Mon, 30 Dec 2002

Let's move to Manchester and start again

Jackie Ashley Guardian News Service London

Hands up all those who really think George Bush is not determined to attack Iraq some time soon. Hands up all those who think that if he does so without UN authority Tony Blair will turn round and say: "Sorry Buddy, you're on your own." Not many takers, I bet. And yet the political conversation in Britain has become surreal. Tony Blair and the rest of the government speak and act as if we are going through a patient, careful, international review of Iraq's weaponry. War, they say, may still not happen, so it's pointless to discuss "what ifs".

Yet we are preparing for conflict very soon: Tens of thousands of American troops are already in the region, British and U.S. warships are sailing, special forces and marines are being inoculated against anthrax, Bush has canceled his trip to Africa. We are going to war, but Tony hasn't quite got round to telling us. By the time we wake up from our Christmas hangovers, the momentum will be unstoppable, just as in 1914, once the armies were moving, it was too late to alter the railway timetables.

You might have imagined that the country would be riven by argument and debate. After all, most people seem at best confused about the need to attack Iraq. The connection between the terrorist threat at home and the Baghdad regime seems more rhetorical than proved.

Ministers in private express their bemusement and count through unanswered questions on the fingers of both hands. But they, like the anti-war party, inside New Labor and outside it, sound fatalistic. So far, there's been a great national shrug. If this is what Tony wants, this is what Tony will get. It is almost as if the country has lost the power of speech, let alone any relish for disagreement.

Many thousands of British troops are being sent towards a huge, unpredictable event which may kill them, and which may be the start of another bloody and politically dangerous intervention in a region of the world where the west's history of intervention has hardly been happy. There could of course be a benign outcome -- Saddam Hussein might produce enough evidence to satisfy Hans Blix, he might allow the inspectors to destroy whatever chemical and biological stocks he still has, he might be overthrown in a coup -- but there are some fearsome scenarios too.

Who knows whether the Iraqis will fight, and with what, and for how long? Who knows what this will do to the other powers of the region, including Iran? Who knows whether, instead of stopping future terrorist attacks, this will provide the motivation for more?

We are being regularly spooked by terrifying-sounding briefings from the government about possible attacks on the London Underground, in shopping centers or cinemas. It was recently reported that there is a plan to move parliament to Manchester city hall if London is contaminated by a "dirty" bomb or a chemical or biological attack.

But what no official voice has explained is why attacking Iraq makes it less likely that some Muslim or Arab revenge will occur, rather than more likely.

At a less self-interested level, there must be serious worries about whether such an attack makes the Middle East safer or more secure. Who can honestly say that if Iraq is defeated, justice for the Palestinians will follow? Not Tony Blair. He has made strenuous efforts to help the peace process and seems to hope that the Americans will eventually put pressure on Israel in a bizarre act of post-conflict generosity. He always was a trusting soul.

You would have expected these questions to be asked, debated and maybe even answered. But no. For the Conservatives, Iain Duncan Smith and his team are a pale, dull echo of New Labor. The Liberal Democrats are at least asking critical questions, but so far they have been less daring than, say, the Church of England. If there were ever an issue on which Charles Kennedy, the Lib Dem leader, might suddenly find himself speaking for a large section of this country, here it is. We wait in hope.

Nowadays, it's fashionable to describe the press as the effective opposition. But with a few notable exceptions, the newspapers have lost their critical faculties too. Just consider the difference between a looming war, which could kill huge numbers of people and destabilize the world's most sensitive region, and the question of the PM's wife's beautician's boyfriend's involvement in buying a couple of flats in Bristol.

During "Cheriegate", Westminster's journalists turned into a ferocious pack, furious that they had been deceived, full of hyperbolic outrage, forcing Downing Street on to the defensive day after day. They winkled out Cherie herself, provoked a sort- of apology from her husband and hijacked the political agenda for nearly a fortnight.

But most of the papers and the leading commentators are either in favor of the war or prepared simply to ignore it and let the government have its way. Even if there is a case for war -- and there may be -- we should be asking about the endgame, the possible consequences, the likely ramifications. Yet there is nothing of the tension here that is building up in France or Germany.

Perhaps the real reason is one so shameful we hardly dare admit it to ourselves. There is no democratic furor about this war because we are no longer an independent country on these matters. In Washington, Tony Blair may have some small influence, but it is bought at the price of acquiescence on the big issues. We are a colony of our former colonies, a confused little island tugged helplessly along in the wake of the continental superpower, crossing our fingers and desperately trying to keep our dignity.

That is the sadness of British politics. Like some flyblown colonial capital, we can have our little local scandals, our flutters of excitement about the governor's wife. But we cannot really engage in matters of global substance, whatever we pretend. It is an indictment of our political system. Maybe we should all move to Manchester anyway, and start again from there.