I am interested in politics, but I don’t follow the day to day political coverage very much. I do have the occasional binge. I get caught up sometimes in a big story like an election or a big scandal. But this is pretty much like someone who has got their eating disorder under control having the odd relapse. A daily diet of news stories spun by the politicians themselves and filtered through a media owned by vested interests is much like eating fast food. It feeds a craving, and you enjoy it at the time, but doesn’t really give you what you need.
It is a much better idea to look at what has happened in the past if you want to understand what is going on today. For example why is the Labour Party so wary of the legacy of Tony Blair, its most successful election winner of all time? Does the Labour Party have something against winners? Don’t they want to win elections?
Do they prefer purity to power?
Reading some of the newspapers you’d assume that there was indeed something strange and peculiar about the Labour Party and people with left wing views generally. And yet when you read what Labour supporters themselves write or meet them in person they don’t appear to be any different to anyone else. They certainly seem as keen on winning power for their side as the Tories do. So what is going on?
Reading Chris Mullin’s memoirs of his spell as a junior minister is an enlightening place to start investigating. Mr Mullin is associated with the left of the Labour Party and has a long history of campaigning for such causes as whether or not the men imprisoned for the Birmingham bombings were guilty. This made him a target for the tabloids with the Sun in particular calling him the most hated man in Britain. I think that’s what they called him anyway – my memory isn’t great. For example I can’t remember the fulsome apology the Sun must have issued when it turned out that the prisoners were in fact innocent.
In particular he was good at using his position on a select committee to highlight things he thought important. This didn’t seem to make him an obvious favourite with the party establishment. Being a close associate of Tony Benn, who would have been first choice for the role of the constitution’s official bête noire had one ever been created, didn’t help. But his obvious sense of principle did command some respect which eventually led to him being offered a job on the lowest rung of the government by Tony Blair in 1999. This was far from his dream job. He was a long way down the food chain and ruefully refers to himself as the minister for deck chairs. But it was important enough to get something of an insider’s view.
He is a genial guide. He is self effacing but honest. He arrives with good intentions and a desire to do some good. His first battle is to cut down the amount of money his department spends on cars. The results are modest. He also finds the civil servants are quite the Sir Humphreys,adept at keeping ministers in their place. He is handed documents with conclusions already drawn that he simply has to sign. He confesses to not being on top of his many briefs – but reading between the lines a more charitable interpretation is that he is trying to read the stuff that most ministers don’t bother with.
Large organisations have an inbuilt inertia and individuals in hierarchies are always going to defend the positions they have carved out for themselves. What else would you expect them to do? Government is no different to any other, though the size and the security of its income perhaps makes it worse than most in this respect. Mr Mullins’ war of attrition to get a more sensible use of the car pool is one that is mirrored in big offices around the world. It is no easy matter to get anything done in any large organisation.
His conclusion in the light of experience was inevitable. More could be achieved by working on the back benches than on the lowest rung of the actual government. So Chris Mullin resigns, but drops some hints that he might be interested in a more senior role. Nobody takes the hint at first. But he does manage one more session in a slightly more significant role in overseas development. Even so, he remains a long way from any serious responsibility.
This is probably good news for the reader because we get a view of the big event of the early noughties unencumbered by any need for self justification. I am talking of course about the war in Iraq and Britain’s role in it.
It is rather creepy reading the story with the benefit of hindsight. It is a good reminder of how different things seem at the time compared to how they do with the benefit of hindsight. I remember thinking the war was a bad idea when it was first being talked about, but I had no idea just how bad it would turn out to be in the event. My excuse is that I was not in a position to know what was going on in any detail. I am only too well aware that the media is pretty much run for entertainment value, so I had no source of unbiased information. It turns out that the decision makers at the time were not that much better informed. It also shows just how much news management goes on. Even someone like Mr Mullin with a good knowledge of the way the world works and with personal contact with some of the key players is completely in the dark about what is intended.
Most of us have to talk to friends down the pub for an opinion about the consequences of big events. A cabinet minister can do the same with a bigwig from MI5. Chris Mullin was able to pose this important question and get an illuminating answer.
“I asked whether an attack on Iraq would make us more or less vulnerable to terrorism. She replied without hesitation, ‘More – it will radicalise a new generation of young Arabs.”
So the idea that the war would make us safer was rubbished at the time by somebody whose job it was to know. And there was I pondering whether it was morally justified to purchase our own peace of mind by putting innocent people in harm’s way. It is still a good moral question but it clearly had no practical relevance. The historical record shows that Mullin was one of the Labour rebels who voted against the war in Iraq. Robin Cook opposed the war on both principled and practical grounds. We get a ringside account of the speech where he laid this out. Our author could have aligned himself with him and portrayed himself in an heroic light. But he admits that he was in fact full of doubt and didn’t really know what the right thing to do was.
As he puts it.
“Of course, it could all look different in a week or two. Saddam might succumb to a well-placed bullet or slip away to the safety of Syria, our television screens may be full of happy Iraqis chanting the name of our own dear leader.”
The biggest revelation for me from this book was that the whole weapons of mass destruction and the UN resolution issues that dominated the news prior to the war in Iraq were pretty much Tony Blair’s personal initiative. The Bush administration was going to have its war whatever. Blair decided early on that he wanted to be in. Currying favour with the world’s superpower may not look very noble but you could argue that it was in the national interest to do so. And a prime minister can pretty much do as he pleases when it comes to foreign policy. But instead of playing it straight Blair managed the story to win as much support as possible. Looking back it is amazing how well he did so. We were led to believe that the securing of a UN resolution was important and that there was evidence that Saddam was a bigger threat than we realised.
It certainly worked on me. I never came round to the idea that the war was a good idea, but I certainly thought that the proponents at least had a case. In fact I had been taken in by a smart bit of news management. I certainly wasn’t particularly prescient. My feeling at the time was that a vast amount of blood and treasure would be poured away to no good effect. I had no idea that the consequences would be the creation of the Islamic state in the rubble left behind devoted to destroying everything I value and whose behaviour would shock Gengis Khan. Wars rarely have the effect the people who start them had in mind in the first place.
The canny but decent Mr Mullin was blind sided too. He was just as taken in by the spin, and ended up committing to his local party not to support the war without a UN resolution. This left him unable to support his government – but he was a most reluctant rebel.
So to answer my original question, it is very hard not to feel that Tony Blair had behaved in away that was positively dishonest. And in fact as the details fade from our minds all that remains is the memory that we were had. And as time goes by even in America itself the war looks like a bad decision.
Politics is a bit like an infinite game of football with the teams continually being substituted. The game goes on but players leave the pitch. Mr Mullins departure follows rapidly on from the lacklustre Labour general election win in 2005. He reports it in the same plain style as the rest of the book.
“I’m out. Death comes swiftly in British politics. As the day wore on without contact from Number 10, I began to assume I was safe since most of the departures were already announced. At quarter to four I was on the phone to Connie Newman, my opposite number in the US State Department, discussing what to do about the Liberian warlord, Charles Taylor. Five minutes later I was no longer the Minister.”