LONDON — George Bush’s favorite European is having a hard time emulating the American president’s strategy of exploiting the war on terror for political gain.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair, whose willingness to go along even with the most illegitimate and dangerous of Bush’s mad schemes has made him a hero to American conservatives, is paying a high price for being what his countrymen refer to as “Bush’s lapdog.”
Blair’s attempt to enact a British version of the Patriot Act created a political crisis last week. Day after day, Blair battled with dissidents from his own Labour Party in the British House of Commons and House of Lords, as well as the country’s opposition parties, over basic civil liberties issues. While Blair eked out a victory in the Parliament, he repeatedly failed to win the approval of the House of Lords, where his own mentor, Lord Irvine of Lairg, one of the country’s leading legal minds, sided with the foes.
Only after Blair’s aides agreed to several concessions — including a Parliamentary review of the so-called “Prevention of Terrorism Act” in one year, which opposition leaders correctly described as a “sunset clause” — did the measure win approval after bitter all-night sessions of both chambers.
“The Great Terrorism Debate of 2005″ has already become the stuff of legend: how the government steamrollered opposition in the Commons only to see the proposals rejected by the Lords four times in 24 hours; how members struggled to sleep in all available spaces around Westminster as both houses dug in and sat through the night; and how they stuck resolutely to their positions until the final breakthrough,” observed the Scotland on Sunday newspaper.
The British human rights lawyer Helena Kennedy, who sits in the House of Lords as Baroness Kennedy of the Shaws and led the opposition to Blair’s Ashcroft-like assault on basic legal rights, explained after the battle was done that, “This was not about the law. It became a trial of political strength.”
Blair’s trials are not done.
Last week’s newspaper headlines brought more bad news for the prime minister. It was revealed by London’s Independent that Blair apparently violated the official code of conduct for Cabinet ministers by failing to share the full advice of the country’s Attorney General on the legality of the Iraq war with his own Cabinet. Clare Short, a member of the Cabinet prior to the start of the war, issued a statement in which she declared that the Cabinet had been “misled” and that support for military action against Iraq had been obtained “improperly,”
The news came as Britain’s national Stop the War Coalition was busily organizing mass demonstrations against British involvement in Iraq to take place on March 19. Tony Benn, a former Labour Party Cabinet minister who has split with Blair on the war issue told me, “This will be one of the largest demonstrations since the war began, perhaps the largest, and it will confirm that their remains a hearty opposition to Tony Blair’s decision to follow George Bush into war.”
This is all bad news for Blair as he prepares for an election that is likely to be called for May 5.
“The ‘Iraq effect’ is still there on the doorstep, Labour officials report from the election front line. The issue is wider than military intervention, with some voters expressing concern they have ‘lost’ their Prime Minister to foreign affairs and others seeing ‘Iraq’ as shorthand for their loss of trust in Mr. Blair,” explains Andrew Grice, political editor for The Independent. “The real ‘Iraq effect’ will be measured May 5.”
One of the most fascinating tests could come in Blair’s own parliamentary constituency of Sedgefield, in the north of England. A coalition of prominent members of parliament who have argued for the impeachment of Blair on the question of whether he deceived the House of Commons — as Bush has been accused of deceiving the US Congress — is working with some of the country’s most prominent cultural figures, including musician Brian Eno, one of Britain’s most widely respected public intellectuals, to find a single challenger for Blair. The idea is that all opposition parties, as well as Labour dissidents, would unite behind a celebrity anti-war candidate who would turn the local election into a referendum on Blair’s policies.
If the move succeeds, it is possible that Blair’s Labour Party could be returned to power without Blair.
While that prospect remains a long shot, it is delicious enough to have been taken seriously by the British media and some of the most thoughtful young members of the House of Commons.
Says Adam Price, a Welsh member of Parliament who is active in the move to identify a Blair challenger: “The critical thing is to find a candidate who is a national figure who encapsulates in their personality the message about trust and the need to restore public confidence in the political process.”
John Nichols’s new book, Against the Beast: A Documentary History of American Opposition to Empire (Nation Books) was published January 30. Howard Zinn says, “At exactly the when we need it most, John Nichols gives us a special gift–a collection of writings, speeches, poems and songs from thoughout American history–that reminds us that our revulsion to war and empire has a long and noble tradition in this country.” Frances Moore Lappe calls Against the Beast, “Brilliant! A perfect book for an empire in denial.” Against the Beast can be found at independent bookstores nationwide and can be obtained online by tapping the above reference or at www.amazon.com