Why the right is not beating the patriotic drum for war
Donald Macintyre writes political sketches for The Independent, having been Jerusalem correspondent since 2004, covering Israel and the Occupied Territories, as well as travelling for the paper to Iraq, Turkey, Jordan, Libya and Egypt. As Political Editor and then Chief Political Commentator, he previously covered the John Major and early Tony Blair era. He has written for the Daily Express, Sunday Times, Times and Sunday Telegraph, and Sunday Correspondent. He is the author of Mandelson and the Making of New Labour (2000).
Monday 12 April 1999
We should be deeply thankful that this isn't happening now. The fact that there is vigorous debate about the war - it can't be said too often - is what helps to contrast the media and political process here with that in Serbia, where dissent has been either suborned in the name of patriotism or, in the case of the independent radio stations and press, suppressed.
In fact the contrast between then and now could hardly be more striking. Of course then, as now, elements of the left were publicly opposed to the war, and therefore, by extension, to the strongly supportive line taken by Michael Foot as leader of the Labour Party. What has changed, however, is the vigour and freedom with which politicians, distinguished and recently retired military men, and pundits who would describe themselves as anything but pacifists, believe it their national duty to savage not only the conduct but, in many cases, also the basic premiss on which the war in the Balkans is being conducted.
The question is why opinion in general and establishment opinion in particular is so openly divided in a way it wasn't during the Falklands war. Because the Falklands operation was militarily successful, and credited with sealing Margaret Thatcher's election victory in 1983, it seems in hindsight to have been impossible to challenge. But it wasn't like that at the time. There were prominent members of the government who would have preferred the negotiated route proffered through the UN.
Nor did it then seem unquestionably the case that it was worth risking the lives of British soldiers to maintain our historically much-disputed sovereignty over some islands on the other side of the world, just because the inhabitants were culturally and linguistically English (and not because they had any reason to expect the kind of "ethnic cleansing" that is happening in Kosovo). I can remember a British diplomat telling me after the war was over that he had resolved to resign on grounds of conscience if the number of deaths of British servicemen had exceeded the number of Falkland islanders.
No, the explanation cannot be located in the justice or obviousness of the cause. An alternative suggestion, as it happens, is hinted at obliquely in the article written by Tony Blair which appears in today's issue of Newsweek. In passing, the Prime Minister remarks that the "usual barrage of criticism" is coming - "sometimes" from "people who... find it hard to come to terms with the fact that there is a new generation of leaders ... who hail from the progressive side of politics but who are prepared to be as firm as any of our predecessors right or left in seeing this through".
This is a large - and controversial - claim: that it is because the governments pursuing the war are from the centre left, or as Mr Blair puts it "the progressive side of politics", that they are being so strongly criticised. It is certainly striking that the weightiest participants - the US, Britain, and, at least in respect of its Prime Minister and government rather than its President, France - have (just) left-of-centre administrations. So does Germany, the participant most remarkable for its firmness - if only because of its long and self-imposed abstention from military conflict.
Controversial Blair's claim may be; baseless it surely isn't. It is striking that the most savage British critics, particularly in the press, have tended to be on the right, including the usually jingoistic Daily Mail as well as some who can usually be relied upon, like the Spectator's Bruce Anderson, to be loyal to the Tory leadership, more or less whoever it is. Moreover, while William Hague has firmly declared his backing for the Government, his senior spokesmen have not exactly been touring the studios in the past fortnight beating the drum for the British war effort. Nor, necessarily, should they. It's just that the critics of the war, sullen or overt, would be much more vilified if they were on the left attacking a right-wing government.
It is legitimate for all the armchair infantry generals to insist on a ground war (Mr Blair repeats in his article that while this is not a "plan" all options are continually reviewed), though they should accept that, ground troops or not, bombing was always a necessary preliminary, just as it was in the Gulf. Moreover the Government's honourable critics, such as Lord Carrington or the war historian and MP Alan Clark, would certainly be criticising the Nato action whether the Government were Labour or Tory. But in others it is easy to detect a feeling that while it may be OK for a Labour government now and then to invent an NHS or do something about unemployment, they just aren't up to big, grown-up, military interventions. Some of this criticism stems from a wilful failure to accept that democratic governments of the left, as well as of the right, are capable of doing what all governments have to do from time to time.
There are several reasons for this hostility. One is that the concept of a just war, despite a pedigree that takes it back to Aquinas, is more difficult to accept on the right, which tends to believe that wars should be either defensive or nakedly self-interested. Another is a less attractive but stubbornly instinctive belief that ignores Labour's role in the wartime coalition and persists in believing that Tories are patriots in a way that Labour politicians just can't be.
Curiously, for all that she was a divisive, tribal figure in office, I doubt that the victor of the Falklands, Lady Thatcher holds this view. In an article in The Daily Telegraph last week, her long-time foreign affairs private secretary Sir Charles Powell drew an interesting contrast between the wide and firm coalition of support that backed the government not only in the Falklands but in the Gulf, and the widespread criticisms now. He said that the Americans also had over-optimistic expectations in the Gulf of how swiftly an air war would dislodge Saddam Hussein. And he pointed out eloquently that 19 democracies are now acting in unison in pursuit of the "fundamentally decent" aim of persuading Milosevic to pull out of Kosovo, and that if their will is not "eroded from inside", they will prevail.
Sir Charles's old boss has not so far pronounced publicly on the war. If she were to do so, it might just discomfit some of her disciples who are now wringing their hands.
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