The language of priorities

Tony Blair

Aneurin Bevan famously declared at a Labour party conference that “The language of priorities is the religion of socialism”. This will not be a blog post about socialism – I am going to write about Tony Blair instead – but about priorities. There has been an interesting new report about Tony Blair’s attitudes to Iraq and Europe.

An article by Mark Seddon in the Independent on Sunday reports on discussions within the Labour party in the run-up to the Iraq war in 2003. (Read the article here.) The Labour party’s National Executive Committee, of which Mark Seddon was a member, three times debated the prospect of war and some NEC members attempted to challenge Tony Blair’s policy on the subject.

The minutes of those NEC meetings reveal some fascinating nuggets of the Blair government’s thinking. At a meeting on 25 March 2003, Tony Blair asserted that “structural questions about the United Nations and the European Union are secondary to those around future relations with the United States.” Standing by America in Iraq mattered more.

This blog would, of course, disagree. It is not possible for Britain to think meaningfully about its relations with third countries without taking the European Union into account. Many of our interests around the world are shared with our closest neighbours, and we will achieve much more if we work with them. One of the major reasons why the American adventure in Iraq went wrong is that the Europeans stood by, divided, and offered no alternative policy. Britain tried to rally support for the Americans, France tried to rally opposition: both failed. A meaningful and coherent European policy could have made a substantial difference. It is in the American interest that there should be a united European policy on offer, not only in the European interest.

Tony Blair continued, at the NEC meeting, to say that “Partnership is infinitely preferable to the French desire for a rival pole of power, which could revive the dynamics of the Cold War.” Raising the spectre of a Cold War between Europe and America is just ridiculous, but there are rival poles of power in the world now, whether Tony Blair likes it or not. That is a major reason for treating the United Nations, too, as a central locus of foreign policy making in the future.

Relations with America are an atypical example, because of the strong and friendly ties that the Europeans already have. How do we manage our future relationship with China, for example, if we put a bilateral relationship with America above all else? The future world will be multipolar, with many countries vying for influence, and we have to build constructive relationships with all of them and not just one.

As a further illustration of the need to participate in the global system on a multilateral basis rather than as an appendage of the United States, think about the recent execution of Akmal Shaikh, a British citizen in China. The British government has been criticised in some quarters – by Dominic Lawson in the Times here, for example – for not standing up for British interests, and talking instead about how China had “failed in its basic human rights responsibilities”. The fact is that China need take no notice of British interests, for the Chinese are much stronger than the British. (Has Dominic Lawson not noticed?) However, by pointing out the extent to which China is placing itself outside the norms of the global system, the implicit pressure on China to conform will become stronger.

Of course, that global system is still in the process of being created and there are strong interests that oppose it. The position of those who oppose the development of rules and laws to govern the behaviour of states has been strengthened by what was effectively an Anglo-American boycott of the United Nations in order to get their war in Iraq. The consequences of those decisions will be with us for a long time to come. Why should China listen to our advocacy of international rules if we ourselves flout them whenever we choose?

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Tony Blair’s priorities, though, were to be nothing if not flexible. Six months after that fateful NEC meeting, in September 2003, he was reported as saying the opposite. Peter Hain, then leader of the House of Commons, revealed that Tony Blair had told him that the outcome of the convention on the European constitution was “absolutely fundamental – more important than Iraq”. If only he had expressed such an attitude six or twelve months earlier.
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The Labour NEC minutes also report the then foreign secretary Jack Straw as explaining France’s opposition to the Anglo-American second resolution authorising war in Iraq on the grounds that “France simply can’t cope with the fact that America is also intellectually and scientifically dominant”.

The one dimensional nature of such a statement puts me in mind of the memorandum circulated on Margaret Thatcher’s behalf for a seminar on 24 March 1990 to discuss the consequences of German re-unification. (Read about it here.) This included observations on the German character such as: “insensitivity to the feelings of others (most noticeably in their behaviour over the Polish border), their obsession with themselves, a strong inclination to self-pity and a longing to be liked.”

The Germans displayed “Angst, aggressiveness, bullying, egotism, inferiority complex, sentimentality …a capacity for excess, to overdo things …a tendency to overestimate their own strengths and capabilities”.

“There was a strong school of thought among those present that today’s Germans were very different from their predecessors … But what about 10, 15 or 20 years from now? Could some of the unhappy characteristics of the past re-emerge with just as destructive consequences?”

Surely British foreign policy can, in future, be more sophisticated than this?

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