Is Iraq a ‘boil that must be lanced’?

Such is the self-regard of the Blair-bashers that they think disastrous wars abroad are all about them and their party careers.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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At yesterday’s AGM of the Trades Union Congress, there was the lamest, most lily-livered anti-war protest yet. As Tony Blair – giving his last TUC speech as prime minister – defended his decision to invade Iraq, a handful of ageing union bureaucrats shouted ‘Rubbish!’. Fifteen or so of them held up placards saying ‘Time to go’, with the hole in the ‘o’ of ‘go’ represented by a round spatter of blood. Then they walked out of the hall in protest, ‘gingerly’, according to one report, and with ‘no visible anger’: ‘They may have been leaving in fury or they may have been going to have a cup of tea.’ It was apparently more of a ‘mince-out’ than a walkout (1).

The TUC protest summed up the extent to which, in Labour Party circles, protesting over the war in Iraq has become bound up with the effort to push Blair from office. Even the ‘Time to go’ placards – made by the radical Stop the War Coalition – double up both as a demand for British troops to ‘go’ from Iraq and also for Blair to ‘go’ from office. The bloodstain in ‘go’ is intended not so much to draw attention to the suffering of Iraqis but rather to guilt-trip Blair from power – it is the bloody equivalent of an exclamation mark to the anti-Blairities’ demand that Blair ‘go away and stop ruining everything for us!’.

This is not an anti-imperialist stance, or even much of an anti-war stance: it is a cynical, self-serving position, where even the catastrophe of Iraq is seen as a problem primarily because of its impact on Labour’s ‘reputation’ or on MPs’ chances of getting re-elected next time round. The Blair-bashers in and around the Labour Party are so vain that they think the destruction of Iraq and thousands of Iraqi lives is all about them.

Many Labour supporters and sympathisers talk about Iraq as a ‘boil’ that must be lanced if Labour is ever to recover people’s trust and support. John Harris – the author of So Now Who Do We Vote For?, who has made a career as a commentator out of being an anti-Blairite Labour Party member – complains that ‘no one under 25 [will] join the Labour Party until it [has] lanced the Iraq boil’ (2). Note this is not a demand to end the Iraq war and occupation, much less to challenge future military interventions by Blair or Brown or whomever might be The Successor; rather it’s a call to get rid of the ‘Iraq boil’, the way in which that war sits like an ugly, pus-ridden blemish on Labour’s reputation. The concern is to save Labour, not Iraq.

Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland argues that it is ‘widely accepted’ that ‘Iraq has become a boil aching for the lance’. He says the boil could possibly be lanced by Blair (he could ‘perform the procedure on himself’), but that would involve him making a speech in which he candidly admitted he was wrong, which, according to Freedland, is unlikely to happen. So, ‘That leaves just one course of action: a change of leader. Luckily for Labour, the war is tied so closely to Blair that his departure would, by itself, signal a close to the Iraq chapter….’ (3) Here, Iraq becomes all about getting shot of Blair and boosting Labour’s fortunes. This is not a debate about war and intervention, but its opposite: a demand to put that bloody ugly boil of Iraq out of sight, and close a ‘chapter’ that has proved jolly embarrassing for Labour members and supporters.

The most candid linking of the ‘Iraq boil’ and Labour’s fortunes came from Madeleine Bunting, another Guardian columnist and now head of the liberal-leaning think-thank, Demos. Writing before last year’s General Election, she said we need a ‘surgical strike’ to ‘lance the Iraq boil before the left is irrevocably split’: ‘Lance the boil and let Blair pay the price for Iraq. Prime Minister Gordon Brown would then reposition the line on Iraq – not outright repudiation, with troops still in Iraq – but the “we’ve learned some lessons” line. It would liberate the next election from endless questions about trust that have dogged Blair’s political career. It would give a fresh impetus to New Labour’s political project, which would give it a fighting chance of two more terms.’ (4)

It seems that some on the liberal and Labour left are more interested in ‘liberating’ British electoral politics from pesky questions about Iraq than they are in liberating Iraqis from endless Western interventions; their concern is to push aside the Iraq thing in order to give a ‘fresh impetus to New Labour’s political project’. This is not only deeply and cynically self-serving; it is also spectacularly wrong-headed. The war in Iraq was not some foreign body that attached itself, carbuncle-like, to decent-minded Labour Party politics; it was precisely a product of ‘New Labour’s political project’. The war stems from the ethical foreign policy and humanitarian interventionism spearheaded by Blair, Robin Cook and others when they took power in 1997, and from the deluded belief, built into the very foundations of New Labour, that Britain has the right and responsibility to ride on a white charger into troubled states and save people from tyranny and despotism.

Indeed, many of those now calling on Labour to lance Iraq (sorry, I mean the Iraq boil) cheer-led New Labour’s creation in the late 1990s of a new pro-active, good-and-evil interventionism into other state’s affairs. For them now to describe Iraq as a boil not only suggests they are more interested in saving themselves than Iraqis – it is also a cowardly disavowal of their own responsibility for giving rise to today’s ‘caring’ imperialism, and a striking failure to debate the moral rights and wrongs of Western interventionism into other state’s affairs.

The reduction of Iraq to a ‘boil’ sums up what is motivating much of the liberal- and Labour-left criticism of Blair over his war: a desire to preserve and repolish Labour’s image, and thus secure re-election, rather than a desire to kickstart a debate about imperialism, sovereignty or democracy. This is clearly a cosmetic thing, where the aim is to remove an unsightly blemish from the Labour Party’s record. There is also something deeply inhumane about discussing a war that has proved disastrous for so many thousands of Iraqis as a ‘boil’, a kind of irritating zit. Such is the self-regard of the Blair-bashing Labour MPs, commentators and activists that they see a bloody war unfold overseas – a war devised and launched by their own party – and think to themselves: ‘We must do something….to protect our jobs and reputations!’

This super self-obsessed reading of foreign wars is also apparent in recent discussions about Afghanistan and Lebanon. Some Labour MPs have pointed to the recent deaths of British troops in an increasingly unstable Afghanistan as evidence, not that Britain should stop interfering overseas, but that ‘Blair must go’, because he has tied Britain’s fortunes ‘too closely to America’s’ (5). Those Labour MPs who recently resigned various positions and signed letters calling on Blair to leave office claim that the recent Israel-Lebanon war was, in the words of one report, ‘the last straw’, especially for ‘Labour backbenchers who can see their majorities vanishing’ (6). Again, they see a war abroad and think immediately of themselves. Some disgruntled anti-Blairite MPs and activists in the Labour Party seem consciously to have flagged up the Lebanon crisis as part of their attempt to topple Blair and perhaps rescue their ‘vanishing majorities’.

All of this has achieved the rather remarkable feat of making Blair look principled on Iraq and Afghanistan – those interventions which, as spiked predicted would be the case from the very outset, have proved disastrous for Iraqis and Afghans. Blair has, at least, taken political and moral responsibility for the wars; he argues that Britain must stay and ‘finish the job’. In contrast, his cowardly critics deny their own responsibility for Iraq and other ventures, and call for the whole thing to be ‘lanced’ so that they can get on with their dinner-party politico lives without being asked irate or irritating questions about ‘bloody Iraq’. Blair is self-deluded and dangerously interventionist, imagining that he can ‘fix’ other countries – from Kosovo to Sierra Leone to Iraq – with a few bombs and some photo opportunities; his critics, however, are worse, openly discussing Iraq as a boil that they want to squeeze, clean away and forget about. Blair at last makes a pretence of wanting to liberate Iraqis (or more to the point, he still really believes he is the knight in shining armour who can actually do that). His critics, on the other hand, don’t even want to discuss Iraqis or Iraq; they just wish the whole affair would go away and stop interfering with their personal lives and careers. For them, Iraq and its suffering inhabitants are little more than a boil, something to be treated and forgotten about rather than campaigned for, defended from Western intervention, offered solidarity.

John Stuart Mill argued: ‘War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things; the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks nothing worth a war, is worse. A man who has nothing which he cares more about than he does about his personal safety is a miserable creature who has no chance of being free, unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself.’ Blair is a warmonger who should be held up to public ridicule for his horrendous wars. His liberal and Labour Party critics are ‘miserable creatures’ who care for nothing other than their own positions and welfare. Both sides of the Labour Party spat over Iraq should be lanced, in favour of a proper debate about war and politics in the twenty-first century.

Visit Brendan O’Neill’s website here.

(1) Through all the boos, he still did it his way, The Times, 13 September 2006

(2) On tour (express), John Harris,, 21 April 2005

(3) A failure of the system, Jonathan Freedland, Guardian, 14 July 2004

(4) Let Blair pay the price, Madeleine Bunting, Guardian, 16 February 2004

(5) See Is Bush Blair’s poodle?, by Brendan O’Neill

(6) Unite to end disaster of Blairite policies, George Galloway, Socialist Worker, 16 September 2006

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Topics Politics


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