Steve Richards: Overwhelming and still underestimated factors propelled Blair into war in Iraq

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The Independent Online

A pattern is forming. This week's debate about whether or not there should be a government inquiry into the war in Iraq was fuelled by a range of domestic political calculations. The Conservatives instigated the Commons debate in order to distance themselves from their robust, and highly influential, support for the war. The Government refused to hold an inquiry now because the nightmare of Iraq would be revisited as the next election approaches. The Liberal Democrats called for an apology from those who supported the war in order to emphasise that they did not do so.

There is a depressing symmetry about the way that domestic political considerations continue to define attitudes towards the war. In my view, there were overwhelming and still underestimated factors which propelled Tony Blair towards war in the first place.

The decision to go to war was not an aberration as some have argued, a moment when Mr Blair dropped his normal cautious calculations and became messianic. It was part of a New Labour approach to politics, entirely predictable and arguably inevitable from the moment Mr Blair and Gordon Brown became the only dominant figures in their party and then the Government.

Here are some of the common factors in New Labour calculations from the mid-1990s until now. When there are highly controversial policy areas, Labour worries hugely that the Conservatives might be on the more popular side of the argument. It is determined always to keep Rupert Murdoch's newspapers on board. It is fearful of its own past, including perceptions that it was anti-America and soft on defence.

Such calculations, made constantly by a group of people used to losing elections rather than winning them, helped to turn New Labour into a formidable campaigning machine. They also made Iraq a nightmarish trap. Early in his leadership, the Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith was gung-ho, declaring that his party would support the US irrespective of whether it acted with the support of the United Nations. The Spectator magazine's Coffee House website has pointed out that the current shadow Foreign Secretary, William Hague, was equally robust, highlighting this contribution from the backbenches in the build up to war: "Is there not at least a significant risk of the utter catastrophe of Iraq possessing a nuclear device without warning, some time in the next couple of years? In that case, does not the risk of leaving the regime on its course today far outweigh the risk of taking action quite soon?"

With a cautious, New Labour timidity, Mr Blair must have weighed up the domestic political situation. He did on every other issue, from the smoking ban to whether he dared to say anything positive on Europe. If he had opposed the war, he would have been placed in alliance with President Jacques Chirac of France and Chancellor Gerhard Schröder of Germany, while Mr Duncan Smith would be the leader who supported the US. Mr Blair would have given up the space he had jealously protected as a new Labour leader. He would be back to the Neil Kinnock era, when a US President treated Labour leaders with disdain. He would lose The Sun, which would cheer for Britain's only war leader, Mr Duncan Smith.

At some stage, Mr Blair wanted to fight a referendum on the euro. If he stayed close to the US on Iraq, he could never be accused of being anti-American and indiscriminately pro-European. On this basis alone, Mr Blair was never going to break with George Bush over an issue as multi-layered in its complexity as Iraq. It was too risky. Admirers and detractors who believe Mr Blair dropped his previous character traits of caution for a nobly bold or reckless set of convictions cite as conclusive evidence his Chicago speech in 1999. In this address, delivered at the height of the Balkans conflict, Mr Blair put the case for intervention including military action in certain circumstances.

The speech is worth re-visiting because it contains plenty of familiar Blairite get-out clauses. In it he argued, for example, that military action should be contemplated only when diplomatic efforts had been fully exhausted. In the case of Iraq, the Chicago speech could have been used to justify further diplomatic activity. I can hear an alternative Blair sermon putting the case against immediate military action five years ago: "As I argued in my Chicago speech, it is necessary to follow through all diplomatic options..." By then, the speech was being used to justify anything that Mr Bush was moving towards.

For those who believe I am underestimating Mr Blair's convictions or his messianic follies, I pose this question. Would he have been pressing for an invasion if it had been opposed by President Bush, the Conservative Party and Rupert Murdoch, while being strongly supported by France and Germany? Of course he would not have done so.

For those who argue that he acted in defiance of popular opinion, I would point out that wars in Britain usually make governments popular and there was much talk in the immediate aftermath of a "Baghdad bounce" in which Mr Blair's popularity would soar. Mr Blair was a genius at making the most of the situation he was in. Early on in his leadership, he cited his popularity as vindication of the new Labour strategy. When he became unpopular, he claimed he was being bold for "doing the right thing".

I suspect that Gordon Brown was broadly supportive of Mr Blair's approach to Iraq. When he felt strongly that Mr Blair's instincts were wrong, during the vicious, stormy second term, he acted to block them. Mr Brown fought ferociously hard to stop any attempts by Mr Blair to revive the possibility of a referendum on the euro. He challenged with a sweaty determination elements of Mr Blair's public service reforms. He did not attempt to stop the route to war.

At a time when Clare Short was still singing Mr Brown's praises on other matters, she told me: "Gordon supported the war". Even if he had tried to stop Mr Blair, he would have brought down the Government and fatally split Labour for decades. What is more, Mr Bush would still have gone to war, with the same deadly consequences.

Still, at a time when Britain needed a leader with the boldness to step aside, it had one who did not dare to do so. But it is worth noting the political consequences. Tony Blair went on to win another election. The Tories could make no political capital out of the war as they had supported it, too.

An official inquiry will be held when the Government deems it politically safe to do so. The pattern continues. Domestic political calculations will determine the timing, as they played a decisive role in the build-up to war. If such an inquiry is held, I doubt if it will explore the politics of desperate expediency. Yet Mr Blair supported Mr Bush partly because of where it left him in relation to the US, Europe, the Conservatives, his party's vote-losing past and the media. It was, from his fearfully defensive perspective, the least bad option.