Blair versus his own people

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

AS President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair prepare to unleash a ruthless war on Iraq, I am reminded of a lecture I was invited to attend on a recent visit to Britain at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London. The subject of the talk by Lord Phillips of Sudbury was “How democratic is modern Britain”. He spoke on the issue in the context of how close the British parliament is to the people who elect it.

The speaker’s credentials can be judged from his contribution to public life — he was a trustee of Scott Trust (the owner of Guardian/Observer for ten years and he is the founder president of the Solicitors Pro Bono Group. Hence his opinion carried weight when he expressed his displeasure at the state of Britain’s democracy.

Lord Phillips spoke in the context of the falling voter turnout in Britain which, according to him, reflects the younger people’s lack of interest in politics. He informed his audience that only one in four of the British voters under 25 years of age voted in an election, which was half that of the turnout in Europe. He felt that commercialization of modern life was depoliticizing the people.

The second factor he highlighted was the growing complexity and volume of laws and lawmaking. He admitted quite candidly that he himself could not understand many of the laws which had been passed, even though he is a lawyer by profession. In 1999, the British Parliament passed 35 critical Acts and over 3,000 other pieces of legislation which ran into 12,776 pages. He felt that the government was trying to regulate society by an over-dose of legislation.

Today, the issue Lord Phillips dwelt on three weeks ago appears to be even more pertinent than at that time. British democracy is at a point of crisis. But it is not on the specific counts which Lord Phillips identified, though the depoliticization of the voter has had an impact on how the government operates in that country. The brewing political crisis in Britain has come to a head on a foreign policy issue which can hardly be described as being beyond the comprehension of the lay public — the impending Anglo-American war on Iraq.

In the last few months it has been becoming increasingly evident that a substantial section of opinion in Britain does not approve of Mr Tony Blair’s policy of going the whole hog in support of the Bush administration’s stance on a war on Iraq. Two anti-war public rallies, especially the second one on February 15 which drew nearly two million people out on the streets of London as well as another 750,000 in Glasgow, were ample demonstration of the strong pacifist mood that prevails in Britain today.

It is strange that this mood is not reflected in government policy, and that to an extent substantiates the point Lord Phillips made about the parliament being out of touch with its constituents. In France and Germany, the governments appear to be more in sync with the public mood. Logically, the British government should have effected a shift in policy when it failed to sell its point of view to the people who elected it to office. It is mystifying why Mr Blair has decided to confront his own people. While he continues to play what his critics in the British parliament have accused him of, the “American poodle”, the public has been disenchanted by the glib talk of the power wielders and their apologists.

With a relatively free media than in the United States, Britons are exposed to a diversity of information and opinion which find expression in the newspapers as well as on television — even the BBC. The public is thus not fed on one-sided propaganda designed to serve the interest of big business and the government. The peace movement in Britain has been spontaneous and easier to mobilize. Not surprisingly, the opinion polls — the latest was by Channel-4 Television — have found two-thirds of the people questioned saying that it would be wrong to attack Iraq while the inspectors were doing a useful job. In fact, more people felt that President George W. Bush was a greater threat to peace than President Saddam Hussein.

Mr Tony Blair’s dilemma has been heightened by the fact that he can no longer rely on the total support of his own Labour Party. The resolution he introduced in February in the House of Commons to obtain the sanction of the parliament to enable him to go to war against Iraq was countered by an amendment which was upheld by 122 Labour Party MPs. In fact, without the support of the Conservative Party, Mr Blair would have been out on a limb. This was described by the Guardian as the biggest revolt within a governing party for more than a century.

The events of the coming days will not only be a test of democracy in Britain. They would also prove to be the starting point of a process of change in the international system. Although the British prime minister has so far held firmly to his position, he has to be mindful of his constituency. The slight modification in the Anglo-American stance in the past few weeks, when diplomacy was given a chance and then the holding of the war summit in Azores on Sunday, were designed to appease the British public by assuring them (unsuccessfully though) that Mr Blair was acting independently. Faced with the voice of dissent from the ‘parliament of the street’, Mr Blair managed to delay the war which was expected to be launched in early March. But now it seems that President Bush is at the end of his short-length diplomatic tether, and the developments at the United Nations on Monday — the ‘hour of truth’ to use Mr Bush’s words — will show what is to come next.

With the French — with the backing of Russia and China — so adamant about blocking a new resolution sanctioning an attack on Iraq, especially when President Saddam Hussein appeared to be cooperating with the arms inspectors, Mr Blair is now in a quandary. By not heeding the voices of sanity coming from his own people — including his cabinet colleagues and the Labour back-benchers — he has isolated himself.

Three cabinet colleagues and two ministerial aides have already resigned. More resignations could follow if the resolution the Prime Minister has put before the House authorizing “all means necessary” to disarm Saddam Hussein fails to win the support of the majority of Labour MPs. Interesting times lie ahead for British democracy.

For Mr Blair the situation also amounts to making a choice between the two camps which have emerged on either side of the Atlantic. Britain has traditionally distanced itself from continental Europe — it was a latecomer to the EU and has still to join the euro system. But in the past, it has always come round to joining hands with its partners across the Channel. It has, however, never been required to choose between Europe and America as it has to do in the present case.

Significantly, the protest in Britain has a strong anti-American overtone. More than the negative diplomatic repercussions of the war and the massive loss of civilian lives it will cause, the overwhelming concern has been that Mr Blair is following blindly the lead given by President Bush. As things stand at the time of writing, the alienation between the people and the parliament seems to be intensifying.

As for the implications the present developments have for international politics, there is not much to speculate about. The changes are there to stay. The unipolar world dominated by the sole superpower — that is the United States — has given way to a bipolar system which will gradually assume a multipolar complexion. Of course, the process of change is slow and what we see today is a fluid situation. If anything, Mr George Bush has helped crystallize the new equations. In the long run this will facilitate the restoration of the equilibrium which was disappeared in 1991 with the collapse of the USSR.