Blair’s Battle: Democracy in peril in the UK


Iraqis are taking big steps on a long journey of freedom. A free society requires more than free elections; it also requires free institutions, a vibrant civil society, rule of law, anti-corruption, and the habits of liberty built over generations. — President Bush, March 29, 2005

Hawks hyped myriad reasons for invading Iraq, from weapons of mass destruction, to terrorism, to Mideast piece, to human rights. But the longest-lived rationale — and maybe the most sound — was the notion that the war would replace a dictator with a real democracy. That would be a good thing because, as Rudy Giuliani said in defense of the war, “democracies are accountable to people to solve their problems.”

On Thursday, we’ll learn if such a government exists in Britain, when voters cast ballots knowing that Tony Blair lied them into invading. (We already know that someone was apparently unhappy with the Brits — enough to toss a couple grenades at their Manhattan consulate.)

Ah, but we’ve been here before. The U.S. electorate also got the memo that the sales pitch for the war was hollow, but reelected the salesman anyway last November.

Still, there’s hope: Britons have always been less enthusiastic about the war than their Yankee counterparts, and — in just the past few days — Blair has been clearly exposed as a liar.


It began last week when the British public finally saw the secret legal advice Blair received before the war. While Blair’s public version of the legal brief said the invasion was kosher according to international law, the private one raised grave doubts that Blair never mentioned.

Then, as my colleague Ward Harkavy relayed, things unraveled a little more over the weekend as newspapers revealed that British and American officials discussed the invasion of Iraq in the spring of 2002, deciding on a rationale as they went.

And today, the Independent alleges that the Blair spin-machine even tried to tumble the brother of murdered hostage Ken Bigley: “Paul Bigley claims Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, privately urged him to issue a public apology to Mr. Blair to avoid criticism of the Government damaging the Prime Minister’s bid for a third election victory.”

Also Tuesday, the wife of a slain British soldier blamed Blair for his death. Meanwhile, the Times of London reports:

Families of other soldiers killed in Iraq, backed by the Stop The War Coalition and led by Rose Gentle whose son Gordon, 19, was killed in Basra, today served legal papers on Downing Street challenging the legality of the invasion.

It’s not the first time the war has nibbled Blair in the rump — there was the dispute over whether Downing Street had “sexed up” a public dossier justifying the war, the revelation that another dossier had been plagiarized from a student essay, the suicide of a government weapons expert, and the furor over Abu Ghraib.

But now the nibbles are becoming bites. According to the Guardian, the latest poll “shows Labour facing stronger than expected challenges from the Tories in key marginal constituencies, estimating its lead in those areas down from 47 percent in 2001 to 41 percent now.” The marginal constituencies are parliamentary seats where neither Labor nor the opposition Conservatives (Tories) or Liberal Democrats have a lock on the race. In the British system, the prime minister is elected by parliament so Blair’s claim to power depends on how many seats his party wins.

But just as Dubya did, Blair can count on two great allies in his fight for political survival. The first is his opposition: Like John Kerry, the Tories supported the war, do not support pulling out troops, and are faulting Blair on means rather than ends — not arguments likely to energize voters.

The second ally is those voters themselves — specically, their wants and needs. Sure, the war pisses them off, but isn’t their personal sense of well being more important? Blair thinks so. According to the Guardian, yesterday “the prime minister unveiled a ‘mortgage wheel’ in Gloucester, to illustrate how mortgage rates have almost halved since Labor came to power.” Labor is also hitting the Lib Dems’ “soft” drug policies.

And it’s working. According to the Times, “while the renewed controversy about the Iraq war has led to defections among professionals and managers, there has been no adverse impact among working-class groups. Many manual workers and their families have responded positively to Labor’s emphasis on public services and the economy and its warnings about alleged Tory cuts.”

That’s the trick to establishing an accountable government: People have to decide to hold it accountable. And a lot of Brits don’t seem too seized by the task.

“As for Iraq being an election issue,” Alexandra Atwood told the BBC, “there again I believe the PM is being wrongly blamed. Ultimately he was just doing his job.” Added Laura Protheroe, “I was against Britain taking part in the Iraq war but it still doesn’t stop me voting Labor as I am for social justice. Labor has introduced some excellent policies in this respect and we need to value our public services such as free health care.”