NS Interview - John Reid

Iraq is a socialist war, says the Labour Party chairman but, like Churchill in 1940-45, we can't be

John Reid, party chairman and minister without portfolio, is Tony Blair's lightning conductor and instant rebutter. So how would he be on the couch with a spot of moral philosophy? What, I wanted to know, constitutes a just war? Is there, beyond Blair's proselytising about regime change, a broader moral case for war against Iraq? "It's not for me to proclaim the morality or otherwise. People must make their own judgement," Reid says. "But what cannot be suggested is that the only people who bear responsibility for the consequences are those who support military action."

All decisions, he says, have to be seen in a moral context. Blair made moral arguments only after being accused by anti-war protesters of having ulterior motives. "At that stage you have to engage in this question of morality. Not doing anything also has huge moral consequences, and the quote that obviously springs to mind is that 'in order for evil to thrive it is only necessary for good men and women to do nothing'. The accusation was made that we were taking a position on security and political grounds without consideration of the moral consequences, ie, the death of innocent civilians. These moral issues have to be addressed because they have been raised with us."

And they are raised wherever he goes. The Labour Party is hovering between uncertainty and despair, with MPs rebelling in numbers against the government, with many activists joining anti-war marches and with party rolls falling. Membership, at the last count, was down to 270,000. The next announcement will be made at September's conference; and if war goes ahead, expect that number to fall further. Reid says he has addressed between 15 and 20 party gatherings in the past few months, which were dominated by debate over Iraq. "They have not been shouting matches. They have been perfectly rational, good-natured discussions."

He says party activists are more appreciative of the Prime Minister than is portrayed in the media. "I've thought on many occasions in the past that the party is not representative of the country. On this occasion the party is." He calculates that, while 20 per cent of party and country are set against war, and while 10 per cent want it to go ahead unconditionally, the remaining 70 per cent are wavering. "I find that most party members are persuadable of the case and are actually keen to engage in it . . . There is no pain-free choice. Leaving Saddam with his weapons is a huge risk to life, including inside Iraq. Leaving Saddam with the sanctions on is a huge risk to life. We're not choosing from a number of ideal alternatives, because the only ideal alternative is the one Saddam has ruled out, certainly until now, and that is a peaceful resolution."

What neither Reid nor anyone at the heart of government wants to contemplate is a war without a second resolution. As that prospect looms closer, you can hear a note of despair in ministerial voices. "The crucial point is that everyone, even those who don't agree with Tony, believes he is acting out of good conscience. The vast majority of people recognise that . . . it's Tony above all who has tried to encourage the US to go down the UN route, who has tried to encourage the French and others not to see the US as a rival but as a partner; it is Tony and Jack Straw who have been at the centre of all the resolutions."

I can't help wondering that their lives might have been so much easier if it were Bill Clinton leading the American side. "My life would be a hell of a lot easier if I didn't have a fascist dictator called Saddam Hussein." That wasn't my question. "I'm not going to choose in any personality contest a fascist dictator against an elected politician, however much I disagree with him."

Reid cites another example of a Labour movement too precious in its choice of wartime ally - in the Falklands war 21 years ago. "The party got on the wrong side of the argument when asked to choose between a politician, democratically elected, who they didn't like - ie, Margaret Thatcher - and a fascist junta with the worst human rights record in Latin America."

Still, Reid accepts the British left's discomfort at having to deal with recent American administrations. "I'm not going to swap anti-American credentials with anybody, although I doubt many people have been [as often] on the different side of the fence to the United States - from Vietnam, through the Sandinistas, through Castro - as I have. But that isn't the question. The question is: Are they right on this occasion? If I decide, if anyone decides, this is the right position for the United Kingdom to take, it does not become wrong just because the United States agrees with us."

Reid is, like so many new Labour ministers, keen to disavow his flirtation with communism. ("I used to believe in Santa Claus, too," is his standard riposte). So does he similarly disown his past anti-American activism? "No, of course not. The Americans were wrong in Vietnam; the Americans and the Sandinistas were wrong in Nicaragua." Harold Wilson was right to withhold support from Lyndon Johnson, "but for God's sake do not compare the Vietnamese with Saddam Hussein's regime. This is another calumny of the left. Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath Party is a fascist organisation; it is not a national liberation movement supported by the people of Iraq. I find it bizarre that at Labour Party meetings, some people adduce the logic that somehow it's like Vietnam."

Still, five wars in five years: that's some record for Blair. Why has this government proved so ready to go to battle? "Because we want to be a force for good in the world," he replies. "It's part of being a citizen of the world. Just as it's important to deal with antisocial behaviour in your local community, so in the global community it is necessary to deal with that, and the most appropriate way of dealing with it is through the United Nations - a world authority based on legitimacy. We take a view of the world which is not isolationist, which has always been internationalist - which recognises that we not only have rights to defend in the world, but we also have responsibilities to discharge; we are in a sense our brother's keeper globally. Sometimes it requires us to say, 'Yes, we will make the ultimate sacrifice . . .'"

But it's a big world and we are a small country in north-west Europe? "Yes, and there are any number of things we haven't been able to solve, and many of which we haven't been able to tackle." He gives the Middle East peace process as prime example of that. "The role a country can play is not just a direct consequence of population or wealth. It also has to do with things a country does well; it has something to do with the character of a country and its government. On the whole, people think we're more democratic than most places. Secondly, they do think our soldiers are better than most and therefore, I suppose, they are in continual demand."

Reid is a Catholic, albeit by his own admission a pragmatic one. Blair is a Catholic manque who strained every sinew to convince the Pope of his moral purpose. So is this global military mission for good rooted in Christianity?

"No, it's a thing called socialism - it's the belief that we live in communities where individual citizens have not only got rights but responsibilities. Of course we can't do everything, but because we can't solve every problem doesn't mean we shouldn't try to solve those that we can. The philosophical basis for democratic socialism is that no man or woman is an island unto themselves. The thing that separates us from the Conservatives is that they believe that relationships should be largely formed through the cash nexus. Classic liberals believe in the absolute rights of the individual. We are socialists because we believe in society and mutual interdependence."

Iraq - all in a socialist cause? According to Reid, the crisis has fused the three pillars that make up new Labour's ethical foreign policy (the latest version of it) - support for the UN, opposition to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and third, "it's long been a tenet of social democracy, of democratic socialism, to view with contempt fascism in all its forms".

Might this be a closet philosophical underpinning for Messrs Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld? "I wouldn't have thought so. Where the Bush administration started from is classic Republican isolationism. What brought it home to Bush was not I believe oil, or his relationship with his father - all these things that are said - what brought home to them the need to engage with the world was September 11." Be that as it may, Washington's neoconservatives make strange bedfellows. "How do you think we defeated fascism in the Second World War? Do you think Churchill said, 'No, we won't particularly take the help of the Russians. We don't particularly like their administration'?" I wouldn't have dreamt of making such a comparison myself.