Bomber Blair should note the fate of Lloyd George

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The Independent Online
Over 30 years ago I received a call from the BBC Overseas Service, as I did quite often in those days, asking me for an interview on the current political scene. When I turned up at the studio, it was explained that the broadcast would be one of several to Southern Rhodesia, then in rebellion against the Crown. It soon became clear that the interviewer, a corporation employee, was conducting the Harold Wilson Show. All his questions were what the Latin grammar books call a question expecting the answer Yes. Did I agree that Mr Wilson dominated the government? He was vastly popular in the country too? And his policy towards Rhodesia commanded universal approbation likewise?

Though I may have fallen at the last question - I think I said most people held no very strong feelings one way or the other - my performance evidently gave satisfaction, for I was invited back next week to repeat it, with the promise that it might turn into a regular weekly fixture at the BBC's usual derisory fee. However, I took the view that being the Lord Haw-Haw of Bush House, even in a small way of business, was not the career I had in mind. So I declined the offer, which was willingly taken up by somebody else.

"Everything's got a moral, if only you can find it," the Duchess says in Alice in Wonderland. The moral here is that, in time of war or external conflict (over Rhodesia, Wilson had already announced that there would be no resort to force), the government will use all available means to try to show that the country is united behind it.

This is what it is trying to show now. Shortly after four on Thursday, when the debate on Kosovo should have been at its height, there were 15 Labour backbenchers in the Chamber. This indicated either that their colleagues were proving remarkably indolent and incurious even by the suet-pudding standards of the 1997 Labour intake or that they had been instructed by the Whips to make themselves scarce: to adapt Lord Steel at the Liberal conference, go back to your constituencies and prepare not to embarrass the Government. As the lobbies and corridors were as bursting with life as Brynamman on a wet Sunday, I suspect the latter.

Even so, it was a good debate. The parliamentary sketchwriters gave a misleading impression of the quality of the speeches, the degree of dissent within the parties and, above all, the general level of dissatisfaction with the position adopted by Mr Tony ("Bomber") Blair who, so far from being convincing, has seemed increasingly like Mr Richard Branson offering an excuse for yet another breakdown on Virgin's north-western line.

On the BBC's nine o'clock television news, the debate was not mentioned at all, even though it had finished at seven. The division which Mr Tony Benn had wanted was evaded by means of a procedural fiddle by Mr George Robertson. This apart, we should pay tribute to the chairmen who successively oversaw most of the debate, Mr Michael Martin and Mr Michael Lord. They did not behave as Mr Speaker Thomas so scandalously did during the Falklands War and on other occasions, when he called speakers who were members or supporters of the government and suppressed those who were its opponents. Dissent there was for all to hear, though the BBC did not mention it until Mr Mark Mardell was interviewed by Mr Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight.

That programme produced another inconvenience for Mr Blair. It came in the wraith-like form of Sir Malcolm Rifkind, looming over the line from Scotland. Sir Malcolm has lost none of his Scots lawyer's tiresome acuity. Thus we said we would stop the bombing if the Serbs ceased murdering Kosovo Albanians and incinerating their villages. We also said we would stop if Mr Slobodan Milosevic implemented the Rambouillet agreement.

We talked as if the two things were the same. But they were not. The agreement provided not merely for the cessation of the ill-usage of the Kosovo Albanians but, further, for Nato troops on the ground, to police the agreement. This is precisely what Mr Milosevic said he would not tolerate.

Sir Malcolm did not go on (for his time was limited) to emphasise the paradox. For before the bombing started, we were prepared to put troops into Kosovo to ensure that Mr Milosevic more or less kept the peace. Now that the bombing is proceeding merrily, Mr Bill Clinton and our own Bomber Blair say that the troops will not go in. They repose their faith in air power alone, echoing Stanley Baldwin: "The bomber will always get through." In this centur, air power has been deployed in total war, not in a dispute about devolution within a sovereign state.

There is another difficulty. The Rambouillet agreement did not provide for an independent state of Kosovo. The Americans were specially opposed to this outcome. They thought it would produce "instability", as if that part of the world were famous for the permanence of its political arrangements. This remains the Allied position. As Mr Blair put it in the House: "Autonomy for Kosovo would be guaranteed, with a democratically elected assembly, accountable institutions and locally controlled police forces. After three years, Kosovo's status would be reviewed. The rights of all its inhabitants - including Serbs - would be protected, regardless of their ethnic background."

Why, he might almost have been talking of the Welsh Assembly. Alas, he is taking on people less pacific by nature. The Serbs resemble those supporters of Arsenal Football Club who used to sing:

Nobody likes us.

We don't care.

This country is far from united. On his side the Bomber has the Murdoch press, the prig press and a mass of gelatinous opinion. Against him he has the upholders of international law, the defenders of the national interest - and perhaps historical precedent as well.

Immediately after the First World War the Turks, led by Kemal Ataturk, gratifyingly upset various Allied plans for partitioning Europe and what used to be called the Near East. David Lloyd George, the prime minister of the coalition government (contrary to mythology, he was never a Liberal prime minister), encouraged the Greeks to wage war, with our assistance, on the Turks. The Conservatives, who comprised the bulk of the coalition, sympathised with Turkey; while Lloyd George sentimentally equated Greece, as he did all small countries, with his own native land. In October 1922 Bonar Law, a Conservative who had stayed outside the coalition, wrote identical letters to the Times and the Daily Express:

"The prevention of war and massacre in ... the Balkans is not specially a British interest. It is the interest of humanity ... We cannot alone act as the policemen of the world."

Just so, Mr Blair may reply. We are acting in the interest of humanity. Nor are we acting alone, but as a part of Nato. And yet, though the analogy is inexact - and Bomber Blair may think Law's words fortify him in his illegal adventure - I cannot help remembering that in a few weeks the coalition broke up, Law became prime minister and Lloyd George disappeared in a puff of smoke, never to hold office again until his death almost 25 years later.