The defeat of the left

On Iraq, Blair saw off his opponents, and deserved to do so. Nick Cohen accuses his enemies of hypoc

Has the left - by which I mean the left that opposes new Labour - begun to grasp the magnitude of its defeat? Only six weeks ago it wasn't hyperbolic to imagine that Iraq would destroy Tony Blair's government. A host of superlatives attached themselves to the anti-war movement. The revolt of 139 Labour MPs against the motion authorising war against Iraq was the greatest Commons rebellion by members of a governing party. Robin Cook's resignation speech was met by the first round of applause in the Commons.

The anti-war demonstration of 15 February had a fair claim to be the largest demonstration in British history. According to the pollsters, between half and two-thirds of the population opposed war without UN approval. The intellectual leaders of the liberal-left were united in disgust. BBC presenters battled unsuccessfully to contain their outrage. The letters pages of the Guardian and Independent became wailing walls for despairing Labour Party members. Catholic and Anglican bishops, and the best playwrights, poets and novelists, were all against the Prime Minister. There had been nothing like it before.

It was reasonable to predict that the roar of fury would humble Blair. No Prime Minister had survived unscathed when large sections of his power base turned on him. The common sense of politics dictated that his wings would be clipped and his power confined. He would be forced to bend before a renaissance of the British left - no, the world left! - based on the inspiring principle of . . . Aye, there was the rub. What principle?

The old order has restored itself with insolent ease. Blair is as secure in Downing Street as he has ever been. His approval ratings have shot back up. Sixty-three per cent of the population decided, once the war had been won, that they supported it after all. Blair hasn't been forced to placate his critics by moving to the left. His excited aides are chattering about increasing the cost of tuition fees, dismantling the NHS, disciplining the Labour back benches, sacking Clare Short and sidelining Gordon Brown - the last of which would be an act of base ingratitude, as Brown helped save Blair's bacon. In other words, demonstrations and rebellions without parallel have led to a resurgence of the right.

Then we must add the sad news that Iraq has destroyed a derisive caricature of Blair which had been sapping his authority. In the popular mind, he was becoming established as an oily flatterer who told people what they wanted to hear rather than what they needed to hear. But Rory Bremner may now have to drop the gags about how Alastair Campbell and the focus groups run Downing Street. Blair took a risk and he won. The British left threw everything it had at him and failed to get one shot on target.

The left is used to fighting and losing honourably. To be on the left is to lose, almost by definition. But this is different.

This time, the left deserved to lose. It defeated itself by abandoning its fraternal obligations to the opposition in Iraq. It failed to stick by its comrades in a moment of crisis. The interests of opposing George Bush or Tony Blair or the oil corporations were put ahead of the interests of an oppressed people. However honourable the motives of some (if not all) of the anti-war protesters were, they ran into the problem that the only way to bring down Ba'athist tyranny was foreign invasion. To oppose the war was to agree that the Iraqis should continue to live in a prison state.

I cannot begin to prove this, but I suspect a reason for what the forlorn editor of the anti-war Daily Mirror said was the fastest switch in opinion he'd seen was the switch from complex questions to a simple one. Before the war, the questions were about the nature of the international order and about the existence or otherwise of weapons of mass destruction. Once the war started, it was a matter of who you wanted to win. British soldiers who risked their lives to prevent civilian casualties? Or the Iraqi secret policemen who earned their medals by killing civilians?

Where did the left go wrong? It wasn't anti-Americanism; it was wider than that. It was part of a critique, adopted by left-wing intellectuals, which expresses absolute scepticism about everything from the west - except themselves.

"The language of priorities is the religion of socialism," said Nye Bevan. On that test, it was reasonable for socialists to ask if Taliban Afghanistan was worse than Bush's America and if Tony Blair was superior to Saddam Hussein because he didn't order chemical weapons attacks on Glaswegians. But the leftist critique forbids comparison. Opposition must be total.

It is easy enough to get that way. You hate your country and the reigning global order of which it is part. Words such as "democracy" and "freedom" sound, on the lips of its leaders, like "love" on the lips of a whore. When the time for war comes, those leaders demonise enemies who seem almost to have been picked at random from a world heaving with suffering. Dictators half the public has never heard of, and with whom the west once did business, are turned into monsters overnight by the state and the corporate media. Suddenly, they are "tyrants" or "terrorists"; suddenly, they are "evil". Then you look at Britain, at the spin and the corporate influence and the base appeal to chauvinistic instincts. How dare Blair force other countries to change their governments when his own is so debased! What arrogance! But sophisticates know that Blair does not have the independence to be truly arrogant. He is the poodle of the White House. And when you hear Bush's America claim to be the land of the free, you can't keep your breakfast down.

You can justify every step in your argument with libraries full of supporting evidence. But to focus on hypocrisy is to give tyrants carte blanche. Underlying your thought is the parochial belief that the capitalist west is at the root of all oppression - a belief that means you can't oppose all the oppressors from China to the Congo via Syria whose crimes have little to do with the west. You lose a sense of universal standards, and you forget the fraternal obligation to give the victims of oppression a fair hearing. You are caught in a looking-glass world where you match the hypocrisies of the powerful with your own equal hypocrisies in the opposite direction.

Central to the left's opposition to the war was the charge that it was inconsistent for the west to support and arm Saddam in the 1980s (though it should be said that the Soviet Union and some Arab regimes also played a role) and then to resort to violence to overthrow him many years later. Yet there is an equal and opposite inconsistency in the left's opposing what it considered a fascist regime in the 1980s and then later campaigning against an attempt to overthrow it. When Saddam was America's ally, the left campaigned for the Iraqi Kurds. When he invaded Kuwait and became America's enemy, the Kurds were dropped. And just before the start of the second Gulf war, when the Kurdish leaders said there was no other way to end the tyranny, the left slandered them as stooges of the CIA in a shocking betrayal of the principles of fraternity.

Why can't you be consistent? Because consistency might place you briefly on the same side as Bush and Blair. It would force you to talk the language of priorities. For you to support them as they overthrew Saddam, but oppose them in other spheres, was as inconceivable as a football fan supporting Manchester United for the first half of a match and Arsenal for the second. You begin to hint, as did George Galloway, that perhaps your enemies' enemies might not be so bad. Even if most Afghans don't actually like the Taliban and most Iraqis don't support Saddam, what guarantee is there that they would prefer foreign intervention from countries as maggot-eaten as your own? Surely they will fight the imperialists and create a second Vietnam? Anti-racism used to mean freeing people from oppression. But, you ask, what if imposing human rights on societies that have found their own ways of coping is in itself a type of racism? Isn't it, you wonder, elitist to assert that one form of government is "better" than another?

Pure opposition is more of a cultural than a political phenomenon. It is the force behind much radio and television journalism. Broadcasters change the subject whenever they are proved wrong. They show irresponsibility in its purest form because they are not required to defend the stands they take. Nor should they. It is actionable to suggest that the work of broadcasters is influenced by their principled beliefs. Their job is to find the hardest question imaginable - "Won't Baghdad be the second Stalingrad?"; "How can you convince us there won't be a Shia theocracy by Tuesday teatime?" - and deliver it with a sneer. In the search for the killer blow, they shift between wildly contradictory positions in a blink of an eye.

What works well at the BBC, however, is fatal for the politically committed. They cannot imitate Jeremy Paxman and assert with clairvoyant confidence that the Arab street will rise up; or that hundreds of thousands will die; or that there will be millions of refugees; or that Israel will ethnically cleanse the West Bank; or that attacks by Saddam's fascistic militia will begin a popular uprising against the Americans; or that Baghdad will be a second Stalingrad (or was it Grozny?). The politically committed are meant to be able to understand the world and show how their principles could improve it. When they make false prediction after false prediction - as right- and left-wing opponents of the war did - they appear shameless or stupid. When they are proved wrong, Blair wins and deserves to win.