Ever since George W. Bush began stepping up his rhetoric against Saddam Hussein's regime, threatening unilateral action, Tony Blair has been just behind his shoulder. The two seem politically inseparable lately, despite representing opposite ends of the spectrum - at least in theory. The more we see Tony in action, the less we can believe that he is a Socialist. Of course, very few people believe that Saddam Hussein is an innocent victim and a defenceless target of aggressive American foreign policy. Nevertheless, few people believe that the US has good reason to act unilaterally. There are evidently ulterior motives - read oil - for not acting through the mechanisms of the UN, just as there were economic motives behind the last Gulf war. But the first President Bush at least acted with the support of the international community. Bush junior evidently does not act with the same emphasis on diplomacy as his father.
Blair justifies his seemingly blind adoration of George W by claiming that he is the only one close enough to him to advise him on the long-term consequences of American foreign policy. The line from Downing Street is that Tony, as his close friend and strongest ally, is in the strongest position to try to make Bush see the folly of his proposed action. At home Blair has stressed that he would not support a unilateral attack on Iraq. Somehow though these promises and insinuations ring a little hollow. It is hard to imagine Bush's hawks being subdued because of a few words of advice from good old Tony.
Real dissension is being expressed in Great Britain about the government's unconditional support of the US, and it is coming from all quarters. Blair seems to be in the perverse position where his most reliable allies are on the opposite side of the House of Commons, the Conservatives. The most vocal political opposition is coming from his own party. Last week Parliament was recalled from recess to discuss a dossier containing evidence of the immediate danger posed by Iraq that the Prime Minister had released in order to garner support for his position. The ensuing debate was hardly a eulogy to his actions. A group of Labour MPs also forced a vote on the subject, something that Tony Blair was very keen to avoid, through a technical motion to close the day's business. This same technique was used to topple Chamberlain's government in the Second World War and, thus, its use is highly significant. In the event 53 of Labour's MPs voted against their own government. In the British Labour party of 2002 where party discipline is strict, this is evidence of serious discord. Disagreement also arose within Blair's Cabinet when Clare Short MP spoke out against the Prime Minister. Again, in a political system where the golden rule for the Cabinet is collective responsibility (if one person says it we all do) this is symptomatic of a serious rift.
In terms of public opposition, nothing expressed the views of the people better than the mass demonstration in London on September 28th, under the slogan 'Don't attack Iraq'. The demonstration, organised by the National Stop the War Coalition and the Muslim Association of Britain, involved nearly 400,000 marchers . More than 300 coaches came from all over the country, travelling to London with their cargoes of peace-marchers. They represented not only the political class, not only Londoners, but also people of all backgrounds and from all regions. Tony Blair has received a letter jointly signed by over 100 actors, writers and artists expressing their discontent. The Stop the War Coalition website has 21 parliamentarians among its named supporters, 15 of which are from the Labour party itself. A poll taken by the Daily Mirror (a Labour tabloid newspaper) of its readers came up with the figure of 91.7% opposed to war with Iraq. The latest poll taken by Channel 4 (one of Britain's five terrestrial channels with very high viewing figures) measured opposition to war at 60%.
Of course, not everyone who marched on Saturday or who responded to these polls is against the war for the same reasons. Not all the marchers were political liberals protesting against a presidential style government that was ignoring the will of its people. There are many vocal voices protesting because of religious and cultural affiliation not with Hussein himself but with his people. A people who will suffer the consequences of military action, as they have in the past. They are protesting out of fear of what may happen to the entire Middle East if Bush marches into Iraq, the long-term effects this action will have on relations between Israel and Palestine when the American troops pack up and go home, having achieved their goal of regime change.
Nevertheless, all those who marched and who took part in the polls are members of the supposedly democratic society of Great Britain and all share the fear that their right to have a say in whether or not their country goes to war is being ignored by their Prime Minister.
No one is arguing that everyone is the UK is against military action in Iraq but neither can anyone pretend that the people have a blind faith in the behaviour of Tony Blair.
What is more worrying is that many are calling Blair 'heroic', a brave and strong leader for standing firm in his beliefs before the opposition of so many others. That a democratically elected leader should discuss, consider and compromise his views with at the very least his own Cabinet, not to mention the Parliament or the general public, is a concept that Blair and sections of the British media seem to have ignored. It is hard to imagine, in this climate, a British candidate actually listening to the concerns of his electorate during an election and reacting accordingly, as happened in the recent German elections. The political elite in Britain seem to be suggesting that the mark of a good leader is to ignore the voices of caution around him and stride headlong into the abyss simply on the basis of his own, individual self-belief.
Perhaps one of the few positive results of the Blair leadership's controlling stance is the rise in the number of MPs speaking out against the hypocrisy of our and America's policies. This used to be an arena reserved strictly for 'left-wing extremists'. There are, at least, a few voices pointing out that Britain and the US blocked UN condemnations of Hussein in his last chemical attack and recalling their own condemnations of other State's pre-emptive, unilateral attacks.
The real tragedy of this situation will not be British democracy or the validity of international law, but the treatment of the thousands of Iraqi civilians who are already suffering not only from living under Hussein's regime but from the years or British and American military bombardment, from diseases caused by previous chemical attacks and the UN embargoes that banned the import of medicines. The agony and suffering that these people will face is what should be at the forefront of our minds.
Nevertheless, the actions of 'President' Blair have certainly caused a substantial number of his electorate to sit up and face the fact that, under the present government, true democracy, of the type we expect in the West, and indeed attempt to export to other parts of the world, is under a greater threat than previously imagined.