Britain’s trade unions have been meeting at their annual congress in Blackpool this week, and what a hot occasion it has been. Minimum wages, the length of the work week, all these traditional trade union concerns have fallen by the wayside. Instead, members of the transport workers unions and the clerical workers unions and the teachers unions are fighting a different battle: the one between those who totally oppose any American invasion of Iraq under any circumstances, and those who would accept an invasion if explicitly approved by the United Nations. Instead of employee compensation law, delegates have been discussing Saddam’s nuclear capability. Instead of rallying behind the prime minister—who is, after all, leader of the Labor Party—delegates have regaled the BBC with attacks on Tony Blair. In the words of one delegate, Blair’s position on Iraq is “despicable and contrary to public opinion.” Said another, “I think he’s as bad as Thatcher.”
True, there are many ways to interpret the international political commentary that came out of the U.K. trade union gabfest. One could pounce upon it as new evidence of massive British opposition to an American invasion of Iraq. One could call it yet more evidence of anti-Americanism in Europe. One could spin theories about the European left, the history of appeasement, and Munich.
Or one could dig a little deeper and see it for what it really is: good old-fashioned British left-wing opposition to Tony Blair, now taking a new form. Britain’s trade unions have all kinds of reasons to dislike the British prime minister, who has massively reduced their influence in British politics. If Iraq provides a new, fresh, updated excuse to attack him, they’ll use it.
Dig a little deeper, in fact, and quite a lot of the European debate on Iraq turns out to be about something else besides Iraq. Much has been made, for example, of the position taken by German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, who has unequivocally stated his opposition to any German involvement in Iraq. Look closer, however, at when he made this unequivocal statement: early August, when he was a little more than a month away from Germany’s Sept. 22 general election and trailing in the opinion polls. Coming out against an invasion of Iraq made him look tougher and gained him perhaps two percentage points—precisely the two percentage points he might need to win an extremely close race. At another time, his views might have been different, as indeed they were different concerning Kosovo—a war that was, if anything, far harder for ordinary Germans to accept, given their memories of past German military involvement in the Balkans.
But then, the French government’s views on the subject are also intimately intertwined with French politics. In an interview with the New York Times earlier this week, French President Jacques Chirac went a bit further than making a vague call for U.N. approval of any invasion of Iraq: He called for U.N. Security Council approval of any invasion of Iraq (“[I]t’s up to the Security Council to deliberate and decide what must be done and notably whether a military operation should be undertaken or not”). For those who have forgotten, let me point out that France, for now-obscure historical reasons, is a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council. What matters isn’t the decision, in other words; what matters is that France helps to make it.
Look across the continent, and the same pattern follows. The Spanish prime minister, José María Aznar, told the Spanish parliament on Wednesday that “we are behind those who want to prevent threats to the world” and no wonder: In the past, he has drawn explicit comparisons between America’s war on terrorism and Spain’s long battle with the terrorists of the Basque separatist movement. He may support the United States in Iraq for moral or intellectual or Realpolitik reasons—but he also supports the United States in Iraq because it helps his own cause.
None of which is bad or wrong, necessarily: In the end, all politics are local. In democracies, politicians—European politicians, American politicians—have always used international issues for domestic purposes.