At last there is joy on the streets of Baghdad and, although it is impossible to know what proportion of the Iraqi population unreservedly welcome the invaders, nobody should for a moment regret the demise of Saddam Hussein. But nor should we forget the enormity of what has happened: an unprovoked invasion of a sovereign foreign country, in which thousands of its inhabitants died. No doubt, there will be the usual postwar arguments about the statistics, but we should note that if the death rate among international journalists and among the invaders' own troops is any guide, the toll among Iraqi civilians must be high indeed. To shift the blame to Saddam Hussein - he placed rocket launchers in civilian areas, he made every vehicle a target by calling for suicide attacks, his soldiers used human shields, and so on - is neither here nor there. It was part of the British and US case that Saddam was a ruthless savage; it was their decision to provoke him. Nor should we accept the implication that military deaths somehow don't count, that a man becomes wicked and dispensable as soon as he puts on an Iraqi uniform. Again, it was the invaders themselves who proposed that resistance came more from fear of Saddam than from loyalty to him. Many of the dead soldiers must have been reluctant conscripts (see Lindsey Hilsum, page 14); they too had hopes and dreams, wives, sisters, parents and children.
As for the justifications for war, these look as thin as ever. Weapons of mass destruction? No reliable finds had been reported as we went to press. Perhaps they were well hidden and there may yet be "discoveries", but the regime's failure to use any such weapons suggests that it was hardly the threat to the world portrayed by the invaders. Links with al-Qaeda? If Saddam was indeed an ally of Bin Laden, the latter did little to help his buddy, beyond a couple of tape recordings.
The desire of the Iraqi people for liberation? Understandably, many are overjoyed to see the back of Saddam; whether the celebrations will survive prolonged anarchy or US tanks careering around the country remains to be seen. We are left with a few speculations about what Saddam might have done with biological, chemical and nuclear weapons if he had ever acquired them; and with hypothetical estimates of numbers who would have died if he had remained in power against numbers killed in the war - this calculation being complicated because much of the "peace" death toll would have been the result of continuing sanctions.
Perhaps the Iraqi people will now go on to a peaceful, prosperous, independent and democratic future, to be admired throughout the Arab world; perhaps, far from creating more Bin Ladens, the outcome will convince Arab youth that western capitalism really does offer salvation. And Donald Rumsfeld may follow Mother Teresa and devote the rest of his life to the poor of Calcutta. In the meantime, Britain and America are guilty, in the eyes of almost the entire world, of brutal aggression - in Spain, where the government was one of the firmest supporters of invasion, an astonishing 92 per cent still opposed the war in a poll a few days ago. The view of the Labour MP Tam Dalyell and of our columnist John Pilger (see page 16) that those responsible should be treated as war criminals may be derided by mainstream British opinion. But President Bush and Tony Blair should understand that Mr Dalyell and Mr Pilger speak for much of the world; outside Britain and the US, the majority public reaction is one of shock and horror. If the instigators of invasion dare to celebrate their "victory", they should do so with the greatest humility and restraint.
No excuses left
The timing of the Budget was fortunate for the Conservatives and the right-wing press; having felt it necessary to support Tony Blair's war, they were thankful for the opportunity to get their teeth into Gordon Brown and his wobbly revenue forecasts. Yet the uncomfortable truth for his opponents is that the Chancellor can afford to get his sums wrong. Britain is now creditworthy; a few billion more or less (over 25 per cent more in 2004-2005, on the Chancellor's revised projections) may be borrowed without damage to inflation and interest rates or to the currency. The classic Keynesian remedy of boosting public spending when the economy slows may be applied without inhibition. This is a situation so unfamiliar in recent British history - and quite unprecedented under a Labour government - that Mr Brown's critics find themselves fighting the wrong war. Indeed, to some extent, Mr Brown, in his anxiety to keep spending off the Treasury books through various private finance wheezes, does so himself.
The issues should now become straightforward ones of priorities. Do we wish as a society to devote more resources to private consumption or to public services? How much do we want to redistribute from rich to poor? How should we trade off living standards against environmental protection? In the government's early years, such issues were obscured by questions of "confidence": the confidence of the financial markets and the confidence of the electorate. Neither is now in question. That cuts both ways: new Labour can take the plaudits, but it should also understand that it has no excuses left. Its policies will now be judged on their merits as policies, not on their contribution to prudence. The Budget contained positive signs, notably the advent of the child trust fund. But most Labour supporters would have wished for more. The risk for Mr Brown and Mr Blair now is that they will be accused not of profligate socialism but of closet Toryism.