Should Regime Change Start at Home?
An Interview with Dr Alastair Reid
Dr Alastair Reid of Cambridge University is a historian
of the British labour movement and edits the History and Policy website
(http://www.historyandpolicy.org). A Labour Party member until February
2003, he left the party in protest at government's policy over Iraq.
This interview took place on 17th March, several weeks after the rebellion
of 121 Labour MPs over Iraq and hours before the final vote in the House
of Commons over war against Iraq. 139 Labour MPs were to vote against
the government that evening and several Ministers threatened to resign.
Gazette: Tony Blair has faced an unprecedented back-bench rebellion,
the resignation threats of several junior Ministers and now of
two senior Ministers, Clare Short (International Development Secretary
[who didnt resign after all]) and Robin Cook (Leader of the House
of Commons -[who did]), if he goes to war without a second UN resolution.
What does this mean for the future of his government might regime
change start at home? Why do you think he is so determined to risk everything
on a war?
Dr Reid: It strikes me that currently the government still seems
to be very strong. I think there are two reasons for this. One is the
unusually large parliamentary majority. This has meant that backbench
revolts, even on the scale of over 100 people, don't threaten the government.
Thus it has become used to shrugging off any revolt, and say it is just
the usual suspects even though it obviously isn't. The other
thing that is interesting, is how many MPs are actually involved in
the government. I think it is over a hundred, when you take into account
all the junior Ministers and Political Private Secretaries. So it seems
to me, even if Clare Short or Robin Cook resigns, the Cabinet will remain
very strong. The really interesting question lies with the backbench
MPs whom nobody knows about. There is not going to be a high-profile
split, but probably an erosion of support among less well-known backbenchers.
Assuming the government and Blair do, despite widespread rebellion,
survive the war and remain in power what consequences do you
think this will have for Labour? Cabinet Minister Peter Hain said today
his price for support would be a radical re-thinking of New Labour,
and a move to the left, with greater emphasis on the redistribution
of wealth. What will (New) Labour look like after Iraq?
I think one of the big questions is what comes next, from the Americans.
If we are witnessing what both you and I would consider the first step
towards the implementation of a kind of American imperialism, then what
is going to happen next is the use of Iraq as a base to attack Iran,
and the continuing imposition of United States' foreign policy in a
unilateral way. The quite openly expressed goal of the Neo-Conservatives
is after all US world domination for the 21st century. Now if the Labour
Party keeps going along with this, even if the campaign in Iraq is quite
quick, the bigger question is, how far will the British people and the
Labour Party be prepared to carry on siding with America and not with
Europe. Underneath all the nonsense talked about disarming Saddam and
the UN and so on, it may be that Tony Blair has decided that America
is going to dominate the 21st century, and that being on their side
would be better for Britain and for him. The choice would have been
between siding with the US or with Europe, and, whatever really went
on in his mind, he came out on the side of the US. I think that was
a disaster, and it immediately poses questions about Europe and Britain's
role in it why have we not joined the Euro, the repercussions
of all this in the past few weeks for Britain having a role in Europe,
and how people in Britain and Labour feel about all that.
Doesn't that amount to a radical re-thinking of the New Labour Project
for that was very much tied up with Europe and placing Britain
in Europe and the Euro.
Yes, it does mean quite a big shift, and maybe this is an example
of Blair and his friends being swept along in a direction they had not
originally planned. I assume, original thinking was that Europe would
come on this venture too, that it would be done through the UN with
France, Russia and Germany on side. Now it is clear that they are not,
and this opens up very interesting questions about what the whole strategy
of New Labour will be, so far as it ever had a strategy. I am not very
reassured, actually, to hear people like Peter Hain saying it has to
be a shift to the left. Yes, there are economic and social inequalities,
but the real and underlying problem in Britain today, seems to me to
be the fantastic centralisation of power. The constitution rests almost
totally upon whoever has a majority in the House of Commons, and that
is part of the background to why Tony Blair has been able to behave
the way he has. Simply taking that kind of parliamentary majority and
interfering in society in a different way, in a more so-called leftwing'
way, is not any better an outcome as far as I'm concerned. I would like
to see less power in the hands of professional politicians, and more
power in the hands of people who actually do the things that keep a
society going the teachers and firemen and hospital nurses
just interfering with them in a different way is not the solution. What
originally attracted me to the New Labour Project was partly the European
side of it, what seemed like a decision to definitely take the party
and the trade unions in a more European direction. The other thing which
I felt was a big attraction about it was the commitment to the decentralisation
of power. Things like devolution for Scotland and Wales, the Bank of
England having more independence of the government, talk about serious
reform of the constitution in terms of the House of Lords. I'm not so
bothered about electoral reform, I would like to have seen more of an
emphasis on the revival of local democracy. So all those things were
what made New Labour more attractive to me than Old Labour. If the war
means siding with America against Europe, and turning back to more leftwing
redistributive politics, the whole thing is a complete disaster. (laughs)
Would that not be little more than an attempt to buy support from
the Labour left, as the price for acquiescence in a fundamentally more
imperialist foreign policy?
I guess what we'll find out in the next days is how many backbenchers
won't go with the government. The more backbenchers vote against them
or even split away from the Labour party, the more Blair loses control
of his strategy, as he will start to rely on the Conservatives. But
he'll also be relying on whatever factions decide to stay in the Labour
party. Maybe some will be more old left. We are in that sense entering
almost arbitrary waters, where the government may not be able to have
the luxury of a strategy, as it will be constantly giving in to whichever
powerful interest groups it needs to keep on board to maintain a parliamentary
If the government came to rely on the Tories forming in effect
a sort of National Unity government where would that leave the
Labour Party? The Conservatives have always been the enemy to Labour
backbenchers, much more than the Liberals. How would they react
being also most under grass-root pressure?
I think a lot depends on how many Labour MPs are still with the
government if it comes to a vote, and how many remain there. The two
historical analogies I keep tossing around in my mind are to do with
the First World War which was more the Liberal government going
into the War and then splitting and 1931, which was when social
welfare spending became very divisive within Labour.
The first case is more similar to what we have now a Liberal
government had to run the war effort, but after having had a quite successful
period of domestic social reform and being quite popular on that basis.
It set out running a National Government with the Conservatives, which
it seemed able to dominate, and so many Liberals were prepared to go
along with it. Towards the end of the war it started to unravel, because
the war went on and on, because popular opinion began to shift, and
more and more interference in people's lives became necessary to run
the war. The Liberals got pulled to the right. This could happen again,
and then people would not be happy, but the government may be able to
The other analogy I had last week. What I thought was going to happen
but not any more was what happened in 1931. Basically,
Ramsay Macdonald was left with a rump of a few of his pals in the cabinet
running a National Government, which was in essence a Conservative government
with a Labour Prime Minister. I don't think that will happen. But it
would of course be the most pessimistic outcome for Blair. In 1931,
Macdonald at least had public opinion behind him, whilst the government
today doesn't seem to. If the opinion polls of the last weeks mean something,
war without a second resolution has only 20 percent public support.
So at the moment it is unlikely that Tony Blair will face an insurmountable
rebellion in the Commons but what about the constituencies? The
gap between grass root activists and local Labour Parties on the one
hand, and the parliamentary Labour Party and Cabinet on the other, seems
much greater than the gap between parliamentary party and Cabinet.
I think that is the case. So many people in the local party, at
least here in Cambridge, were hoping to somehow control Blair and control
the Americans through the United Nations and now they find themselves
members of a party going into an illegal war without UN backing. Last
week, the BBC came to Cambridge and interviewed local party members,
and to me they looked shell-shocked they really didn't know anymore
what was going to happen and what they should think and do. A good friend
of mine, who is very active in the local party, took a very firm line
on a second resolution, that it would be okay if there was one. But even
then he was telling me in private that he was uneasy about it
what he'll do now that there isn't a second resolution is anyone's guess.
It is very hard to calculate what will happen, but I would have thought
that the stronger the government is in Parliament, the more alienated
local members will become. There is the material, in the localities,
for a lot of criticism of Blair's decision and government. The reason
people would stay in the party is because they had some sense they could
perhaps change policy, get rid of Blair. Many talked about that. But
if he remains in charge and the parliamentary party doesn't look likely
to change then maybe the only thing those local members could
do is leave.
Where do you think they could go?
That's why they're not going: there is nowhere to go another
reason why parliamentary party and Cabinet may continue holding together.
Most people I know who stayed in the party have done so for probably
that reason: there's no obvious place to go to.
You don't think an intra-party challenge and replacement of Blair
is very likely?
I don't know. Historically here haven't really been any such challenges
to Labour leaders. The party does have an ethos of loyalty, and the
present party constitution makes a challenge very difficult. Considering
how Labour has tended to function, I think that as long as he wants
to remain leader, there won't be a challenge.
There is no obvious other party to jump to, but there is an unprecedented
amount of popular politicisation and organisation against the war in
Britain today might that develop into something one could jump
to, over the next weeks or months?
There has been an upheaval in public opinion and also in Labour
party politics. That is why the situation is a bit unpredictable. On
the surface, Blair looks as if he is going to hold most of the Cabinet
together but underneath that people have been very deeply affected
by the developments over the past months. One of the things that really
matters is what the war is like. If, as the war mongers say, it'll be
a quick, clean war, then it will alright. But that is unlikely. There
have not been many wars, historically, that followed the war mongers'
predictions. I think there is the raw material for a major political
realignment. It depends how badly wrong it goes.
The opposition party that seems not to be profiting at all from
the developments are the Liberal Democrats. They aren't in the pro-war
camp but they're also not very clearly with the anti-war groups,
despite their leader coming to the demonstration in London on 14th February.
What do you think the war will hold for them?
My joke about the Lib-Dems is that only people who don't want political
power would still be in Lib-Dems after all these years. That would explain
why they are not doing anything at the moment, which might get it them.
If there was a political realignment they might be drawn into it, but
I can't see them playing a leading role.
The people I would look to instead, are those who are not currently
in Parliament. Someone who is very interesting at the moment is the
Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone. His congestion charge has been a great
success and he made a great speech on February 14th. At the next general
election, he may want to get himself elected. And there will be others.
There is a whole bunch of retired trade union leaders who kept
the unions going through a very difficult last 20 years who aren't
in Parliament, but might be interested in political careers. If I were
to fantasise about a political realignment, it would be large sections
of Labour and such people who are not currently in Parliament, forming
a new party.
What are the implications of the current situation for British politics
and democracy? A very large section of the population clearly feels
itself not heard or represented by the government, as 14th February
That goes to the heart of the underground shift taking place. Many
ordinary people have shown that they're not uninterested in politics.
They're interested enough to come out on the biggest demonstration in
British political history, and to be very active locally. Having made
the effort to make their voices heard, those people will be very annoyed
and resentful that they weren't listened to, and that the government
is persisting to go to war even without a second resolution. How that will
work itself out politically is hard to say. I have a sense people in
England, maybe less in Wales and Scotland, are likely to slip back into
apathy unless something horrific happens but are also
likely to respond if a new political force emerges.
Is there any awareness or discussion of such a possibility?
No one is saying anything in public, so I don't know. (laughs) The
other serious thing to think about is that there are all these backbenchers
whom we know little about. They came into office with the last Election,
and are said to be more rebellious than those of 1997. Then there are
many ex-Ministers about. These people have also suffered at the hands
of the government, through the way it treats Parliament almost with
contempt. All this makes the situation potentially very fluid.
Let's go back to what you were saying earlier about Europe. How
could Europe respond to a Britain that is aligning herself ever closer
I really don't know the answer. I think Europe is faced with the
same problem we find in Britain: What is the alternative? Who else could
they talk to? The leaders of the Conservatives and Liberals? I think
not. They're stuck with Blair, but what initiatives they might take
to bring him back on board, I don't know.
9. April 2003
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