I joined the British Labor Party as soon as I was old enough to be eligible, which was sometime in 1965. I was not long after that expelled from its ranks, along with the majority of the Labor students’ organization, because of Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s contemptible support for the war in Vietnam. (I should have resigned, but I waited to be expelled instead.) Since then I have re-enlisted a few times, canvassed in a desultory way, off-and-on paid my dues, and hosted the odd Labor figure in Washington. It wouldn’t have been thinkable for me to vote for any other party at election time, though in the 1979 election the Callaghan regime had become so corrupt and incompetent and reactionary that I didn’t vote at all.
On May 5, 40 years after I first took out a membership card, it will be possible, for the first time since the 1945 Labor victory that threw out the Churchill Tories, to vote Labor on a point of principle. Sixty years is a long time to wait, but the struggle for Iraq has decided the matter.
Arguing about the war in Britain is quite different, in point of tone and alignment, from debating it in the United States. True, there is in both countries a huge mass of media and showbiz and academic liberals who take the very name “George Bush” as permission to bid adieu to common sense. But in the press there is quite a determined posse of staunch left-wingers (John Lloyd, Nick Cohen, David Aaronovitch) who support regime change. The same is true on the benches of Parliament, where Ann Clwyd, a veteran Welsh radical, has for years been campaigning for the removal of Saddam Hussein. Several old friends of mine from the Sixties Left hold positions in Blair’s government and never let an anti-war argument go unchallenged.
Meanwhile, most of the groaning and sniping about the missing WMDs comes from the hard right, which has a hold on the Tory party and more than a hold on the tabloid press. Anti-Americanism in Britain has long been a conservative rather than a radical trope, and dislike for George Bush is very common among the aristocratic remnant, as well as among those who are nostalgic for the British empire that America supplanted after the war. That especial form of British anti-Semitism (“You catch it on the edge of a remark,” as Harold Abrahams puts it so well in Chariots of Fire) is beautifully ventriloquized in the way that certain BBC announcers pronounce the name “Wolfowitz.”
The commonest liberal and Tory jeer against Tony Blair—that he is George Bush’s “poodle”—is self-evidently false. Far from being a ditto to Washington, it was Blair who leaned on Clinton and Albright to intervene in the Balkans, putting an end to the long and disgusting Tory appeasement of Slobodan Milosevic. Without asking for any American approval, Blair also decided to stand by Britain’s treaty with Sierra Leone and to send troops to put down the barbaric invasion of the hand-loppers and diamond-dealers, based in Charles Taylor’s Liberia, who were among other things the regional allies of al-Qaida. In 1999, when Bush was still an isolationist governor of Texas, Blair made a speech in Chicago pointing out that Saddam Hussein’s defiance of international law made a future confrontation with him inevitable. After Sept. 11, 2001, Blair told Bush that he would send ground troops to Afghanistan even if the United States would not.
Other considerations inflect the picture, altering the misleading liberal-vs.-conservative divide that our media have imposed on the argument. Blair’s Britain is a sort of post-Keynesian full-employment and welfarist society. Its government makes at least the right noises about Kyoto, the U.N., Palestine, and the International Criminal Court. Thus there are fewer opportunities for anti-war voices to change the subject. And the anti-Bush/Blair “left” has, to its credit, been perfectly honest in identifying itself both with Saddam Hussein and with Islamic fundamentalism.
The most interesting local campaign of this election is being fought in East London, in the constituency of Bethnal Green, where the sitting Labor member is being challenged by the veteran Stalinist George Galloway. Oona King, the incumbent, is a woman of mixed African and Jewish descent who is attacked by the local Nazi party—itself anti-war—on both grounds. She has also been pelted with eggs and stones by Muslim thugs who stress the Jewish element of her heritage. Mr. Galloway’s bloc is made up of the renegade pseudo-Bolsheviks of the Socialist Workers Party, its arms newly linked with the Muslim Association of Britain. He himself was a personal friend of Saddam Hussein’s and a loud advocate of Ba’ath Party rule. He was expelled from the Labor Party when he called for jihad against British soldiers. Thus, the most reactionary forces in British society are fused in their admiration of the one-party state and the one-god movement. Or they nearly are: Last week a gang of supporters of the Hizb ut-Tahrir fundamentalist movement invaded the offices of the Muslim Association of Britain and ambushed George Galloway in the street, promising eternal hellfire to anyone so un-Islamic as to take part in an election at all. This of course is the doctrine preached by Abu Musab Zarqawi in Iraq. How satisfying that those who support the Iraqi “insurgency” from a safe distance have now received a taste of its real character.
There are things to dislike about Tony Blair. His rather sickly piety is one, and his liberal authoritarianism, on matters such as smoking and fox-hunting, is another. I can’t forgive him for calling Diana Spencer “the People’s Princess,” or for seeking the approval of the Fleet Street rags, and he is one of those politicians who seems to think that staying “on message” is an achievement in itself. Nonetheless, he took a bold stand against the establishment and against a sullen public opinion and did so on a major issue of principle. It is absolutely necessary that his right-wing and clerical enemies be humiliated at the polls.