Blair’s hardest battle is for hearts and minds in Britain

The British prime minister's 'Baghdad Bounce' is a pale shadow of Margaret Thatcher's Falklands Factor.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume
Columnist

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First we were told that Prime Minister Tony Blair was ‘risking everything’ by backing President George W Bush’s war against Saddam Hussein. Then we were told that victory in Iraq would lead to a ‘Baghdad Bounce’, boosting the government’s popularity and giving New Labour a lift in the local elections.

Both of these predictions turned out to be wrong – much as we on spiked predicted that they would.

It was always highly unlikely that Blair would suffer serious short-term damage from his Iraqi adventure. As we wrote here three months ago, when many were suggesting that his future was on the line: ‘Blair is likely to get away with his Iraqi gamble, and may even emerge from the crisis looking triumphant – not because of his own moral strength, but thanks to the weakness of the opposition both in Iraq and over here.’ (see Is Blair really ‘risking everything’ over Iraq? by Mick Hume)

The ‘threat’ posed by the Iraqi regime was always largely a product of the Western imagination, while parliamentary opposition at home was based on a mixture of pragmatism, fear and moral cowardice rather than political principle. Both ran for cover with predictable speed at the first sounds of gunfire. Blair’s postwar attempt to play the moral martyr, declaring that he was ‘prepared to quit’ if things went wrong, means about as much as if Arsene Wenger said he was ready to go had Arsenal been relegated from the Premiership.

But it was also highly unlikely that there would be any significant ‘Baghdad Bounce’ for Blair back home. The comparison many tried to make was with Tory prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s famous ‘Falklands Factor’, when she used Britain’s military victory over Argentina in the South Atlantic in 1982 as a platform from which to change the face of British politics. In reality, however, there are striking contrasts between the two eras.

Thatcher’s Falklands Factor was about militarising British politics, for a battle between the Tory government and the old labour movement – in her words, turning her guns from the ‘enemy without’ to the ‘enemy within’. She mobilised the traditional political forces of nationalism and capitalism, and the power of the state, to fight for a clear goal: the defeat of the organised working class. It was a mood encapsulated by the banner hung from one of the warships as it returned from the Falklands to be greeted by flag-waving crowds: ‘Call off the rail strike – or we’ll call an air-strike.’ The Falklands Factor carried Thatcher’s Tories to triumph in the 1983 general election, and culminated in the defeat of the 1984-5 miners’ strike – trade unionism’s last stand.

By contrast Blair, despite recent attempts to depict him as reborn conviction politician, remains the master of managerial, post-ideological politics. He has no movement to mobilise at home, no clear principles and strategic aims to fight for, no ‘enemy within’ with whom to do battle for the soul of Britain. Arguing the toss with chancellor Gordon Brown over the timing of entry to the Euro or the number of foundation hospitals to be set up does not fall into quite the same category of political conflict. No doubt New Labour will soon disinter the Hunting Bill in an effort to invent a pseudo-clash of principles.

It is largely because he finds it so difficult to stand for anything definite at home that Blair is keen to draw clear lines in the sand over international issues such as Saddam’s alleged weapons of mass destruction. Fighting a war in Iraq is a substitute for finding a sense of purpose within New Labour. But it is a pretty poor substitute. It is one thing for Blair to export his political problems on to the international stage. It is another matter altogether to imagine that he could easily import his empty triumph in the Iraqi desert back into the marshy middle ground of British politics.

So what is the state of postwar politics, as reflected by the May local election results? Local elections always provide a slightly distorted snapshot, but if we don’t get too bogged in the details the bigger picture appears clear enough.

Disengagement remains the defining feature of political life today. Average turnouts for the 1 May local elections barely topped 30 percent; the Tories’ claimed ‘spectacular’ success was achieved with the support of about one-in-10 potential voters. More worryingly still for the political class, turnouts for the Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly plummeted, to less than 50 percent in Scotland and no more than 38 percent in Wales. These devolved bodies, remember, were supposed to reinvigorate popular politics by making government more relevant to people’s concerns.

Many of the votes that were cast sounded dissenting voices. A vote for the British National Party in Burnley or for the Scottish Socialist Party in Glasgow might appear to be poles apart. Yet they could all be interpreted as different expressions of disengagement from the political process, a symbolic giving of the finger to the old guard rather than a positive vote for anything new.

Disengagement now seems to have spread even to the party activists themselves. In much of the country, there was little or no election campaign on the ground. The collapse of Labour Party activism is particularly striking. Politics becomes an increasingly passive affair. Thus of all the tricks and gimmicks the authorities have attempted to increase turnout, the only one with any real degree of success appears to be postal ballots – effectively putting the vote on a par with paying the gas bill.

Away from the headlines about who now runs the local council in Basildon or Birmingham, the underlying trends remain remarkably unchanged by the war in Iraq. New Labour still dominates national politics, despite widespread disenchantment with its failure to turn around public services and worries about the economy. The Tories remain incapable of breaking through to become a serious opposition; they did worse in the local polls in the areas where they need to improve most in parliamentary elections. The Lib Dems continue to pick up dissenters, without threatening to do much more.

The overall sense is of political drift. We live in an age when politics seems so empty, ethereal and unreal that apparently ‘historic’ events come and go without changing anything much. There was the largest-ever demonstration in British history, against the threat of war with Iraq. Yet within days it was almost as if it had never happened (see The missing million, by Jennie Bristow). Then there was the first major war of the century, which the US and British governments claimed they were fighting to liberate Iraq and save the world. Yet that too is already fading from public memory, almost before it has ended.

It is one thing to be unable to engage people in elections about drains and parks policy. It is something else again to fail to inspire them through a war supposedly fought for such noble and pressing causes. Blair can defeat Saddam (with a little help from his friends) and the Tories readily enough. Winning the hearts and minds of the British people for his uncertain political cause is a far harder battle.

Never mind building a land fit for heroes to live in. It would be a start if we were to debate some politics fit for people to support.

Mick Hume is editor of spiked. He will be introducing the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

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