Two Wars Tony becomes our most belligerent PM

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The Independent Online
Remember that the Patriots are in the right and are going to win ... But they must win quickly. The British public has no interest in a war which drags on indecisively. - Lord Copper in Evelyn Waugh, Scoop.

Last week I ended by pointing out that it was the Greek adventurism of David Lloyd George which brought about both the fall of the coalition government and his own exclusion from office for the rest of his life. Mr Tony Blair has at his disposal a majority of nearly 180 and a troupe of backbenchers who mostly compensate in cowed loyalty for what they lack in lively intelligence, always in any case a dangerous quality for persons in their position to display. Accordingly the Bomber is unlikely to meet the same fate as the old rogue from Criccieth (though as a matter of fact he was born in Manchester, the son of a schoolmaster from Pembrokeshire).

This does not mean that what is going on in Yugoslavia will be without political consequences, whether for Mr Blair or for Mr William Hague. I write "Yugoslavia" rather than "Serbia" because, as I understand the position, Mr Slobodan Milosevic now heads the successor-state to the former Yugoslavia, consisting at least of Serbia, Kosovo and Montenegro. Indeed, the United States, with the United Kingdom falling into line with its usual obedience, refused to try to set up an independent state of Kosovo at the Rambouillet conference.

Are we now fighting - or shall we soon be fighting? - for an independent state of Kosovo? Or for that semi-autonomous region which was agreed at Rambouillet and supported by Mr Blair in the House on 23 March? In view of the forced exodus of thousands of Kosovo Albanians and others over the past week, it is now surely impossible to restore the position which existed in Kosovo before 1989, when Mr Milosevic began to deprive the region of its former independence.

At Prime Minister's Questions a week later Mr Blair became quite petulant when it was suggested that it was the bombing which had brought about the exodus. This military operation had, he said, clearly been planned by Mr Milosevic for months. Yes, indeed. But at the same time it could not have been coincidence that this cruel operation was made effective - may now be virtually complete - when the Nato bombing was in full swing.

Ms Clare Short was in even more fatuous form when, in the midst of a grandiloquent flow about how Britain led the world in humanitarian aid, she claimed that making prior provision for the Kosovo-Albanian refugees in Macedonia would have smacked of "defeatism". This rather contradicted Mr Blair's line that Mr Milosevic was going to act as he did whatever happened.

Since 1945, British troops have been involved in lengthy conflicts in Aden, Borneo, Cyprus, Kenya and Malaysia. We have fought six more defined wars: in Korea under CR Attlee, at Suez under Anthony Eden, in the Falklands under Margaret Thatcher, in the Gulf under her and then John Major, in the Gulf again under Tony Blair, and now in Yugoslavia. The Bomber therefore leads the field in bellicosity with two wars under his belt, to Lady Thatcher's one-and-a-half.

Needless to say, neither of them has military experience of any kind, though Lady Thatcher could have interrupted her education (she was 18 in 1943) to join one of the women's services. I do not reproach her for omitting to do so. I nevertheless think people who steer clear of conflict should be chary of banging the drum on behalf of others. In the present hostilities few aspects are more striking than that those with some knowledge of warfare are members of the Peace Party; whereas the War Party is composed largely of those who have not even heard a popgun fired in anger.

Thus, of the former group, Lord Carrington holds the Military Cross, Lord Healey was a beachmaster at Anzio, Mr Tony Benn was an RAF pilot and Mr Tam Dalyell did his national service as a trooper in the Royal Scots Greys; while the leader of the Peace Party among the columnists, Lord Rees-Mogg, did his national service in the RAF. In the War Party Mr Blair, Mr Robin Cook, Mr Ken Livingstone and Mr George Robertson were too young for national service; while their older supporter, Mr Michael Foot, fought with conspicuous gallantry against Adolf Hitler from the offices of the Evening Standard in London EC4.

Then there are all those retired generals, admirals and air-marshals who pop up in freshly established newspaper columns or on our television screens, telling us that air power has only been used successfully as cover for ground troops, whose commitment to the inhospitable terrain of the Balkans they would none the less hesitate to make. As Lady Bracknell says in The Importance of Being Earnest: "The general was essentially a man of peace, except in his domestic life."

People who have been involved in wars do not usually want to see them repeated. Winston Churchill refused to retire in 1953-55 because he wanted to crown his career by making peace with the Russians. Eden was an exception. My parents thought Neville Chamberlain was "a good man" who was "doing his best". But then, my father had been in France in the First World War and lost his brother in the Battle of Jutland, while my mother had seen numerous friends killed.

Of the more recent wars I have listed, the Korean war was the longest and most serious. Attlee secured a permanent place in the folklore (for it was not mythology) of the People's Party by flying to Washington to persuade Harry Truman, the president, not to drop the atomic bomb on the Chinese. The war did Attlee's reputation no harm but was certainly a factor in his decision to hold an unnecessary election in 1951 which Labour lost, inaugurating 13 years of Conservative government. The Tories survived the Suez war but Eden did not. However, he was unfit to be prime minister at the time because of the effects not only of the war but also of a botched operation on his gall-bladder which he had undergone four years previously. The post-war prime ministers who have resigned because of ill-health are Eden, Harold Macmillan and, arguably, Harold Wilson. They went on to die at the respective ages of 79, 92 and 79. Indeed, Macmillan could have carried on if he had chosen (for the doctors now deny he was given a false prognosis).

With the Falklands, Lady Thatcher established herself both as a domestic leader and as an international figure. But the Gulf war, which was already in progress in November 1990, did nothing to save her from the Great Fall. In fact it was scarcely discussed throughout those even more terrible events. Mr Major's modest demeanour during and after the war may have helped him win the 1992 election. It was said at the time that he held back in October 1991 because he thought it wrong to make political capital out of military victory.

That is not a difficulty which Mr Blair faces. He will not be tempted into an early poll whatever happens in Yugoslavia. There is no need for one. The question is what the voters will think if British troops are still there in 2001 or 2002, and many of them have been killed in the meantime.