Sunday, 23 May 2010

Don't mention the war

To borrow from the opening lines of the Communist Manifesto, there is a spectre haunting those who seek to lead the British Labour party. Or - I prefer the imagery of Helen MacFarlane's original English translation - what is bothering them is not an austere spectre, but a "frightful hobgoblin." Spectre or hobgoblin, it likes to sneak up behind the various contenders and whisper, in the style of World War One recruitment posters, "What did you do in the war, daddy?"

The uncouth hobgoblin refers, of course, to the invasion of Iraq, which has been raised among the candidates for the Labour party leadership. This has resulted in various degrees of discomfort, squirming and self-righteousness.

Ed Balls and Ed Miliband have made an issue of the war. Neither was an MP at the time, so both were in the pleasant position of not having been forced to account for their support of it. Ed Balls - with uncharacteristic frankness - admits that he would have voted for it:
“I was in the room when a decision was taken that we would say it was that dastardly Frenchman, Jacques Chirac, who had scuppered it. It wasn’t really true, you know. I said to Gordon: 'I know why you’re doing this, but you’ll regret it’. France is a very important relationship for us.”

Although Mr Balls concedes that, had he been an MP at the time, he would have voted for the war on the basis of the facts provided, he now concedes that not only was the information wrong but the war unjustified.

“It was a mistake. On the information we had, we shouldn’t have prosecuted the war. We shouldn’t have changed our argument from international law to regime change in a non-transparent way. It was an error for which we as a country paid a heavy price, and for which many people paid with their lives. Saddam Hussein was a horrible man, and I am pleased he is no longer running Iraq. But the war was wrong.” (1)
I think this is a pretty obvious attempt to pre-empt questions about Iraq. Balls is too closely associated with Gordon Brown to make any claim that he was always against it to hold up - the best he can manage is to admit that it was a mistake, But it's basically designed to make the whole nasty issue go away.

The Edward strain of Miliband has said pretty much the same, in a Guardian interview:
Ed Miliband was living in the US and was not yet an MP at the time. "I was pretty clear at the time that I thought there needs to be more due process here," he said.

"As we all know, the basis for going to war was on the basis of Saddam's threat in terms of weapons of mass destruction and therefore that is why I felt the weapons inspectors should have been given more time to find out whether he had those weapons, and Hans Blix – the head of the UN weapons inspectorate – was saying that he wanted to be given more time. The basis for going to war was the threat that he posed.

"The combination of not giving the weapons inspectors more time, and then the weapons not being found, I think for a lot of people it led to a catastrophic loss of trust for us, and we do need to draw a line under it." (2)
Perhaps I am being to subtle here, but I detect a difference in emphasis between Milband and Balls. Miliband wants to "Draw a line" under the issue, which means confronting it. My sense is that Balls wants to escape further probing on this unpleasant topic.

Like Balls, Ed Miliband also has the luxury of not having been an MP at the time. So perhaps Balls is eyeing up his rival and trying to anticipate what could still be a major dividing line between the 'mainstream' candidates - Ed Miliband, who didn't, David Miliband and Andy Burnham who did, and Ed balls who didn't, but is so closely associated with those that did that it makes little odds. Balls, obviously, wants to be on the same side of the dividing line as Ed Miliband, but his close association with Brown means can't get both feet over. He's left in this rather awkward position of saying it was a mistake and that he would have made it. I suppose he gets points for candour.

Everyone knows Iraq was a tremendous fuck up and a really bad idea. Acknowledging that is meant to draw a line under it for Balls and Ed Miliband and put some pressure on their rivals to do the same. It might not be very effective, as there are two leadership candidates who voted against the war - Dianne Abbott and John McDonell. Though I suppose as long as they appear to be outsiders, presenting yourself as they least tainted of the old crew might have serve purpose.

But that's assuming it remains a fight between the members of the old cabinet, and Abbott and McDonnell remain outsiders - which may not be the case. I remember a time when a certain David Cameron was a rank outsider, and Ken Clarke was expected to be conservative leader. Ditto a certain Barack Obama, and a horny chap called Clinton from Arkansas.

Meanwhile, David Miliband thinks that the whole Iraq invasion, false intelligence and violation of the UN's authority thing isn't really worth talking about:
But David Miliband, who, unlike his two rivals, was an MP in 2003 and voted for the invasion, said much of the controversy about the war had dissipated.

"While Iraq was a source of division in the past, it doesn't need to be a source of division in the future," he said as he arrived at the annual conference of the centre-left Progress group in London.

"Iraq was a big issue at the 2005 general election, but the vast majority of MPs and candidates I have spoken to this time say that while it was a big issue then it was much less of an issue in 2010.

"I said during the election campaign that I thought it was time to move on."

Asked whether his brother and Balls were using the war to "score points" within the Labour Party, he said: "I think that is something you would have to ask them about."

Miliband said he stood by his evidence to the Chilcot inquiry into the war that if it have been known then that Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction, there would have been no invasion. (3)
So the greatest foreign policy blunder since Suez (at least) isn't that important and we should worry about why it happened or why Miliband was so shockingly wrong-headed as to support it. There is a fucking huge, Iraq shaped elephant in the room, covered in the blood of western soldiers and Iraqi civilians, but we really mustn't talk about it, because it is time to "move on."

Note the careful wording in the final paragraph - "if it had been known then that Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction ..." As if that could ever have been definitively "known." Remember Donald Rumsfeld's assertion that lack of evidence was in its own way, evidence? (4) This is the same idea. The invasion was wrong, but the error was acceptable, because those making the error had not received to concrete proof of Iraqi innocence that would have fores-stalled military action. Wrong. The Iraqis had been co-operative and inspectors had found no evidence of active - or even dormant - WMD programmes. That should have been enough to stop any invasion, not any preposterous requirement that the Iraqis do the impossible by proving they are clean. There had been no proof to the contrary, so there should have been no invasion.

David Miliband is a mealy mouthed, self serving, slimy git. Like Tony "This might cost me my job" Blair (5), he seems to fail to grasp that there are more important things than his career. He must never, ever be leader of the Labour party. It would be a dismal re-run of Blairism, and - to borrow from Karl Marx again - the first time it was tragedy, the second time feeble farce (6).
1 - "Ed Balls interview: Iraq war was a mistake," by Mary Riddell and Andrew Porter. Published in the Telegraph, 21st of may, 2010. (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/politics/7750935/Ed-Balls-interview-Iraq-war-was-a-mistake.html)
2 - "Ed Miliband: Labour's catastrophic loss of trust over Iraq," by Patrick Wintour and Allegra Stratton. Published in the Guardian, 21st of May, 2010. (http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2010/may/21/ed-miliband-labour-iraq-war)
3 - "David Miliband: Time to move on from Iraq," by David Batty and agencies. Published in the Guardian, 22nd of May, 2010. (http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2010/may/22/david-miliband-iraq-war-labour-leadership)
4 - Rumsfeld's words are quoted in "No evidence is evidence: Rumsfeld's paradigm shift," by Carol Norris. Published in Counterpunch, 19th of January, 2003. (http://www.counterpunch.org/norris01182003.html)
5 - In fairness to Tony Blair, he didn't actually say that, but he did say something to that effect, quoted in "Blair talks of the strains of war, his family's unstinting support and his relief in victory," by Andrew Sparrow. Published by the Telegraph, 19th of April, 2003. (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/1427955/Blair-talks-of-the-strains-of-war-his-familys-unstinting-support-and-his-relief-in-victory.html)
6 - "The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, " by Karl Marx, 1852. (http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1852/18th-brumaire/ch01.htm)

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