David Marquand: It was a just war. One that had support of the people. But it didn't save the PM...

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The Independent Online

Sixty years ago next weekend, the weary but exultant British people celebrated their victory in the war in Europe. They held their heads high. They knew they had fought in a just cause. They also knew that their lonely stand in 1940 had saved the world. Yet there was none of the chauvinistic gloating that had disfigured the end of the First World War. A week after the German surrender, Winston Churchill put his own inimitable gloss on the meaning of VE Day in a speech in the House of Commons. The credit did not belong to British arms alone, he insisted. It also belonged to British institutions - above all, to the "democratic constitution" that enabled the world's "strongest parliament" and "oldest monarchy" to rest "safely and solidly upon the will of the people".

Sixty years ago next weekend, the weary but exultant British people celebrated their victory in the war in Europe. They held their heads high. They knew they had fought in a just cause. They also knew that their lonely stand in 1940 had saved the world. Yet there was none of the chauvinistic gloating that had disfigured the end of the First World War. A week after the German surrender, Winston Churchill put his own inimitable gloss on the meaning of VE Day in a speech in the House of Commons. The credit did not belong to British arms alone, he insisted. It also belonged to British institutions - above all, to the "democratic constitution" that enabled the world's "strongest parliament" and "oldest monarchy" to rest "safely and solidly upon the will of the people".

The contrast between Britain after the Second World War and Britain after the second Iraq war could hardly be more marked. Few heads were held high when President Bush proclaimed the war's end. Fewer still are held high now. Outside the New Labour nomenklatura, no one seriously pretends that Britain fought in a just cause. Few even think the cause was legal. The radical ferment that transformed the public mood between 1940 and 1945 had no parallel during the admittedly much shorter Iraq war: such ferment as there was occurred in the anti-war demonstrations that the Government ignored.

The contrast between Churchill in 1945 and Blair today is particularly striking. Churchill lost the 1945 election, but that was because he had the misfortune to be leader of the Conservative Party. During the war, his stock had soared; and it remained high throughout the post-war period. Though the odds are on a Labour victory in this election, it will be won in spite of Blair, not because of him. No prime minister since Neville Chamberlain in 1940 has suffered such a catastrophic fall in stature and reputation.

Blair is not the first wartime leader to see his reputation tumble. After the Suez fiasco in 1956 Anthony Eden's standing fell almost as dramatically as Blair's has done. Lyndon Johnson never recovered from Vietnam. In Fourth Republic France, the Algerian war discredited the entire system, and brought Charles de Gaulle to power. In a black moment during the First World War, Lloyd George toppled Herbert Asquith from his perch and helped to destroy the Liberal Party.

Defeat is not always due to enemy action, of course: the Americans, not the Egyptians, forced Eden to abandon his Suez adventure. But defeat at the hands of a purported ally may be more humiliating than defeat inflicted by an enemy. Victorious wartime leaders have mostly had much happier fates. One obvious example is Margaret Thatcher, whose standing mounted inexorably during and after the Falklands war. A better one is Churchill himself. Between the wars, the establishment saw him as a political gambler. His wartime oratory and unsleeping will turned him into a national icon.

On the face of it, Blair's fate should have been closer to Churchill's than to Eden's. Despite the murderous mess that prevails in present-day Iraq, the war itself was won. Saddam was brought down; an admittedly shaky new Iraqi regime enjoys the trappings of power, even if not the substance. As Donald Rumsfeld made brutally clear, the Americans did not need British support. Even so, they had it; and Blair could plausibly claim that the victory was, in part, a British one. But the long-awaited "Baghdad bounce" obstinately failed to materialise, and it is further away now than it was when Baghdad was taken.

Why is Blair an Eden and not a Chur-chill? A Napoleon III and not a Charles de Gaulle? Part of the reason, no doubt, is that he is not cut from Churchillian or Gaullist cloth. Some of the great war leaders of history have been psychopathic monsters. Josef Stalin is only the most flagrant example. But even the psychopaths have had a leathery, existential toughness about them. They have had what the British establishment used to call "bottom". Lloyd George, Churchill and Thatcher all had it. I suspect that Gordon Brown has it, though we won't know for certain until he inherits Blair's crown. Blair doesn't. He has charm, eloquence, quickness of wit and a Houdini-like ability to escape from blame, but he has no bottom. There is something tinny and insubstantial about him, just as there was about Eden and Napoleon III; and war found him out.

But individual psychology matters less than the elusive relationship between war and democracy. The Second World War was truly a people's war - not just in the sense that the people came of age during it, but in the sense that they knew that it was necessary and right. The appeasers of the 1930s have had a bad press, and in some ways rightly so, but the very failure of appeasement convinced the British people that Hitler was out to destroy their country and way of life; and that he had to be stopped, whatever the cost.

Blair and his spin-doctors hoped to engineer a comparable mood in the run-up to the Iraq war, but because they were trying so obviously to engineer the mood they wanted, their spinning carried no conviction. The Iraq war was never a people's war. It was a war for Blairites, fought in defiance of the popular will. At some deep and visceral level, the people knew this; because they knew it, the war always lacked legitimacy. The moral is a surprising one. Thanks to the technological sophistication available to today's military, illegitimate wars can be won, provided they are small and short. But leaders who insist on fighting illegitimate wars will find that victory has a bitter taste.

David Marquand is a former principal of Mansfield College, Oxford. His most recent book is 'Decline of the Public', published by Polity Press

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