My strongest memory of James Callaghan as Foreign Secretary is of him having a telephone conversation with his US equivalent, Dr Henry Kissinger. It was during the Cyprus crisis of 1974, when the Turks had invaded the north of the island, and Britain and America did not know what, if anything, to do about it. In the event they did nothing: a defensible course of action or, rather, inaction, even if sadly out of accord with present notions of international diplomacy.
But this was not the impression which Mr Callaghan (as he then was) wished to convey at the time. He wanted to appear decisive, in command of great events. He welcomed me to his rooms in the Commons. Our conversation was soon interrupted by a functionary who said:
"Dr Kissinger on the line, Foreign Secretary."
With that courtesy which is one of Lord Callaghan's salient characteristics, he asked me whether I would mind removing myself to an adjoining, smaller room. But the conversation, or Mr Callaghan's side of it, was clearly audible through the door which had been left conveniently open. It was manifestly of the utmost cordiality. It ended:
"Right then, Henry. That's settled. You provide the muscle and we'll provide the brains."
This did not, I confess, strike me at the time - nor does it now - as the most tactful way to address the learned doctor. The Foreign Secretary was speaking very loudly. Perhaps this was because he was of that generation who believe that, to make yourself heard by someone a long way off, you have to shout. Or perhaps again the whole performance had been laid on for my benefit, the presence of Dr Kissinger at the other end of the line in Washington being as much a fantasy as Britain's decisive policy in Cyprus. Who can tell? Nobody except Lord Callaghan or, I suppose, Dr Kis- singer, and neither of them is going to.
The immediate point is, however, that Lord Callaghan valued the friendship of Dr Kissinger and wished it to be widely known, as Anthony Crosland likewise did when he succeeded him as Foreign Secretary. Lord Callaghan had felt similarly about Joe Fowler of the US Treasury when he was Chancellor. He supported Mr Tony Blair over the war in Iraq mainly because of his friendship with Mr Dick Cheney, Mr George Bush's belligerent sidekick. But he did not make a great fuss about it, whether because of tact (as a former Prime Minister Lord Callaghan has behaved with more dignity than Lady Thatcher or Sir Edward Heath) or because no one asked him what his views were.
But whether he himself would have sent troops to Iraq if he had been a Labour Prime Minister is another question entirely. In view of his sensitivities to party opinion, my guess is that he would not. It is at once a strength and a weakness of Mr Blair that he does not possess such feelings. He can see that other people have them but he does not share them himself. He is not a party man.
Harold Wilson, by contrast, sympathised because he felt more or less the same way as most party members did. Richard Crossman used to make fun of him because of his claim to the friendship of various American notabilities, in particular of President Lyndon Johnson, "LBJ" as Wilson liked to call him. But Wilson refused to send a single British soldier to Vietnam despite Johnson's entreaties. There would be no need for anyone to get killed, the President said, or not many at any rate: all that was required was a "token presence". Still Wilson refused.
In Korea, however, numerous British soldiers were killed. Several of my youthful acquaintances fought there as conscripts, though all were lucky enough to return alive. It was an American war conducted under the auspices of the United Nations - as the war in Iraq was not. It produced one of the most potent myths in Labour history: that by deferring to American wishes, we thereby secured "influence", for all the world as if influence were a drink bought across the counter in Old Fleet Street:
"And a pint of influence too, my pretty wench."
The origin of the myth was C R Attlee's trip to Washington to persuade President Harry Truman that General Douglas MacArthur must not be allowed to use the atomic bomb against China. Historians agree that there was no possibility that this would happen. Nevertheless it made no difference to the myth, which was once again pressed into service before the Iraq war and remains in use today.
Mr Blair persuaded the United States to go down "the United Nations route", not because this was a morally superior thoroughfare or even because more nations would join him on the road, but simply because it would make life easier for him with his own party. When this road became blocked, he told us of his utter certainty that it would speedily become unblocked. More recently he has been proclaiming the same degree of conviction about the discovery of weapons of mass destruction - even if last week these were turned into plans for such weaponry. When the United Nations road remained obstinately blocked, he blamed the perfidious French, who had in fact behaved with complete consistency throughout the proceedings.
It was at this stage that the weapons of mass destruction and the threat, permanent or imminent, which they were supposed to present assumed their greatest importance. Mr Blair could not say that he had agreed to follow the US, let the grass grow where it might. Accordingly, the United Nations having let him down, he was compelled instead to find another source of authority, in this case the existence of these weapons - combined with a piffling opinion from the Attorney General relying on a previous series of UN resolutions.
Since then Mr Blair has grown increasingly desperate. He possesses the not uncommon ability to persuade himself that at any given moment he is speaking the truth. He believes that what he tells you three times is true.
"I can't believe that!" said Alice.
"Can't you?" the Queen said in a pitying tone. "Try again: draw a deep breath, and shut your eyes."
"There's no use trying," she said: "one can't believe impossible things."
"I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."
Mr Blair is clearly a worthy graduate of the Looking-Glass School of Leadership of 10 Downing Street, London SW1; prop. Alastair Campbell, MA (Cantab).Reuse content