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On the defensive

In the run-up to Saturday's anti-war demo, the UK government has managed to look both arrogant and insecure.

Ed Barrett

Topics Politics

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UK culture secretary Tessa Jowell’s ban on the anti-war rally in London’s Hyde Park, and her subsequent climbdown, sum up perfectly the UK government’s defensiveness in the face of opposition to its planned attack on Iraq.

On 28 January 2003, Jowell refused to give the go-ahead for the Stop The War Coalition’s rally planned for 15 February 2003, citing health and safety concerns. Then, on 4 February 2003, she changed her mind, arguing that even though Hyde Park is ‘far from ideal’ for the rally she would let it go ahead. This is not the only recent example of such squeamishness.

Just before the Hyde Park affair, a solitary protester infiltrated an invite-only gathering and ‘heckled’ prime minister Tony Blair, by pleading with him to ‘listen to the people’. As maulings go, it was of the dead sheep variety, and an old Labour bruiser like Denis Healey would have eaten him with mint sauce. But after this narrow squeak, New Labour’s fixers were taking no chances. Defence secretary Geoff Hoon’s first ‘war roadshow’ (also for party members only) was suddenly cancelled in favour of a behind-closed-doors chat with a group of ‘specially invited activists’.

Jowell and Hoon’s cowardly double act would be more understandable if they were facing a hostile mass movement with a coherent agenda. But the timid objections of the anti-war lobby, with its apologetic ‘Not in my name’ slogan and its polite pleas to respect the United Nations and wait a little longer, amount to nothing more than a minor disagreement about the right way of doing things.

The current much-hyped revolt by 40-odd Labour backbenchers boils down to a similar difference of emphasis. Their resolution, submitted to the party’s national executive, states that war against Iraq is unjustified ‘at this current time’ – not really an anti-war statement at all, when you think about it. Past governments would have thanked their lucky stars for such feeble opposition. Not this one, though. The party leadership attempted to use procedural measures to prevent its national executive discussing the motion.

The current UK government faces less opposition than any administration in recent times, yet it overreacts to any imagined challenge to its authority, however slight. It is arrogant and vain, yet also insecure. It gives the impression of being in power without being in control.

This paradox is personified in the prime minister himself. Blair says he believes in strong leadership, and he is keen to be seen as a conviction politician. And when he speaks stirringly of his vision of a new world, or of ‘risking everything’ on Iraq, he appears to be the opposite of the petty poll-obsessed New Labour stereotype. In reality, though, Blair’s grandstanding hides an absence of genuine beliefs and principles.

Blair is not a political animal in any traditional sense. He is happy to make self-aggrandising speeches or hold shirtsleeves meetings about whatever issue needs ‘sorting out’. But put him under the slightest pressure to defend his views, or even reveal them, and he is personally affronted. To enquire about his politics is to question his character. ‘Hey, look, I think I’m a pretty decent guy’, he will begin, and gaze imploringly into his inquisitors’ eyes until they stop being so unreasonable.

Politics under New Labour consists of theatrical displays of compassion and emotion, combined with a market research version of the parish pump. As for debate, forget it. The public meeting has long since given way to audiences with Tony in hermetically sealed venues with tightly controlled agendas.

Even the annual party conference, which was once a byword for internecine strife is now just a stage-managed rally. Political struggle doesn’t just unnerve New Labour’s leaders; it is alien to their whole way of thinking. They start from the view that they are morally right, and then they stop. New Labour’s motto is ‘Who cares wins’, and since Blair clearly cares the most, there is no need for further discussion.

This aversion to political argument means that any challenge is blown up out of all proportion – which in turn leads to the kind of panicky behaviour that we have seen in relation to the Hyde Park rally. The irony is that if the government had taken the initiative and argued confidently and vigorously for its war aims, then many of the so-called rebels would have been brought on board long ago, leaving the rest marginalised. Instead, the leadership has managed to look both arrogant and insecure and the public remains unconvinced by Blair’s position. On top of this, the anti-war lobby has gained an undeserved reputation for being a thorn in the government’s side.

Tessa Jowell’s U-turn might have been greeted as a famous victory by the rally’s organisers, but by any objective reckoning, it looks more like another government own goal.

Ed Barrett writes for Anorak (email ebarrett@dircon.co.uk).

Read on:

Opting out on Iraq, by Brendan O’Neill

Moral cowardice: what hawks and doves have in common, by Mick Hume

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Topics Politics

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