18 March 2003

We want to remember a date that must go down as an extremely disappointing one for a UK democracy worth its name. It was just two years before the May 2005 election when Labour got back into power with the lowest level of electoral support ever recorded. Were the two events connected?

Blair

We know your wife’s Dad was an actor but, honestly mate!

18 March 2003 was the day Tony Blair, prime minister of the UK, used his position of leadership to manipulate the House of Commons into his preference for an invasion of Iraq. He delivered a long, heavy and urgent demand for support from the amassed rows of MPs sitting in this country’s elected chamber.

A widespread view has been forming ever since that, for the UK and USA political leaderships, this was a conflict of choice spun as one of necessity.

Would-be orators looking in would have received the mother of lessons in the use of body language to win over an audience. Mr Blair never stopped bristling, gesticulating and quivering with passion and conviction. Nobody had seen him display any such animation on domestic issues (at least, not for the six or seven years since his days in opposition when hungry for power).

With the help of a predictably gung-ho approach from the Tories he won the day. The House surrendered, knowing in its heart it had sided against the apparent will of the country’s people – who had been turning out in millions to demonstrate against the idea. MPs probably went to bed that night with an uncomfortable feeling they had voted against their own instincts too. Most of us, the people, had massive doubts. Few had ever been more than half persuaded that an invasion of Iraq would be right.

And it soon become obvious indeed that Tony’s soliloquy, inadvertently or not, had all been high fictional drama. His keynote warning, as everybody recalls, was that Saddam was equipped with WMDs battle ready at 45 minutes notice. As the UN weapons inspectors discovered not long after, WMDs existed only in fantasy and in the inaccurate, misleading or misinterpreted reports of US and British Intelligence. Shouldn’t a man of considerable intellect like Tony Blair have been more sceptical anyway?

Apart from the credibility, moral and humanitarian issues raised, the fact that Blair’s government committed vast resources for aggression on such skimpy evidence was just wrong.

Well, we know the classic ulterior motives for the invasion. None of them had much to do with democratic principles. They were deeply embedded economic and political imperatives operating in a sphere of influence outside and beyond the reach of ordinary UK voters. That’s why our views were ignored, marginalised and made to seem ill-thought, naïve or faltering. We were led to believe the real hard thinking – the globally important considerations – were being made by the responsible ones. Those parental figures, visible and invisible, operating ever more opaquely, it seemed, in the corridors of power in Washington and Westminster.

And two years later on 5 May 2005 what happened? Tony Blair and his government were returned to power (a year after, incidentally, George W Bush was also re-elected in Washington). It is difficult to know where to begin trying to make sense of that. Was it because:

  • the electorate just forgot and forgave
  • the political scene had moved on and people felt they had different, more important issues to vote on
  • our first-past-the-post electoral system somehow blocked, distorted or misrepresented the real will of the voters (remember, Labour got back in on 5 May 2005 with only 21% of those entitled to vote)
  • Our 5.5.5 Syndrome was at work – some ‘quirkiness’ in the psychology of the British people prevented them from delivering Mr Blair and his capitulating colleagues the appropriate, straightforward message: You ignored us; you were proved wrong; we were proved right; you wasted billions of taxpayer money; you devalued our reputation for fairness and judgement internationally. You’re not getting my vote.
  • Or was it just that enough people hadn’t been troubled by the rightness or wrongness of the invasion very much and were more for it than they’d been willing to talk about publicly? Militarism has historically been a characteristic of the British nation and many people probably continue to think it is no bad thing.

5.5.5 & Counting’s view is that any or all of these factors could have explained the re-election. But ‘Extreme Decisions’ like the invasion would be much less likely under a proportional representation system of government (PR). Therefore, PR would normally be better able to reflect the expressed will of the electorate than the two-party system that is now sustained by FPTP. And when the two biggest parties have become a like-minded political class on so many issues, the present system makes it impossible to get differently motivated politicians into our parliament in enough numbers to change things.

Tony Blair might have to continue to wrestle with his conscience over Iraq from time to time. Ironically, one thing he’s never been expected to feel bad about is how he took outright power on 5 May 2005 without batting an eyelid, having secured only 21% of the electorate’s support. The sort of politician 5.5.5 & Counting aspires to see getting more sway in Westminster is one who would be honest enough to admit to him or herself that was just fundamentally unacceptable in a supposedly enlightened western democracy. Indeed, the first thing they would feel morally compelled to do on coming into office would be to start things moving to rectify that ugly, gaping democratic deficit.

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