Perhaps it was coincidence. More likely, knowing Alastair Campbell, it was guile. The front-page photographs of Tony Blair in effect declaring war on Afghanistan was a presidential occasion if ever I saw one. Blair made his stirring speech from the Downing Street garden (our very own White House “rose garden”), against a backdrop of the Northern Ireland Office, whose domed shape looked uncannily like the White House.
The subliminal message from the press and TV pictures was: “Here is a man who is leading the free world.” There’s something about international affairs that brings out the tough, decisive man in Blair, even if it’s only because he can operate as himself – freed, for once, from the baleful glare of Gordon Brown.
If Blair has gained a few centi-metres over the past few weeks, and I believe he has, the shape of British political life has changed, too. Everything looks different after the scything aircraft and the toppling towers, and we are only just beginning to see the new patterns emerging from the mayhem.
For the Tories, everything was changing anyway. But one small piece of collateral damage from the current crisis has been the new leadership of Iain Duncan Smith. Not only was his election as leader completely obscured, but his first party conference promises to be a wash-out – and, what’s more, even if he was being listened to, he has absolutely nothing to say. Yet again, Blair has denied the Tories any ground at all to attack him from the right. Duncan Smith’s great, and perhaps only, political card was his knowledge of the Republican administration in Washington and his unflinching support for the United States. He was, remember, over in Washington being greeted by the new President Bush long before Tony Blair; he enthused early and aggressively about “son of Star Wars”.
Well, that card has been trumped. It is impossible to be more pro-American than Blair has been in recent days. The Tories are stuck and can do little but mutter quietly: “Hear, hear.” Any hope of a brand-new leader making a splash has sunk.
The other side of this is that Blair has yet again distanced himself from the instincts of many of the activists who keep the Labour machine moving. This paper, along with others such as the Guardian and the Independent, has been attacked for being “anti-American” and “peacenik”. But the stream of cautionary comment reflects the visceral feelings of large numbers of Labour and leftish people, in particular women, who have been forced to one side by a babble of male columnists, editors, MPs and “defence specialists” braying about the latest technical specification of certain missiles and the talents of “special forces”. It is ossible that this conflict will do what Kosovo did not quite do – that is, split the new Labour leadership from the bulk of the party in a very dangerous way. No one can yet tell if this will happen, because we don’t yet know what the US-led attack on Afghanistan will mean in practice. But the danger signs are clear, both from the Parliamentary Labour Party and from cabinet semi-dissenters such as Clare Short.
There is, incidentally, another group of people who support the “peacenik” tendency, but not from any ideological or moral position. Call them the selfish tendency, if you like: you hear them at the supermarket checkout or on radio phone-ins. They know little and care less about the suffering of the Iraqi children or the Palestinians, but by heck are they worried that Blair, by becoming George Bush’s new best friend, has greatly increased the chances of an attack on London. Why, they ask, does Blair have to shout quite so loud? Why can’t we just mumble along with the rest of Europe? If Britain is targeted, Blair could find his popularity ratings plummeting.
Down in the sadly inappropriate setting of Bournemouth, the Liberal Democrats have, in their own gentle way, taken a big decision in pitching early for the peace vote. Their leader, Charles Kennedy, has aligned them with the “hey, just a minute” tendency in a way that Paddy Ashdown never would. In the short term, this might be unpopular, certainly so long as the need to strike Bin Laden is widely agreed. But if things go wrong for the US and its allies, and if the humanitarian crisis continues to grow ever more agonising, then many voters might go to the Lib Dems to express their anger at what is happening.
That, in turn, means that the difference between the Lib Dems on the left of British politics, and the Tories on the right, is even sharper than before. Internal disputes that the Lib Dems were having about whether to occupy the empty ground to the left of Blair, or whether to try to squeeze into the centre in order to attract disaffected Tories, have been thrown into even sharper focus by international events. For now, it’s clear that the terrain on the left looks more fertile. Duncan Smith has already set up an anti-Lib Dem unit at Central Office, and Kennedy has made it abundantly clear that he dreams of toppling the Tories as the main opposition to new Labour. In seats and share of the vote, that is still a big task.
But this is where the next street fight in British politics will happen; and the two parties’ opposite responses to the “war against terrorism” mark a new dividing line. Labour, crossing its fingers, hopes to benefit as the new party of patriotic, Daily Mail-reading Middle England. Gape, shake your head – but it’s true.
You would be right in suspecting new tensions at the top of Labour. Already, the crisis has elevated the careers of two of the party’s hard men, Jack Straw and David Blunkett. As Foreign Secretary and Home Secretary, they are suddenly right up there with Blair, defending the tough, civil-liberty-eroding policies that will infuriate many Labour activists. They are now ultra-new Labour as, for instance, Gordon Brown and Robin Cook (between whom no love is lost) are not. Perhaps we are seeing battle-lines for the ultimate succession being laid down here.
That seems to be the immediate fallout in party politics. But there is a lot more to this than the traditional dividing lines. The most dangerous thought of all is the prospect of a collapse of multicultural Britain itself. Blair has repeatedly made it clear that his quarrel is not with Islam, but there are enough lunatic hotheads about to cause terrible problems.
If there are indeed terrorist attacks in Britain, and they are applauded by the enthusiasts in some extremist mosques, then look out for exactly the kind of atmosphere the BNP has been dreaming about. A march on Bradford? A convenient white “martyr”? Calls for a British “oath of allegiance” to go with the new ID card? All decent politicians have a lot of urgent work to do to ensure this doesn’t happen. It seems to me to matter more than where the new dividing lines between Labour, Tory and Liberal Democrat happen to fall.
A lot of the time, people ask, only half-jokingly, what the difference is between this government and a Tory one. One of the answers must be that, while acting with the US and others to destroy the extremist terrorist networks, a Labour government doesn’t simply swallow every populist and illiberal nostrum the tabloid press offers it. We have, in other words, to be decent as well as strong, to be liberal without appeasing. A hard task – but the left has been here before. Is this not exactly what that greatest NS writer of all, George Orwell, spent the war years defending?