Alan Watkins: Mr Brown is as much to blame as anyone for Labour being 'in a rut' over Iraq

For Mr Blair, on an execution or torture, the least said the better
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The Independent Online

Several of Mr Gordon Brown's friends have, so I read, described government policy on Iraq as being "in a rut". I would not myself have chosen that as being the most appropriate phrase freely available - it is not, I think, the mot juste - even by taking into account the Chancellor of the Exchequer's traditional requirement to take one year with another. (Does that still go on? I mean, taking one year with another? It has, I fear, gone the same way as other hallowed features of economic speechmaking, such as the balance of payments.)

Ever since the break-up of the Ottoman empire after the First World War, and the manufacture of a new state under United Kingdom auspices in 1920, there has been trouble of one sort or another. British enthusiasm, such as it was, for what was then the kingdom of Iraq lasted for a few years in the 1920s. School atlases in this earlier period had marked the country red on the map, though it was never formally part of the British empire.

Even in the immediate post-1945 period, there was a split among the printers of atlases: some retaining red, others settling for a red-and-white striped mixture representing the old mandated territories, others again accepting the old position, if, indeed, they had chosen to deviate from their original practices in the first place. There is a lot to be learnt from maps, the more out-of-date the better.

The odd thing is that, when Britain possessed more power in the Middle and Near East than it does today, it did not claim any very special relationship with Iraq. Revolutions, restorations, cabals, juntas, pronunciamentos, liberations, constitutions, coups d'état, dictatorships, assassinations: the words are from Evelyn Waugh's Scott-King's Modern Europe. All these manifestations caused trouble and even a certain amount of alarm. But they were as nothing compared to what has been brought about by the American and British invasion of 2003.

The course of events was both predictable and in fact predicted. The previous 83 years of admittedly bloodthirsty history had given us nothing like so sanguinary a state of affairs as the invasion has provided.

In the circumstances, it is a little rich, not to say fruity, for Mr Brown or his minions to describe us as stuck in a rut. Would that there were a better rut to go to! If there were, we should be following an independent or, at any rate, a different foreign policy.

The responses by senior ministers to the execution of Saddam Hussein were, I thought, interesting, in a morbid sort of way. Mrs Margaret Beckett reminded me of the old Politburo member who made a point of staying on her feet clapping, while her old Stalinist adversary was being taken away to be shot. Mr John Prescott, by contrast, showed a certain generosity of mind. On the occasion in question Saddam's invited audience, or some of them, jeered at him.

It is a little-known fact that Winston Churchill favoured the restoration of public executions. His intention was not to see the prisoner humiliated but, rather, to give him the opportunity to make his final appearance before his friends, relations and admirers, no doubt delivering a speech for the occasion - an additional opportunity which Churchill would almost certainly have relished. Alas, or happily, Churchill's proposal came to nothing.

From Mr Tony Blair there was not a word that made any sense at all. He might just as well have been talking or, rather, not talking about the ill-usage of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. Whether it is a full-scale execution or a spot of torture behind locked doors, it is all the same to Mr Blair: the least said the better, certainly as far as the White House is concerned.

Mr Brown could have slipped in his own message without reproof from No 10. Or, to adopt another course, he could have said what he wanted to say without caring one way or the other what approved message Downing Street might want to see circulated. Instead, he said - or had it said on his behalf - that the Labour government's policy was in a rut.

If I were a free provider of advice, whether of the political or of the journalistic variety (which, thank the Lord, I'm not, Sir), I should say: Please, Gordon, stop worrying. They can't take it away from you now. Even John Reid can't take it away from you, though he has been making speeches about safeguarding Blair's legacy.

That is one way of looking at things. It is that Mr Brown is cautious because he wants to become prime minister and leader of the Labour Party. The other way is that he is cautious because it is the way he is naturally. Mr Brown took us into Iraq reluctantly, but that is what he did nevertheless.

Likewise, the Parliamentary Labour Party was as responsible for the invasion of Iraq as Mr Brown and Mr Blair were. In Chris Smith's amendment of 26 February 2003, it found the case for military action as yet unproven. There were 256 Labour votes in favour of the Government, with 122 votes in favour of the Smith amendment, while 33 Labour members did not vote. There were 274 Labour voters for the substantive motion, 260 for the amendment, while 76 did not vote.

In the division of 18 March 2003, there were 139 Labour members who voted for a separate Smith amendment and 247 for the Government, while 24 did not vote. A total of 256 or 62 per cent of Labour members voted in favour of the invasion, 85 or 21 per cent voted no, and 69 or 17 per cent did not vote.

There is accordingly no real sense whatever in which the Labour Party was deceived into taking the country into the Iraq War. If the party was apparently deceived - as it may have been, up to a point - deceived was what it had decided to be. It is a commonplace of romantic fiction that the lover can find no imperfection or infidelities in the loved one, however unfaithful or imperfect he or she may prove to be in practice - until the point duly arrives for the lover's illusions to disappear. Even the Liberal Democrats are calling for an inquiry into the war, as are many others of an enlightened disposition.

I completely fail to understand why people are complaining about being deceived when they were not deceived at the time but are merely complaining ex post facto that matters have not turned out as they imprudently expected or foolishly hoped. If Mr Brown is in a rut, it is he who got us there, along with his own party.