see how ignoble his position is. Speaking on the radio the other week, Doris Lessing said plainly that Brown’s record on Iraq is not better but worse than Blair’s.
It can be argued that Blair was the one man on earth who could have prevented the invasion of Iraq, if he had joined the other European leaders in opposing it. But he says to this day that he really believed in the war as a noble enterprise, for which “history will be my judge”.
That excuse will not serve for Brown. He never shared the prime minister’s exalted or deranged zeal for waging war in general and an invasion of Iraq in particular. And that, as Lessing said, makes his compliance so much the worse. Is it better to have supported a morally and legally dubious war from cynical calculation, or opportunistic careerism, than from sincere conviction? That applies to each of the 247 Labour MPs who voted for the motion to “use all means necessary to ensure the disarmament of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction” on March 18 2003. How many of them had previously advocated a war? How many of them really wanted a war even then? One in five?
Still more to the point, Brown is the one man who could have stopped not the invasion itself, but British participation. Although Robin Cook’s brave, forlorn resignation embarrassed Blair, it didn’t seriously damage him; but if Brown and a couple of other senior ministers had resigned along with Cook, it is very hard to see how Blair could have remained in office, or taken us to war.
But then to have resigned would not have been like Brown. While flourishing his scary grin (like the silver plate on a coffin, as O’Connell said of Peel), and displaying an open disloyalty to the prime minister which has no parallel in our political history, he has always been willing to wound but afraid to strike: he showed that once again last autumn.
Is there then anything that can be said in defence of him? Yes, there is this: Gordon Brown comes out of Iraq better than Peter Hain. It is a very long time since British politics has witnessed anything quite as abject and contemptible as Hain’s recent interview in the New Statesman.
“The neocon mission has failed,” Hain proclaims – now. “People have forgotten about [the government’s achievements] because of the Iraq conflict,” the Northern Ireland secretary tells us – now. The government found itself working with “the most rightwing American administration, if not ever, then in living memory”, he observes – now, in the year 2007, just as he happens to be running for the Labour deputy leadership.
But really, what an utter wretch this man is! What a dismal, slippery poltroon! Like Molière’s Monsieur Jourdain learning that he had been speaking prose all his life, Hain suddenly discovers that George Bush is a rightwing politician, something he evidently never noticed in the years when Bush was governor of Texas, and presided over the execution of 153 people – on one occasion publicly mocking a woman he had put to death – or indeed when he reached the White House.
It’s quite true that we took part in the Iraq war in order to demonstrate our – or Blair’s – absolute loyalty to that American administration. Like Brown, Hain was a member of the cabinet when the war began. Like him, he could have resigned. Like him, he decided, in Lloyd George’s phrase, to perish with his drawn salary in his hands.
In fact, Hain went further. Two years ago he was still defending the case for regime change, or insisting that “an Iraq moving into democracy provides a better future for the Iraqi people”. And he sneered at what he called the “tired old attack” which “questions the prime minister’s integrity” – over the dossiers and claims about weapons of mass destruction, that is.
Many political tasks lie ahead, and it would be nice to think that public life might become a little cleaner and a little more honest when Blair eventually departs to receive his reward from Rupert Murdoch. But let it be said that Blair still looks better than some of his colleagues; and let none of those who supported the war ever be allowed to forget it.