Outrageous and insulting

Perhaps we should not be surprised that, as Clare Short puts it (page 19), the Prime Minister "misled his country" over Iraq. We know the cliches: that truth is the first casualty of war and that people will believe lies if they are repeated enough. We know now the extent of the deception practised by governments on their peoples over both Suez and Vietnam. We also know (or should know; the secret services are making a good fist of convincing us that the "intelligence community" is a kind of priesthood with rigorous ethical standards) that intelligence contains as much supposition, embroidery and outright falsehood as it does truth. The temptation for intelligence operatives to tell their masters what they want to hear, and to spice up a story, is as great for them as it is for journalists. But unlike journalism, intelligence is by its nature almost wholly unverifiable. Since the full information put to ministers is rarely made public - and since ministers themselves may not know its source - the idea of "accountable" intelligence services is largely nonsensical.

Nevertheless, the fraud apparently perpetrated on people and parliament in the run-up to war with Iraq takes the breath away. The issue is not whether the BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan was right to allege that Downing Street "sexed up" information provided by the intelligence services. The claim that Saddam could launch deadly missiles across the Middle East within 45 minutes was almost certainly false. The decision to publish such a poorly corroborated statement was taken by ministers, and they must be held responsible. But the 45 minutes is a minor issue of detail (which is why ministers focus on it). The larger question is over the attempt to convince the public generally that Saddam's weapons of mass destruction were a serious and imminent threat. The 87 most likely sites in Iraq have been thoroughly investigated. No trace of the weapons has been found - just, among other things, a swimming pool and a collection of vacuum cleaners. This is not a question, as the Labour Party chairman, John Reid, claims, of believing "rogue elements" in the security services against "the word of the Prime Minister". Unfortunately, "the word of the Prime Minister" does not accord with any of the evidence publicly available.

No doubt, as Ms Short suggests, "he thought his reasons honourable". But if Mr Blair believed that justice and humanity were sufficient reasons to overthrow Saddam Hussein, he should have said so, and offered no other reasons for war. As it happens, that argument is not as strong as it sounds, even now. The mass graves found in Iraq date mostly from the early 1980s, when the western powers supported Saddam, and from the early 1990s, when those same powers called for an uprising, then stood aside while it was crushed. But the argument for belated justice could have been made as it was in General Pinochet's case; and all the more so as Saddam had slaughtered significant numbers again in the late 1990s and continued to run a regime of torture and repression. It is, to be sure, illegal to wage war on such grounds. Defiance of the law in the interests of higher principle, however, has an honourable history. Mr Blair would not have converted most of his opponents, and might even have lost supporters, but many would have admired and respected him. The merits of overthrowing evil tyrants, when possible, are worth debating. Mr Blair did not have the courage to enter that debate.

Instead, he chose to rest his case largely on Saddam's supposed weapons of mass destruction, and asked us to trust his judgement as to the threat they posed. It is outrageous and insulting for him to shrug his shoulders and to ask us simply to rejoice at Saddam's overthrow or to argue, contrary to what most members of the US administration and senior military now seem to accept, that the weapons will still turn up. Equally, the insouciant attitude of many Labour MPs is a disgrace, as is the feebleness of the Tory leadership's challenge. We are not talking here about a football match in which somebody took a dubious dive in the penalty area. The decision to wage war is the most serious that an elected leader can make. It risks the lives and safety of troops; it endangers global stability; it makes huge demands on taxpayers' money; and it implicates your citizens in murder. Downing Street clearly hopes that the boredom factor will set in - that, like a Bristol flat or a Melbourne shopping trip, an Iraq war will be treated as though it were just another Blair family peccadillo from which the press quickly moves on. But this is a far more important matter than any other in recent British history and, given the lamentable failure of Westminster to bring Mr Blair to account, we must hope that newspapers can do so.

Our chequebook is ready

On page 36, Amanda Platell defends chequebook journalism in the wake of the revelation that a tabloid paid £10,000 to a car-park attendant for information about an alleged plot to abduct Victoria Beckham. The New Statesman supports her, as it supports all its columnists, but has not hitherto made much use of chequebooks. However, it will pay for the following information at the prices shown:

The location of Charles Clarke's missing £500m for schools - £10. A lucid explanation of any of Gordon Brown's tax credit schemes - £2.35 each (maximum of ten). Peter Mandelson's personal housing plans - £12.50. The make of wallpaper with which Baroness Amos (Clare Short's successor) plans to decorate her office - £7.42 plus free portrait of Lord Irvine. What the PM said when he heard Ms Short had resigned - £15. Convincing details of a plot to abduct Alastair Campbell - £250 plus free lifetime subscription.

This article first appeared in the 09 June 2003 issue of the New Statesman, How to stop America

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The strange death of boozy Britain: why are young people drinking less?

Ditching alcohol for work.

Whenever horrific tales of the drunken escapades of the youth are reported, one photo reliably gets wheeled out: "bench girl", a young woman lying passed out on a public bench above bottles of booze in Bristol. The image is in urgent need of updating: it is now a decade old. Britain has spent that time moving away from booze.

Individual alcohol consumption in Britain has declined sharply. In 2013, the average person over 15 consumed 9.4 litres of alcohol, 19 per cent less than 2004. As with drugs, the decline in use among the young is particularly notable: the proportion of young adults who are teetotal increased by 40 per cent between 2005 and 2013. But decreased drinking is not only apparent among the young fogeys: 80 per cent of adults are making some effort to drink less, according to a new study by consumer trends agency Future Foundation. No wonder that half of all nightclubs have closed in the last decade. Pubs are also closing down: there are 13 per cent fewer pubs in the UK than in 2002. 

People are too busy vying to get ahead at work to indulge in drinking. A combination of the recession, globalisation and technology has combined to make the work of work more competitive than ever: bad news for alcohol companies. “The cost-benefit analysis for people of going out and getting hammered starts to go out of favour,” says Will Seymour of Future Foundation.

Vincent Dignan is the founder of Magnific, a company that helps tech start-ups. He identifies ditching regular boozing as a turning point in his career. “I noticed a trend of other entrepreneurs drinking three, four or five times a week at different events, while their companies went nowhere,” he says. “I realised I couldn't be just another British guy getting pissed and being mildly hungover while trying to scale a website to a million visitors a month. I feel I have a very slight edge on everyone else. While they're sleeping in, I'm working.” Dignan now only drinks occasionally; he went three months without having a drop of alcohol earlier in the year.

But the decline in booze consumption isn’t only about people becoming more work-driven. There have never been more alternate ways to be entertained than resorting to the bottle. The rise of digital TV, BBC iPlayer and Netflix means most people means that most people have almost limitless about what to watch.

Some social lives have also partly migrated online. In many ways this is an unfortunate development, but one upshot has been to reduce alcohol intake. “You don’t need to drink to hang out online,” says Dr James Nicholls, the author of The Politics of Alcohol who now works for Alcohol Concern. 

The sheer cost of boozing also puts people off. Although minimum pricing on booze has not been introduced, a series of taxes have made alcohol more expensive, while a ban on below-cost selling was introduced last year. Across the 28 countries of the EU, only Ireland has higher alcohol and tobacco prices than the UK today; in 1998 prices in the UK were only the fourth most expensive in the EU.

Immigration has also contributed to weaning Britain off booze. The decrease in alcohol consumption “is linked partly to demographic trends: the fall is largest in areas with greater ethnic diversity,” Nicholls says. A third of adults in London, where 37 per cent of the population is foreign born, do not drink alcohol at all, easily the highest of any region in Britain.

The alcohol industry is nothing if not resilient. “By lobbying for lower duty rates, ramping up their marketing and developing new products the big producers are doing their best to make sure the last ten years turn out to be a blip rather than a long term change in culture,” Nicholls says.

But whatever alcohol companies do to fight back against the declining popularity of booze, deep changes in British culture have made booze less attractive. Forget the horrific tales of drunken escapades from Magaluf to the Bullingdon Club. The real story is of the strange death of boozy Britain. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.