George Bush is supposed to be the cowboy, Tony Blair the sidekick–or, in some versions, the presidential poodle. But as the British prime minister walked to the despatch box on the afternoon of March 18, he had the grim resolution of a man strapping on his six-shooter. For the past several weeks Blair had been taking his case to the opposition: facing a hostile studio audience on the BBC’s Newsnight program, even arguing with skeptical twentysomethings on MTV. None of these encounters went his way, and in every one of them the prime minister stressed the crucial importance of the United Nations as the means for disarming Iraq. Yet Britain’s hopes of a second UN resolution–widely viewed as a political life raft for Blair–had smashed on the rock of French opposition, and now the prime minister’s worst political nightmare had come to pass: He had to convince the House of Commons that war without UN sanction was not only inevitable but justified. Blair’s response to this disaster was to raise the stakes: Should the vote go against the government’s motion authorizing war and in favor of a rival proposal calling for the weapons inspectors to be given more time, he told the Commons, “I will not be party to such a course.”
By threatening to resign if he lost, Blair forced a badly divided Labour Party to choose between peace and power, and for all but the most committed opponents of the war, the outcome was preordained. That Blair felt compelled to issue such a threat is an indication of just how unpopular this war is in Britain–as is the fact that 139 members of Blair’s own party still voted against him. Widely derided as being out of touch with the country, in fact Blair showed an acute awareness of the opposition’s weaknesses and how best to exploit them. His constant references to French intransigence were both a shrewd appeal to Britain’s oldest prejudice and a welcome distraction from Blair’s friend in the White House. When Clare Short, the overseas aid minister often described as “the conscience of the Cabinet,” threatened to resign if Britain went to war without a second UN resolution, and even described Blair’s approach as “reckless”–the sort of remark that would, in normal times, cost her job–Blair held his fire. And though three other Cabinet ministers did resign, that news was overshadowed by Short’s decision to back the war–and keep her job. Blair’s management of expectations was flawless; the largest revolt against a prime minister by his own party in more than a hundred years somehow came to seem like a triumph.
Blair also deserves credit for allowing Tuesday’s debate to take place. The declaration of war has always been a crown prerogative–a power traditionally exercised by the prime minister alone but, from now on, to be dependent on the will of Parliament. Given George Bush’s expansive international agenda, Parliament may well face similar choices about other wars before long.
At the moment, though, the most durable impression here is of a nation both divided and deluded. The jubilation that greeted Clare Short’s (ultimately empty) threat within the Labour Party was the latest sign of the deepening divide between government and people over issues ranging from the increasing privatization of healthcare to restricted access to higher education. The delusion is that any of this agonizing over either the motives or the conduct of the war will register in Washington. I sat in the Commons press gallery listening to speaker after speaker stress the importance of the Palestinian cause to any Middle East settlement, and their commitment to the rights of the Kurds, and how any postwar settlement must be founded on the views of the Iraqi people. But I found myself coming back to something John Denham, one of the ministers who resigned over the war, had said: “In future, people will ask how one nation can have thrown away the sympathy of the world.”