Bruce Anderson: From Blair to Darling, Labour only ever acts out of self-interest

If Brown could scrape home, he wouldn't care what state the country was in

Monday 14 December 2009 01:00 GMT

Marx was right about this Labour government. "History repeats itself; the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce." Let us start with the farce, and an apology. Last week, I wrote that as Alistair Darling was interested in sound economic management, he would fend off Gordon Brown's demands for electioneering stunts. What an embarrassing misjudgement.

This is not a Chancellor determined to prove worthy of his great office. This is a mere monkey to the PM's organ grinder. Mr Darling delivered one of the most meretricious Budget statements of all time. There was no strategy, no response to the gravity of the situation – just cynicism, cheapness and shallowness. It was a performance worthy of Ed Balls.

It was also bad politics. For some inexplicable reason – the sovereign people ought to be ashamed of themselves – the Government's economic reputation has not yet been completely destroyed. Foundering in recession, its standing is higher than John Major's was during the 1995-6 recovery.

Suppose the Chancellor had tried to exploit this. Admit mistakes, while stressing the international aspects: deliver an impressive-sounding intellectual argument, acknowledging the need for spending cuts but also for measures to ensure renewed growth; without sounding crudely partisan, gently accuse the Tories of reverting to type and using the current difficulties as an excuse for the savage cuts that they have always secretly longed for. Such a speech might have had a better reception than it deserved. As it is, Mr Darling got the reception he deserved.

We have a Prime Minister who would do anything to win the next election. If he could scrape home, he would not care what state the country was in. If he lost, he would have as little interest in Britain's wellbeing as the Hitler of April 1945 did in post-war Germany's recovery from defeat. We have a Chancellor who had an opportunity to save his reputation from the wreckage of the Prime Minister's, but refused to take it. Alistair Darling has sold his soul to the bunker.

Next, the tragedy. Tony Blair has now admitted what some of us suspected at the time. He was prepared to go to war with Saddam Hussein in order to secure regime change. That was laudable, and we should disregard the witterings of the so-called international lawyers who question its legality. Admittedly, regime change is not to be undertaken lightly (for one thing, we no longer have enough ships and men). But if it becomes necessary and can be done, Britain is still sovereign. In the case of Iraq, however, there was a tragic failure to think through the consequences.

Mr Blair is a big-picture politician and a moraliser. He also has the defects of his qualities. Mrs Thatcher could have taught him that there can be a problem with big pictures. It is easy to overlook vital details. Although she had nothing against broad sweeps and visions, she always insisted on scrutinising them with a magnifying glass.

Tony Blair did not do detail. Unlike Margaret Thatcher, let alone Gordon Brown, he rarely expressed irritation with officials. But one proposal could send the sun behind a cloud; any suggestion that he might address himself to a point of detail. "That's for you lot to sort out," he would snap. "And that's no way to run a government," she would have said.

Moralists can easily fall into two traps: of believing that good intentions are enough and of assuming that their own moral superiority will guarantee a favourable outcome. Tony Blair did both. Like many of us, he was attracted by the moral grandeur of the neo-conservatives' plans for the Middle East. Like most of them, alas, he had no idea what he was taking on. Even before 9/11, the neo-cons were arguing that much of the region was a moral swamp in urgent need of draining. After 9/11, the White House gave them the contract. Thus the tragedy gained momentum.

The neo-cons suffered from two crippling intellectual defects. The first was excessive idealism: the second, a reluctance to see any good in any Arab. These were mutually reinforcing. Neo-cons could hardly admit that they were suspicious of all Arabs and believed Islam was a primitive and terror-genic superstition. But idealism seemed to promise a way forward. Give Arabs the vote, and democracy would act as an accelerated passage through Staten Island for the poor and huddled masses of the Arab street. Their moral culture would be transformed. The ballot-box would be a universal political antibiotic.

Thatcher, thou shouldst have been active at that hour. The old girl would have known that it was not going to be so easy. Tony Blair cut himself off from the Foreign Office: from anyone who might have argued with him. Mrs Thatcher came into politics to have arguments. She never believed that any policy-making session was complete until she had tossed and gored several persons. If she had heard that a lot of FO chaps were unhappy about what she was planning, she would have summoned them to No 10 to put them right. If they had had the guts to stand up to her, it would have been a creative exchange. Above all, it would have been easy to persuade her that the work of post-war reconstruction, both civil and military, was going to be far harder than Paul Wolfowitz was assuming.

It might even have been possible to persuade her to have a row with the neo-cons over Palestine. It is absurd to doubt the neo-cons' sincerity on Iraq. It is equally absurd to ignore their blindness on Israel/Palestine. If you deal in universal moral principles, it follows that the values which are appropriate on the Tigris and the Euphrates should also apply on the Jordan. A moral reconstruction of the Middle East which ignores the Palestinians is as useful as a car servicing that leaves the vehicle with three wheels.

None of this would have been easy. None of the difficulties would have deterred Margaret Thatcher. De Gaulle once drove past a demonstrator whose placard read: "Mort aux Cons". The General's only comment was "vaste entreprise". Mrs Thatcher knew about vast enterprises. If she had been invading Iraq, the generals and the diplomats and the Americans would have been probed and interrogated and harassed until their plans were Thatcher-proof. If the details had passed that test, they would have worked on the ground. The Iraqis would be much further on; the Middle East would be stabler: the world would be safer. Idealism would have been transmuted into reality.

As it is, we had Tony Blair refusing to leave the comfort zone of his sofa, and Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary, refusing to allow the Chief of the Defence Staff to have proper discussions with the planners. Mr Hoon one can understand: a Darling-esque cipher. But why on earth did Admiral Boyce not exercise his right to see the PM and tell him that if he was not allowed to do his job properly, they could find someone else? Imagine Margaret Thatcher's reaction if she had been told that a minister was trying to disrupt the preparations for war. With this lot, the monkeys have taken over the menagerie – and they still have a few months to wreak their mischief.

Last week, the Irish Finance Minister delivered one of the bleakest economic assessments in the history of democratic politics. He had only one priority: his country's national interest. This week, every week, until the end, the Brown bunker will be scheming and plotting and brooding, in a fug of ill-temper and resentment. The national interest: never be naive enough to look for that in their agenda.

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