John Rentoul: No surrender, and Blair's the beneficiary again

The Politics: I only ask - how many people seriously think there is an alternative leader of this country?
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Against which those who supported Britain's part in the action point out that the attacks on the twin towers, by far the worst killings attributed to followers of the al-Qa'ida cult, came before the Iraq war. Those who carried out those attacks were motivated by a hatred of the United States, its allies and its policies on Palestine and Saudi Arabia. US and allied military action in Afghanistan and Iraq may have added to the al-Qa'ida mythology of America as the Great Satan, helping the terrorists to recruit and encouraging them to be more discriminating in their attempts to frighten the populations of countries that supported the US. And here comes the pro-war "but". But it is naïve to believe that Britain could somehow hide from terrorism and make itself safe by pretending not to be the Little Satan to the one across the water.

What seems most surprising, though, is how either side can be sure. As someone who supported the removal of Saddam Hussein, I would have thought it almost certain that last week's bombings were motivated by a desire to punish Britain for Iraq. At the very least, it cannot be possible to say categorically that they were not, and Blair was patently uncomfortable doing precisely that on the Today programme yesterday.

The more authentic voice of the Prime Minister came across just before the election, when David Frost asked if the lives of British troops might have been saved if we had not taken part in a military operation that would have gone ahead anyway. Interestingly, Blair did not accept that the Americans would necessarily have gone ahead without British support. "But let's assume that they would have, for a moment. So we the British, at the moment of decision, would have faltered and backed off. I don't think - that's not my conception of Britain."

Politically, he cannot afford to yield an inch to the idea that Britain would be safer if it pulled out of Iraq - even if it were true. By standing firm, he has put himself in the right place on the map of British public opinion. I do not much like the actorly quality of his public performances at times of national shock. I did not like his "people's princess" monologue, still less his reading - with expression - of "When I was a child" at Diana's memorial service. Nor his "shoulder to shoulder" speech on 11 September 2001, nor his messianic Labour conference speech soon afterwards. But I accept that most people feel that, on these occasions, he steps up to the footlights of history and does the business; and that he did it again at Gleneagles and then in London on Thursday.

There is an element of fraud in the talk of the resilience of Londoners and of not allowing the bombers to change our way of life. The Royal Courts of Justice were closed on Friday when, unless court officials know something we do not, surely our way of life required them to stay open to show the resilience of the rule of law. And the main reason why the bombings will not make much difference to the lives of Tube-travelling, bus-riding Londoners is because there is very little that anyone can sensibly do to change their way of life. But there is no doubt that Blair effectively summed up the prevailing mood of defiance.

Which is why the answer to the question, "Was it because of Iraq?", has to be "Yes, but ..." If we take at face value the statement by the Secret Organisation of al-Qa'ida in Europe, which claimed responsibility for the London bombings, they were "in retaliation for the massacres Britain is committing in Iraq and Afghanistan". That immediately complicates the issue. Because if military action in Afghanistan is a cause of terrorism here, it is not as if we could have made ourselves safe - or make ourselves safe in future - simply by ducking out of Iraq. What is more, Afghanistan was a campaign largely fought by the Afghans themselves, with US military help from the air, explicitly authorised by the United Nations and supported by virtually all Muslim and Arab countries.

That is why Blair is on strong ground. Despite the best efforts of George Galloway and his witting and unwitting allies, there is little demand, even from those who opposed the war, for British troops to pull out of Iraq. The terrorists misread the Spanish election last year, assuming that it was the Madrid bombings that drove Spanish troops out of Iraq. The fact is that it was not the cowardice of the Spanish electorate which elected the anti-war socialist party, but the miscalculation of José Maria Aznar, the conservative prime minister, who panicked and tried to blame the bombings on Eta, the Basque separatists. That was a terrible, terrible mistake and gave succour to al-Qa'ida. If Aznar had done as Blair did, and said it was "reasonably obvious" that the bombs were the work of al-Qa'ida and declared the nation would not be intimidated, he might still be the PM.

It is a mistake some people are still eager for Blair to make. Matthew Parris, when Kenneth Bigley was taken hostage in Iraq and killed last year, wrote in The Times that we were "asking for it", and that Britain should "cut and run" from Iraq, "the sooner the better". He was doing it on purpose, but the surrender-now mentality is more insidious at the BBC because it is unconscious. Within hours of the bombs going off on Thursday, the BBC website's reporting had been bowdlerised, with the word "terrorists" removed and replaced with "bombers". As if there were any doubt that the intentions of the bombers were to spread "fear, terror and panic throughout the north, south, east and west of Britain", in the words of the Secret Organisation's statement. The implication is that al-Qa'ida is engaged in a military campaign in pursuit of negotiable objectives.

Not even George Galloway believes that. He said on Newsnight on Friday that the terrorists did not have objectives that it was possible to meet: they should be hunted down and shot. Then he sounded positively Blairite, saying that the legitimate grievances of Muslims around the world, such as in Palestine, should be tackled. Of course, they should.

Yet no one thinks that Blair's hard work on the Israel-Palestine question, or his rescue of the Muslims of Kosovo from attempted genocide, makes the slightest difference to Osama bin Laden's nihilist teachings. So why should a different policy on Iraq make a decisive change? The London bombings might not have happened had Britain not joined the invasion of Iraq, but they, or a similar attack, might have come anyway, motivated by a slightly rearranged set of mythic grievances.

The effect of last week, therefore, has been to strengthen the Prime Minister, because there is no public pressure for capitulation to the terrorists. Once again, Blair has captured the public mood, shaped it and given it expression. I only ask: how many people seriously think that there is an alternative leader of this country who could in one week have won the Olympics, made significant progress on African development and climate change, and spoken for the nation in shock?

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