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.

Die 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 didn‘t 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 majority.

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 contain it.
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 showed.
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 with America?
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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