Archive for September, 2010

Australia gets a Government

“It’s going to be beautiful in its ugliness.” – Rob Oakeshott

After an at times exhausting and agonising delay, Australia has a new Government. Julia Gillard has become the first woman to win an Australian Federal Election. But the slow unveiling of his victory led to a final day of high drama that at times almost descended into farce. Never mind “horserace journalism”, this was part Melbourne Cup part Survivor and part penalty shoot-out.

The fate of government lay in the hands of three bush independents for 17 days and they played their hands today with great care. When the three met this morning they would have discussed their final position – for a while only they knew who was going to be the next Government. Katter was up first to speak to the public. “I’m backing the Coalition,” he said early on. But knowing he had chosen the losing side, the rest of his conference was about praising the returning Government:
“I like Julia personally”
“Kevin’s thinking and my thinking are obviously very similar,”
“Mr Katter said he did feel a responsibility to provide stable government, hinting he could offer support to Ms Gillard if she formed government.”
“He paid tribute to Ms Gillard and said he could work with her if she was returned to government.”
He concluded by saying Abbott had only beaten Gillard on eight of his 20 points.

Windsor was next up. After rambling for several minutes, he said he swung on climate change and the fear Tony Abbott would rush to the polls the moment the Coalition was in a winning position. Labor’s more ambitious broadband plan was the clincher. His decision put Labor one ahead with one to go.

The last word belonged to Rob Oakeshott. He out-Windsored Windsor and picked his way through politically neutral language for 17 excruciating minutes to milk what was becoming a long moment. There finally came a point where he could no longer avoid saying what was becoming increasingly obvious: Broadband was the killer for him too. The last of the people’s representatives had spoken, and Julia Gillard was confirmed as the leader of the government.

The choice of broadband as the deal-breaker is instructive. In a grim campaign of attrition, the $43 billion NBN was one of the few imaginative offerings from each side. Tony Abbott ran a great campaign to get the Liberals so close to Government after being unelectable barely six months ago. Abbott launched his run based on personal virility while presenting a small face to the enemy. The weather vane, the people skills and the mad monk were all hidden away and he ran a relentless campaign of negativity.

The brawling boxer in him bruised his way through the entire 15 rounds and he only suffered a narrow defeat from the judges. Yet there remains a sense of inevitability around him that suggests he will never become Prime Minister. Former Liberal insider Andrew Elder certainly thinks Abbott never believed himself good enough though Elder also unashamedly says his site is for “Abbott Sceptics”.

Labour powerbrokers weren’t so sceptical. They were so spooked Abbott would win they robbed themselves of one of the key advantage of incumbency barely weeks before the election: leadership stability. Though Rudd’s poll numbers were sliding rapidly from the heady days of 2008, his departure was a major shock. Common wisdom was that Rudd would step aside sometime between the second and third term of office to allow his obviously talented deputy a chance shine at the top.

But the combination of Rudd’s pre-poll nerves with Abbott disciplined attacks imperilled the second term to the point where common wisdom was ignored. Rudd fell on his own sword rather than test the numbers. He was influenced by those who can quickly take the temperature of the party (unfairly maligned as “faceless men”).
Julia Gillard was appointed Prime Minister with blood on her hands. A poor campaign and damaging leaks saw Labor’s lead evaporate by polling day.

But in the one poll that counted it did not dip below 50:50. The electorate did not quite want her removed from office. With the sorry saga of her installation over, Gillard quickly changed. While Abbott assumed the pose of command, Gillard simply commanded.

The contrast can’t have escaped the attention of Oakeshott, Windsor and Katter who had easy access to both leaders. The hung parliament is serendipitous to them and they are well within their right to use their new bargaining power with all their might. The sword is double-edged. Oakeshott and Windsor went again the natural conservatism of their rural electorates to support her – a decision that could cost them both at the next election. Katter was cuter, avoiding the wrath of his own voters while slyly signalling he would abstain on supply making the real vote 76-73. A margin of 3 may come in useful in the event Andrew Wilkie goes rogue.

Abbott meanwhile is left high and dry. He relies on favourable by-elections (Kevin Rudd perhaps?) to get him another early tilt at the crown. This Government is going to chew every piece of legislation carefully so that there is no other excuse for an early engagement. The Greens get the balance of power in the Senate next July and their new Coalition binds them to fealty. They too have no desire for an early election. They know Labor will not squander the benefit of incumbency a second time round. There is no other Prime Minister in waiting on their side, unlike in the Liberals. If this Government rules for two or three years with regular 52:48 polls like they got for the last two or three, they will be returned again in 2012 or 2013. They will have proven a small majority is workable.

September 8, 2010 at 12:46 am Leave a comment

Cameroon struggles to cope with cholera outbreak

A raft of international aid agencies is rushing urgent supplies to Cameroon as the country deals with its worst outbreak of cholera in six years. The outbreak started in May in the country’s Far North region and subsequently spread to the neighbouring North region causing over 2,199 confirmed cases of cholera resulting in 163 deaths. UNICEF and other agencies are rapidly distributing supplies for medical workers and water treatment kits for families, along with medication. The waterborne infection is highly contagious yet is easily preventable with clean water and sanitation.

Over five million people live in the Far North and North regions of Cameroon and the regions share borders with Nigeria, Chad and the Central African Republic. Parts of the Far North region have suffered extensive flooding over the past month, leaving many communities increasingly vulnerable to disease. UNICEF said it was concerned that any further spread of the outbreak could have serious consequences for women and children across the sub-region. Al Jazeera has reported outbreaks in Chad and Nigeria with 400 deaths in these two countries in the past few months.

The latest outbreak was triggered by unusually heavy rains which caused severe flooding and landslides. The landslides submerged houses and made traditional pit toilets unusable. Safe drinking water is rare in the Far North region due to drought and the poor are turning to untreated water from hand-dug wells, increasing the region’s vulnerability to cholera and other water-linked diseases. Authorities have begun disinfecting wells and other water points and are urging communities to practice proper hygiene. “We are urging people to be careful with the food and water they consume, and with how they handle the remains of people who died of cholera,” one official said.

All 13 regional hospitals in the Far North are full with little or no room to treat any more cases. Cameroon minister of public health Andre Mama Fouda said the risk of cholera spreading further south was very high with Cameroon still in the middle of its rainy season. “We are calling on the population to adopt strict personal hygiene and follow food and water consumption guidelines,” he said. “They should avoid drinking unchlorinated water and eating at makeshift street markets where food is not well preserved.”

Superstition is hampering relief efforts. Some communities have stopped attributing the increasing number of deaths to cholera. A volunteer leading said the hardest thing was stopping people from being sceptical. “For example, they believe that if you’re not a sorcerer, cholera can’t get you, and so it only affects sorcerers,” he said. Another volunteer said local religious leaders told everyone to stay away from the fields because of the risk of getting cholera. The volunteers’ message to people is simple: stop defecating in the open, use latrines, wash hands with soap and boil all water before use.

According to the World Health Organisation, cholera is an acute diarrhoeal disease that can kill within hours if left untreated. The infection is caused by ingestion of food or water contaminated with the bacterium vibrio cholerae. The short incubation period of between two hours to five days can make an outbreak explosive in its impact. There are up to five million cases every year with 120,000 fatalities. Control measures rely on prevention, preparedness and response.

80 percent of cases can be successfully treated with oral rehydration salts. But oral rehydration treatments remain scarce in the world’s poorest countries. Some have blamed Big Pharma for making drug treatments too expensive but writing in The Wall Street Journal Alec Van Gelder of the International Policy Network does not agree. He puts the blame on lack of investment in domestic health care infrastructure. He said that in July’s AU summit, leaders were confronted with WHO figures showing that only six member countries have met their 2001 pledge to invest 15 percent of their national output on health care. “The real global public health problem is that for every aid dollar African governments receive for health care they divert up to $1.14 of their own resources to other areas,” Van Gelder said.

September 6, 2010 at 10:35 pm Leave a comment

Dev: Eamon de Valera and Ireland in the 20th Century

Last week was the 35th anniversary of the death of the most prominent Irishman of the last one hundred years, Bono and James Joyce notwithstanding. His name was Eamon de Valera, the American born son of an Irish peasant woman and a Spanish artist. He is little remembered now and mostly reviled in the revisionism surrounding Michael Collins, yet de Valera’s story is nothing less than the story of Ireland for most of the 20th century.
(pic of de Valera with Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies taken in London in 1941. Menzies Papers, MS4936. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia.) 

“Dev” dominated Irish politics for 60 years on both sides of the border, was a thorn in the British side for most of that time and also had a massive impact on American affairs over a crucial period between 1918 and 1945. Ireland was such a pain to successive White House administrations, the country was eventually punished for WW2 neutrality by being left out of the Marshall Plan that revitalised allies and enemies alike.

By the late 1950s de Valera’s economy naivete had landed the Irish economy in deep trouble. By then he was an almost totally blind caricature of the remote and exotic president of the Irish Republic he helped create and then shape in his deeply religious image. Yet he clung onto power until 1959 when aged 76 he was forcibly retired upstairs to “the Park”. There as a supposed ceremonial president, he continued wielding enormous influence for two terms and 14 years. He died in 1975 aged 92.

For one day short of 65 years he was married to Sinead de Valera who predeceased him by just three months. Sinead was a long suffering wife who brought up a large family by herself but who yet held enormous power over her husband in their near-lifetime together. They met through their mutual love of the Irish language and Gaelic was mostly their lingua franca. But it is De Valera’s surviving letters in English to his wife from overseas we see a passion he kept mostly hidden in his public life.

Eamon de Valera’s owed his astonishing longevity of power to a combination of luck, charm, utter ruthlessness and bastardry Ireland has not seen before or since. He owed a large part of his fortune to his birthplace. His Brooklyn mother Cate Coll sent her boy home to Ireland after the Spanish artist Vivion de Valero lived up to his lothario reputation and moved on. Cate’s son grew up in Bruree, County Limerick steeped in west of Ireland culture fused with a British-style education. De Valera was Irish to his bootstraps and changed his birthname George to the Irish Eamon but used his American birthplace to great effect on many occasions.

Naturally gifted in mathematics and strikingly tall, he won a scholarship to one of Ireland’s premier schools, Blackrock College. His leadership qualities stood out and he was a natural captain of the rugby team. There he also forged lifelong alliances with important Catholic prelates who would later rule the country with their croziers as he would with his political cunning.

An avid student of Machiavelli and a deeply Catholic man, he grappled with the rapidly changing political conditions in Ireland at the turn of the 19th century. Victoria was dead and although the Irish still respected the monarchy there was a desire for change. As the Irish home rule movement grew in the south, a Loyalist force in the north grew in opposition. The Loyalists had the support of the top brass of the British Army and the Conservative Party and grew in belligerence and strength as the first decade of the 20th century ended. “Ulster will fight and Ulster will be right,” was their battlecry.

Their cries reached fever-pitch after Westminster finally declared home rule for Ireland in 1912. With the north arming against this outcome with impunity, those wanting Home Rule in the South reacted in kind and set up their own militia groups to defend the likelihood of a Dublin Parliament. De Valera joined the newly constituted Irish Volunteers in 1913 as the Irish arguments threatened civil war in England with much talk of treason. The First World War broke out a year later temporarily putting all arguments on hold. Those on both sides of the Irish question signed up in large numbers to fight for the British Empire in the bloody fields of Flanders and Gallipoli.

Service was voluntary and many like de Valera could not bring themselves to put on a British Army uniform. With the Volunteers falling more under the influence of the Irish Republican Brotherhood secret society, a split began among those that stayed behind and de Valera joined the side that were pushing towards aggression. De Valera rose quickly through the ranks and though suspicious of the IRB, he approved the plans to stage an uprising in Easter 1916. De Valera was not one of the seven signatories to the Proclamation of Independence which stated “Ireland through us summons her children to her flag and strikes for her freedom.” Yet he was one of the key military leaders and was one of the last to surrender a week later when the Easter Rising inevitably failed.

Because he was among the later captives, he was held in a different jail to where the other rebel leaders were being summarily executed. By the time of his court martial, the revulsion at the 15 executions over 9 days had swung British public opinion against the policy. The Irish Independent newspaper was still baying for blood and De Valera was sure he was next. However his humble “school-master” occupation saved him and he was sent off to jail first in Dublin and then four more in Britain. On arrival in Dartmoor he was greeted by other Irish as their leader, the “Chief” by virtue of being the most senior rebel to survive the death squad.

His one rival was Michael Collins who emerged as the new supremo of organisation and determined not to repeat the open warfare tactics of 1916. De Valera struck for political status and within a year the British Government released all the Irish prisoners. They went home and organised politically as “Sinn Fein” (Ourselves). With the war going badly and Britain considering conscription in Ireland, Sinn Fein quickly established itself and won most Irish seats in the 1918 Westminster election. De Valera was elected as the member for Clare.

The British became convinced Sinn Fein were in league with Germany and launched a swoop against its leaders in May 1918. Collins used his spy network to get advance warning but most of the other leaders including De Valera ignored his warning and were arrested. De Valera was sent to Lincoln Prison while back home Collins began asymmetric war against Britain. His target was the vast network of paid informers which bedevilled Irish rebellions for centuries.

Collins biggest coup was getting de Valera sprung from Lincoln Prison. He spirited De Valera back to Ireland where the pair rowed about tactics. De Valera realised his primary value was as a propaganda weapon and he was smuggled to the US as the “First Minister” he would spend 18 months on an awareness and fundraising campaign.

De Valera was treated as a hero by Irish Americans and somewhere along the line his title was inflated to President of Ireland. But he blundered with his own entry into US politics. He supported the isolationists against President Wilson because Wilson would not recognise Ireland as a participant in the Versailles Peace Conference. He split the Irish-American organisation by failing to realise his allies were Americans first and then Irish a long way behind in second. Yet he raised large amounts of money and lots of equally valuable publicity as the war of attrition raged in Ireland.

Collins was directing that war for the Irish Republican Army against British power with no holds barred on either side. By the time de Valera got back to Ireland both sides were wearying of the bloody stalemate with the Black and Tans offering a particularly savage form of reprisal attacks the Nazis would copy 20 years later. The Protestants in the north used the chaos of the south to form their own administration. Partition of Ireland was first mooted in 1912 by Liberal Unionist T.G.R. Agar-Robartes but its time had now come. The new parliament in Belfast was given the blessing of George V in 1921.

In his speech the King appealed for “forbearance and conciliation” in the South. De Valera was invited to London where he met the Prime Minister Lloyd George. They discussed a possible peace treaty which was only possible because de Valera gave defacto approval of partition. But he knew his countrymen would have difficulty accepting this as an end position. He deliberatelystayed at home for the actual treaty discussions which Collins led with full plenipotentiary powers.

Collins knew just as well as de Valera what was the best compromise he could get. Sure enough in December 1921 he signed a Treaty with Lloyd George that confirmed the existence of Northern Ireland and a new parliament in Dublin with wide powers but one which would have to take an oath of allegiance to the crown. Collins called it the “freedom to achieve freedom”. But he also knew the price he would have to pay. At the signing ceremony senior British Minister Lord Birkenhead told Collins he (Birkenhead) may have signed his political death warrant. “I may have signed my actual one,” Collins replied prophetically.

With Collins and his network exposed, any return to war against Britain would have been doomed to failure. Yet De Valera pretended to be livid with Collins for signing the Treaty to create the Irish Free State. Arguments raged hot over the Oath while the more substantive matter of partition was ignored. The IRA favoured rejection of the treaty while the Church, the newspapers and most of the population wanted peace. De Valera refused to see it as a stepping stone and lent his considerable weight to those against it.

When the Treaty was narrowly carried in the Dail, de Valera was key to deciding the fate of Ireland. He resigned as President and offered himself as the leader of the “true Republic”. Hardliners took their cue from “the Chief” and within months Dublin was ablaze again this time in civil war. The war was a hopeless mismatch with Republican idealists no match for British artillery in the hands of Collins’ new army. Collins himself was assassinated in County Cork by a sniper’s bullet while De Valera hid near by.

De Valera never admitted he was wrong but when he indicated the struggle was unwinnable it quickly ended. He was imprisoned a third time, this time by the Irish. Another year in jail made him realise he could not win by the revolutionary path. He renounced the IRA and Sinn Fein and set up Fianna Fail “the soldiers of destiny”.

After six years of fighting the Oath, he took it in 1927 and entered parliament with his new party. The De Valera name had mystique and it did not take long for Fianna Fail to establish as a force. Never forgetting the lesson of the Irish Independent, de Valera went to the States again on another large fundraising mission. On his return he created a new newspaper empire: the Irish Press.

With the power of his name and his new propaganda machine, he was able to form government in 1932. His bitter enemies from the civil war peacefully handed over power though rising fascist movements like the Blue Shirts were less accommodating. De Valera ruthlessly dealt with them and later destroyed the IRA when it too looked like causing him problems. He used Collins’ stepping stone approach he hated so much in 1921 to gradually remove the Crown from Southern Irish affairs.

Now at the peak of his powers, De Valera was Prime Minister (Taoiseach) and Foreign Minister, ably representing the “Irish Free State” at League of Nation conferences. De Valera used the constitutional crisis in England over the abdication of Edward VIII in 1936 to give Ireland a new constitution of his own a year later. It deeply stamped Ireland as a Catholic nation and formally claimed the North as part of Ireland. But like China over Taiwan, this was a fight Dev never wanted to win, he just wanted to keep it going.

In the 1930s he also declared an Economic War with Britain refusing to pay land annuities due to buy out absentee landlords. It lasted six years crippling the Irish economy but causing discomfort in London too. In 1938 he agreed with Chamberlain (whom he greatly admired) to end the war and resume payments. In return Ireland got back three ports it had given the British Navy in the Treaty. The far-sighted conservative Churchill (who sparred with Collins in 1921) condemned the deal as he knew the consequences. It meant De Valera could more easily keep Ireland out of the war that was brewing with Nazi Germany.

When war did arrive, it wasn’t just the British that were exasperated, US President Roosevelt was equally unhappy. He sent Eleanor Roosevelt’s uncle David Gray as the American Minister in Ireland for the duration of the war. Gray made no bones about openly supporting Britain. De Valera hated him and wanted him replaced. Roosevelt would have none of it.

Particularly in the early days of the war, the lack of availability of the Western Approaches was a bad blow to the British Navy. With the Germans controlling waters in France and Norway, British naval convoys were forced to take a narrow and dangerous channel north of Ireland. Throughout it all de Valera never called it a war. It was an “Emergency” and his young state was on life support. He knew Ireland would have no chance against Nazi bombardment and watched as Belfast across the border suffered some of the worst of the Blitz. De Valera sent the Dublin fire brigade to help put out the fires but never complained to Germany about them bombing “Irish soil”.

Despite the efforts of Churchill and the meddling Gray, de Valera refused to bend and as the war progressed, Ireland became less strategically important. But the US did not forget Ireland’s lack of friendship and left the country to muddle economically through the post-war years. De Valera was an economic illiterate and utterly unmaterialistic to the point he promoted hardship as necessary to wellbeing.

By the 1960s he was yesterday’s man despite his enormous status. Managerial types like Sean Lemass and T.K. Whitaker would take Ireland in a new direction that would eventually take fruit in the rise of the Celtic Tiger in 1990s. It was the success of the south that eventually steered the north in the path of peace. Today conditions in the Republic of Ireland are not too dissimilar to what de Valera faced as Taoiseach, rising unemployment, a stagnant economy and mass immigration. But expectations have changed drastically.

The Civil War generation are now long dead. The Irish Press is gone and the Catholic Constitution is almost completely discredited. Even Fianna Fail are in decline though they remain in power 85 years after Dev founded them. Partition of Ireland is entrenched with no prospect of change. Yet even if littered with pettiness, failure and missed opportunities, Eamon de Valera’s legacy is immense. Almost single-handedly he developed a positive sense of being Irish to the world that millions both in Ireland and in the diaspora now take for granted. For that and his sheer long-term impact he must still be considered an unrivalled giant of Irish politics.

September 6, 2010 at 12:59 am 1 comment

Australian election 2010: A fortnight is a long time in politics

One of the ladies in the office was at the photocopier near my desk today. “Have they announced the winner yet?” she asked with a slight sense of weariness. She was referring to Australia’s 2010 Federal Election which is now two weeks old and still without a verdict. “Not yet,” I replied. “But I think Labor will hold on with the help of Windsor and Oakeshott.” Thinking back tonight on what I said, I stand by it but I may be underestimating the importance of Bob Katter.

Katter along with Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott are the three candidates yet to declare their hand. With the official fall of Brisbane to the LNP this week, Labor and the Coalition finished equal on 72 seats. Nationals’ Tony Crook (who took advantage of new boundaries to cause a surprise defeat to Wilson Tuckey) may not take the whip for all matters but would not support a vote of confidence in Julia Gillard. Labor this week signed agreements with the Greens and Andrew Wilkie to make it 74-73 in their favour.

That means Abbott will need the support of all three bush independents to form a government while Labor needs just two of them. The three are all former Nationals in strong conservative seats but they hate their former party with varying degrees of loathing.

The trio are living up to the independent tag and taking their time about deciding. They are well aware of their sudden new power and are determined to use it wisely to their own and their constituents’ best interest. With fellow cross-benchers deciding their position this week and constituents like the lady in my office becoming tired of indecision, the bush trio have promised to make their stance known by early next week.

Nothing has occurred in the past two weeks to sway me from the position I took on the day after the election when it became apparent the trio were powerbrokers. “There will be a major focus on regional and rural issues by whatever party forms the next government,” I wrote. “Given what the Independents are saying today, there is no reason why Labor cannot be that Government.”

What I find most odd is why the Coalition has done so little wooing, and have instead mostly antagonised them. I am not sure if this is hubris that they assumed they would vote for them anyway or if they see winning this deadlocked election as a poisonous chalice best avoided. If it is the latter they may be taking a huge risk. An early election is possible given the instability of a Gillard-Greens-Independents Government once a Speaker and by-elections are thrown into the mix. But there is no guarantee the Coalition would do better next time round, and the oxygen of power remains with Labor.

That the Coalition budget costings were exposed as a dud should come as no surprise to the smoke and mirrors way the news of their initial delivery was handled. Their errors and subsequent paranoia over Treasury estimates has left them looking immature and unfit for Government, a fact not lost on the Independents.

Oakeshott and Windsor would be well aware Labor’s $43b NBN plan is not without its costing problems either. But what neither would deny is the tangible benefit their regional electorates would get if high-speed broadband was the norm around the country. They want the improvements in telehealth and long distance education as well as the tearing down of isolation barriers.

The pair have publicly expressed enough sentiment for me to believe they will not oppose Julia Gillard’s attempt to form the next Government. At 76-73 it would not matter in theory which way Katter’s card then falls. However, the three have shown signs of acting as a group so he remains an extremely significant player. It is possible he could sway them back towards an Abbott Government. But it is also possible the “gun-toting climate sceptic and agrarian socialist” could abstain or even vote against a Gillard no confidence motion.

At 77-73 Labor would have a small but workable majority. They will be actively looking at Katter’s 20 point plan and deciding which 14 or 15 they can realistically support. Labor won’t budge on a carbon tax or mining tax nor should they, but there are other good ideas in Katter’s plan a clever negotiator like Gillard will want to embrace. It won’t be easy to satisfy the iconoclast from Far North Queensland but not impossible either.

In sporting terms, the election was a draw and there will be a replay. However there is no guarantee that will happen soon. The competitive nature of an election hides the fact that what we are choosing people to govern in our names. The verdict on those currently doing the job was they were not good enough to rule in their own right yet we were not ready to turf them out either. Tony Abbott has done nothing since the election to convince he deserves the chance to rule and his party don’t appear to have any vision other than they are not Labor. The independents should, and probably will, support a minority Gillard Government. It will be then in their own interests to make sure it is successful.

September 4, 2010 at 12:58 am Leave a comment

A Journey into Tony Blair’s Brutopia

In his new autobiography Tony Blair tells the story of a passenger jet that breached closed British airspace in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. A senior RAF commander was following the plane which was out of contact and heading towards London. The commander was awaiting instruction from Downing St to shoot it down. As recounted in “A Journey” (published yesterday) Blair said he talked with his advisors for several minutes “trying desperately to get an instinct as to whether this was threat or mishap”. When the deadline came, Blair decided to wait. “Moments later the plane regained contact. It had been a technical error,” Blair wrote. “I needed to sit down and thank God for that one.”

In this story, Blair’s desperation for a sign of “instinct” is almost as telling a factor about his make-up as is his gratitude to “God” for the way it eventually passed without incident. Blair is ultimate proof of John Gray’s suggestion in Black Mass modern politics is merely a chapter in the history of religion. While Blair initially recoiled with desperate horror against the possibility of making a preemptive strike against someone who may or may not be a threat, such decisions grew a lot easier for him in the years that followed. 9/11 was a watershed moment for Blair, as much as it was for the Bush administration as it marked a time when Gray said foreign policy was shaped by Utopian thinking.

Blair always had a strong dash of neo-liberalism to go with his strong powers of faith. He came to the Labour leadership in 1994 when the party had been out of office for 15 years. He inherited Margaret Thatcher’s total belief in the power of the markets. John Gray said Thatcher’s aim of destroying socialism in Britain assisted Blair in his political rise. By dismantling the Labour settlement that had served Britain since the end of World War II, she removed the chief reason for the existence of the Conservative Party. Without an enemy, it lacked identity. Blair’s “New Labour” easily stepped into its shoes and deprived them of relevance for a decade.

As the 1997 British election proved, strategy and organisation were more important than policy. Once he won that election, Blair carried on Thatcher’s privatisation agenda moving it into the justice system and prison service while also making the NHS and schools subject to market forces. In his early international dealings he advocated a “doctrine of international community” which reflected the “end of history” thesis that infected much 1990s intellectual thought. It was destroyed with the towers on 11 September 2001 and exposed Blair’s more naked belief in the power of good intentions to triumph regardless of flaw in the execution.

Like Bush, Blair saw his destiny as the unfolding of providential design. The neocons in the White House made it abundantly clear to him on a Camp David visit in April 2002 the Afghan War would be a sideshow and Iraq was the real target. The Foreign Office knew the case for war was a thin one; Saddam was little threat and had no weapons to speak of. Yet by the time of the 23 July Downing Street Memo, he accepted the advice of MI6 war was inevitable and “intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy”.

He cautioned Bush to seek UN support but in January 2003 Bush told him plainly the US was invading with or without a resolution. Bush offered Blair the opportunity to pull out given the strong anti-war rhetoric in the UK but Blair pledged his support. Blair actively covered up any intelligence that contradicted the official line Iraq was a major threat that had to be stopped. The March 2002 Iraq Options paper produced by the Cabinet Office and the February 2003 Defence Intelligence Staff document both said there was no justification for invasion. All they succeeded in doing was to get Blair to shift the case to arguments about WMD where as Grey said “intelligence could be more easily manipulated”.

Blair wasn’t interested in the facts. Armed with his dogged Utopian belief in the ineluctable nature of progress, he screened out inconvenient data. Blair was only interested in faith-based intelligence that supported his moral imperative. As the disasters unfolded in the aftermath of invasion such as Abu Ghraib and extraordinary rendition, Blair kept silent. Again Gray: “deception is justified if it advances human progress…Blair’s untruths are not true lies. They are prophetic glimpses of the future course of history and they carry the hazards of all such revelations.”

Blair’s militant faith in human progress brought him eventually to the political abyss. His was a true enlightenment view of unending human progress. In his ten years as Prime Minister his overriding concern was the shaping of public opinion to support his beliefs and his lies became an integral feature of government function. Despite winning three elections, he was remembered only as a lackey of the Bush administration. Both practiced missionary politics and saw their goal as the salvation of humankind.

The difference was Bush could do faith better than Blair in a country with a lot more millenarian tendencies than the UK. An American Lt Col in Fallujah could get away with saying the war was “battle against Satan”; a British General in Basrah could not. But in the end both Britain and the US have now left the country. Iraq turned out not to be a Utopian project after all.

September 2, 2010 at 11:08 pm Leave a comment


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