For the benefit of non-British readers struggling for a frame of
reference, the last ten days or so (I told you a week was a long time in
politics!) have been variously described as "historic", "momentous",
"potentially fatal [for Blair]", and "shocking". This kind of thing
not typical of British politics, and has not been seen at all
under New Labour.
If you are already familiar with the background and details of the resignations, interviews and votes of the past weeks, please feel free to skip down to The fallout. This lengthy backstory is an attempt to give international readers an idea of the significance (or lack of) of the last few days.
Putting the current Government in Context
New Labour, Tony Blair's rebranded, newly electable version of Labour,
Britain's party of the Left, was swept to victory in the General Electon
of 1997. Their huge 179-MP majority was the largest ever in a House of
Commons of 659 seats. [The House of Commons is the elected lower chamber
of the UK's Houses of Parliament.]
In making Labour electable, Blair had moved it from its traditional
Left wing stronghold to more appealing central ground--to the disgust
of traditionalists and the annoyance of the Conservatives, the UK's Right
wing party. He did this by reducing the role of Trades Unions in determing
policy and removing the much-loved but laughably unelectable Clause Four, which aimed
"to secure for the workers...common ownership of the means of production,
distribution and exchange", and had been retained in the Party's
constitution more to placate the extreme Left than because it was policy.
New Labour's huge Commons majority, and its reinforcement in the
General Election of 2001,
have seen six years of relatively placid domestic politics. Public apathy
has increased (turnout in 2001 was an 80-year low), and there is a general
impression that the Commons is little more than a rubber stamp for the
However, There is still a sizeable contingent of the Parliamentary
Labour Party (and a much bigger fraction--perhaps even a
majority--of the grassroots) that identify themselves as left wing.
Many of these retain an affection for traditional Labour causes
célèbres, in particular the Welfare State, which
provides healthcare that is free at the point of delivery and financial
support to those that need it.
The turbulent last week in British politics discussed below can be
characterised as the last roar of the Old Labour dinosaur, unhappy with
New Labour's wilfull association of itself with the goals of US foreign
policy. This is part of the reason you've just sat through a five-minute
history lesson, but my thesis is that this is a gross simplification, and
I hope to draw out some of the real implications below.
The beginning of the Labour rebellion
On September 12, 2002 George Bush went to the UN and delivered a
speech demanding a step-change in the pressure being applied to
After Resolution 1441, which threatened "serious consequences" for
Iraq, received unanimous Security Council backing, opposition to military
action amongst the British public began to increase as did disquiet
amongst the Parliamentary Labour Party. In the face of extreme pressure,
not least from the best-attended protest in British history, Tony Blair
was forced to make clear the conditions in which he would be prepared to
go to war. The relevant quotes from the BBC interview are all in Gromit's
Kuro5hin. Meanwhile, many Labour MPs promised their constituencies
that they would not support a war in the absence of a second UN
February 26 saw what was, until March 18, the biggest rebellion by
Labour backbenchers since New Labour's election in 1997 (backbenchers are
MPs who are not ministers so sit on the back benches). After an
122 out of 410 Labour MPs voted against the Government. The previous
record for the current Labour Government on a matter of principle was 65
MPs voting against changes to incapacity benefit. This was a
massive rebellion, and for the first time commentaters were
suggesting serious repurcussions for a Prime Minister who had been able to
largely ignore the will of his own Party. Some even went as far as to
suggest the previously unthinkable possibility that this might be the
beginning of the end of his Premiership.
The Long Week
Clare Short's threats
Clare Short is Minister for International Development, a humanitarian
role, which makes her a member of the Cabinet. This means she is expected to
toe the party line, with little room for her own opinions. She is not seen
as particularly left wing, but does command a lot of respect within the
party for her ethically-grounded stances on issues of foreign policy, in
support of the Government's involvement in NATO's air attack on Serbia
without UN support.
In an unprecedented step, she asked to be interviewed for BBC Radio Four on
Sunday March 9 (excerpts). Asked if she thought the Prime Minister was being reckless
I'm afraid that I think the whole atmosphere of the current situation is
deeply reckless; reckless for the world, reckless for the undermining of
the UN in this disorderly world, which is wider than Iraq--which the
whole world needs for the future--reckless with our government,
reckless with his own future, position and place in history.
It's extraordinarily reckless, I'm very surprised by it.
Perhaps she was hoping this very personal outburst would provoke Blair into
sacking her--the tone of the interview seemed deliberately
provocative--but he resisted the tempation to give the "Peace Party",
as it was now being called in Westminster, their first martyr.
Robin Cook's resignation
Last week saw many protestations that Cabinet unity on this issue was
"rock solid" but, following the failure of diplomacy and the meeting the in
the Azores, all eyes turned to Robin Cook. In his time as Foreign Minister
Cook had been the architect of the ethical dimension some claim British
foreign policy now exhibits. Having been promised by the Prime Minister that
he would retain the post after the 2001 General Election he was
understandably furious at losing it. The BBC said
at the time:
Robin Cook's move from foreign secretary to leader of the House is a
serious demotion and a further sign of the diminished standing of the
man of whom so much was expected when Tony Blair first won office in
1997. It also confirms his ejection from membership of Labour's "big
four"--previously Mr Blair, Gordon Brown, John Prescott and Mr Cook.
It is a bitter blow to the man once seen as Labour's brightest,
Cook had little to lose, and had been noticably absent from the Cabinet
big guns wheeled out to defend Blair's policy. He resigned this Monday
morning (March 17) and delivered his resignation
speech to Parliament that evening (the House of Commons often sits
late into the evening). The speech is discussed elsewhere on
kuro5hin. It was brilliant. Cook is a respected orator and
fiercly intelligent man, and his forensic analysis of the inconsistencies of
the Government's policy did not disappoint.
it in the following day's papers (although I can't link to Britain's leading
right wing paper's, The Daily
Telegraph and The Sun, as the
former requires free registration and the latter doesn't publicly archive
content). Cook expanded on his ideas in The
Guardian the next day.
But is the resignation anything more than a flesh wound to
the Government? Apparently, "A senior No 10 aide told The Times recently:
'The only person agonising about Robin's position is Robin. We don't care.'"
Indeed, following another resignation the next morning (further Junior
Ministers have followed Cook), John Prescott, Deputy Prime Minister,
childishly claimed never to have heard of the resignee.
Cook's career was effectively over but by forcing him out Blair has given
him a new lease of life. As Labour discovered under Neil Kinnock, a
predecessor of Blair, and as my school mates would often remind me and my
flaxen locks, "no one likes a ginge", and Cook was a ginge of the
unelectable variety. He is not PM material and is notoriously aloof,
but his resignation speech hasn't done any damage to his estimation
amongst MPs, and should Blair's leadership be challenged in the next few
years don't be surprised to see Cook throw his hat in to the ring to exact a
revenge. He won't win, but he might force concessions from Gordon Brown.
Brown is the current chancellor and seen as the obvious successor to Blair.
But it has been Cook's refusal to twist the knife in Blair after
resigning that has won him so many plaudits. Does this represent a new
maturity in British politics or just the character of one man, or even just
one man acting in his own interests?
Clare Short's U-Turn
Clare Short then had an undignified change of heart, which couldn't be in
starker contrast to Cook's confident, graceful and even polite resignation.
Short appears to have persuaded to stay by the prospect of involvment in the
UN's attempts to rebuild Iraq, despite having said very clearly when asked
if she could better wield influence from within the Cabinet:
"I think I could add a bit if I stayed, but it's a very, very, very good
department and you can't stay and defend the indefensible in order to do
some other things that you think need doing. I can rely on others I
think to do what is right.
And, when asked if she would resign if there was "no mandate from the UN for
war", she said, "Absolutely. There's no question about that." She explains
her change of heart here. If you
buy her logic, that's a hell of a slight-of-hand. Wednesday's papers aren't impressed.
Don't expect her to stay in the Cabinet for long though. It suits Tony
Blair to have her on board at the moment; he avoids making her a martyr, and
has probably irreparabaly damaged the good reputation she previously had
with her natural constituency on Labour's left. As a historical ally of
Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, she may stay for a while, but she will
doubtless be increasingly marginalised.
The last vote
On Tuesday March 18, there was a second parliamentary vote giving MPs the
opportunity to support or oppose going to war. There was never any question
the troops would receive backing, but there was some uncertainty as to
whether the Labour Government would have to rely on Conservative votes to
vote down the opponents of war (the right wing Conservatives have supported
Tony Blair throughout). The number of Labour MPs voting against the
Government increased from 122 to 140. It would have needed to approach 165
to put the Government in any real danger or relying on the Opposition.
This damp squib can be ascribed to Clare Short's failure to resign and
Government and media hyperbolae over the consequences of a lost vote;
Blair's resignation and Constitutional crisis was made to loom in the minds
of possible dissenters. Rumours were abound that Cherie Blair, the Prime
Minister's wife, who is popular amongst Labour's women MPs, was phoning
around support in the hours before the vote--probably another first if
Most importantly though, was the Prime Minister's speech introducing
the motion of support, and the debate that followed. To my mind it was by far the best he has ever given.
Never an ostensibly sincere man, there was genuine passion in it. He
finished up with these powerful sentences, which undoubtedly changed the minds of several MPs:
This is not the time to falter. This is the time not just for this Government--or, indeed, for this Prime Minister--but for this House to give a lead: to show that we will stand up for what we know to be right; to show that we will confront the tyrannies and dictatorships and terrorists who put our way of life at risk; to show, at the moment of decision, that we have the courage to do the right thing.
The size of the rebellion was a disappointment to its proponents. There
had been genuine excitement--a kind of visceral thrill--at the
possibility of dealing a very, very serious blow to a previously untouchable
Prime Minister. That chance now appears to have passed as public support
round to support the troops.
Nevertheless, Blair's relationship with his own party has been seriously damaged.
Despite protestations that he has respect for others' opinions, there is a
feeling that, with his undoubted and strongly-held moral conviction on this
issue, he has failed to ascribe the slightest credibility to the
disquiet of his own party and the rest of the country. That's rude.
MPs who would never have thought of voting against a Government they
disagreed with on less important issues have now tasted blood. Expect more
frequent, more substantial rebellions on matters of domestic policy after
the war. If these persist to the extent that it makes Government difficult
don't be surprised to see Blair take his bat home in frustration and let
someone else have a go at leading the party and the country. In the meantime expect Britain to be forced into making a choice between the increasingly polarised US and EU on future foreign policy (I will discuss the international implications in more detail in a later article).
Perhaps the most positive thing to result from the crisis is a
reinvigoration of the House of Commons. Charges of being little more than a
rubber stamp for the Cabinet have been levelled at the Commons since Labour
won their massive majority, but the recent votes have shown that it is still
capable of mature, well-reasoned, respectful and exciting debate, and can
follow this with votes that really count. Expect an increased turnout in
May's Local Elections as a result. February's record-breaking Stop The War
march in London and today's protests from school children in my own
town and elsewhere are an encouraging sign for the future of British
As Wednesday's Guardian
Leader says, it's hard for dissenters not to consider this a