Andreas Whittam Smith: Blair is another Chamberlain - in denial and wrong

Consider what confessing the war was a mistake would mean for the Prime Minister
Click to follow
The Independent Online

In his depictions of strong leadership, Mr Blair has sometimes favourably contrasted himself with his predecessor, Neville Chamberlain, whose misjudgements of Hitler's character and intentions have subsequently been described as "appeasement". Yet "appeasement" in the 1930s was first cousin to what we call "denial". And if the Prime Minister is in denial about the impact of the Iraq war on terrorism, then his error - as error I believe it is - isn't so very different from Chamberlain's tragic misunderstanding nearly 70 years ago.

Denial as refusing to acknowledge certain aspects of reality, refusing, for instance, to perceive something because it is so painful and distressing, is a concept drawn from Freud's work. If the notion had been as familiar in the 1930s as it has subsequently become, then Chamberlain might have been criticised for being in denial about the nature of Nazi government. In due course, Chamberlain took Britain to war with Germany but he was quickly ousted and replaced by Churchill whose judgement on this great issue had been sound.

If the British didn't wish to be led by an appeaser in the Second World War, then they might well come to a similar conclusion today and say that a prime minister in denial about the causes of a crisis isn't the right leader to see us through to a successful conclusion. It is worth asking, then, what is the nature of Mr Blair's refusal of reality.

My guess is that Mr Blair is saying something like this to himself: "If I admit error, I'm done for; the best way of staying in power is to bluff it out". For consider what confessing that the invasion of Iraq was a colossal mistake would mean for the Prime Minister.

He would have to accept that scores of British soldiers had died for no good cause. He would have to take responsibility for the deaths of perhaps 25,000 Iraqi civilians. He would have to own up to having led this country into an illegal war. He would have to concede that Iraqi troops and police are as far away as ever from taking responsibility for law and order. He would have to see that civil war is more likely than a constitution. He would have to tell himself that he was wrong to trust President Bush with Britain's security. And he would have to live with the fact that he had taken this country into an alliance that routinely practises torture.

I don't wish to imply that British troops should be swiftly withdrawn. The London bombings must not have that consequence. On the other hand, it is easy to see what benefits would result from having a prime minister who wasn't disabled by a kind of prideful blindness.

He or she could speak frankly in private to our American allies. For one of the most extraordinary aspects of the Coalition is that none of the leaked documents and e-mails between the two sides shows the slightest evidence that Mr Blair has strenuously criticised the glaring deficiencies in American policy. And even in public a new prime minister could mark out a distinctly British approach.

For instance, the ambiguity about whether Britain is associated with the American practice of sending suspected terrorists to third countries for interrogation could be removed. This unpleasant policy, in which suspects are tortured by proxy in, say, Egyptian jails, should be formally renounced by Britain. In the same way, a new prime minister should openly criticise the Guantanamo Bay prison, where Muslim prisoners have been regularly mistreated.

These may appear small things compared with the systematic misdirection of British policy towards Iraq but they would have resonance. For in a disturbing poll of Muslim attitudes published on Saturday, YouGov asked its Muslim respondents: "How loyal would you say you personally feel towards Britain?" Less than half (48 per cent) said that they felt "very loyal". Another 33 per cent subscribed to being "fairly loyal". But a further 16 per cent were "not very loyal" or "not at all loyal".

There are doubtless many reasons for this lack of enthusiasm. Some 31 per cent of the sample, for instance, agreed with the view that "Western society is decadent and immoral". Nonetheless, Mr Blair's unquestioning, passive acceptance of US policy with all its faults and his silence in the face of the brutal behaviour of American forces in Iraq breeds resentment in this country.

Mr Blair wants to be a modern-day Churchill, but in reality he is Chamberlain again, in denial and wrong.