The Magazine

Tony Blair vs. the Labour Party

He's pro-American; they're not.

Oct 14, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 05 • By IRWIN M. STELZER
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Blackpool, England

"THE BASIC VALUES of America are our values too . . . and they are good values." To Americans, that statement by Prime Minister Tony Blair, in his speech to last week's annual Labour party conference, sounds uncontroversial, even banal. But to many of the rank-and-file members of his party, any praise of America, especially in the context of a statement of support for our position on Iraq, is praise too far. As the Financial Times put it, "they listened politely if sulkily."

"They" include delegates who still address one another as "comrades." Many support the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (Tony Blair is the most famous former member), which wants Britain to abandon its nuclear Trident submarines and which claims in one of the leaflets handed to delegates that "the only state to unconditionally support an attack [on Iraq] is Israel." Others want to stop fox hunting; have joined with Emily's List to demand that the party select replacements for retiring members of parliament from an all-women shortlist; and, more sensibly, are lobbying for a reduction in taxes on Scotch whiskey, "an international sales success for the UK."

The day before Blair took to the podium he was forced to withdraw a resolution backing the use of military force in Iraq, lest he be handed a humiliating defeat by the delegates. And a motion opposing war in any circumstances, even with United Nations support, was defeated by only 60-40 percent. So Blair had to settle for a resolution that endorsed action against Iraq only with the blessing of the U.N.

Or so it seemed to the delegates, who grudgingly compromised to allow adoption of what they saw as a middle ground position, and one that moves Britain out of the American orbit and into the sphere of the much-admired U.N. Privately, the prime minister says the language in that resolution permitting him to act in accordance with international law gives him enough wriggle room to back America even if the U.N. "bottles out" (English for "chickens out"). He plans to do so, even though his top officials tell me the political consequences will be dire.

I kept notes on the applause lines in the almost hour-long speech in a meeting hall so hot that Blair thanked its owners for arranging a sauna. Blair regaled the audience with a chortle about Europe's victory over the U.S. golfers in the Ryder Cup, and then added, "Me and George Bush on different sides." Long applause, prompting the prime minister to joke, "I knew you'd like that."

The balance of his remarks were designed to persuade his audience that his support of President Bush is principled, and not a matter of reducing Britain to the status of an "American poodle," as his critics charge. "My vision of Britain is not as the 51st state of anywhere, but I believe in this alliance [with America] and I will fight long and hard to maintain it, because it is in the interests of this country."

Blair continued with an attack on the resentment of America that was palpable among the trade unions and their allies in the hall: "The Americans stand strong and proud, but at times resented. . . . It's easy to be anti-American. There's a lot of it about, but remember when and where this alliance was forged: here in Europe, in World War II, when Britain and America and every decent citizen in Europe joined forces to liberate Europe from the Nazi evil." This got more than polite but somewhat less than enthusiastic applause.

The crowd's enthusiasm was reserved for references to working within the U.N. (failure to act "will destroy not the authority of America or Britain but of the United Nations itself"); to fighting poverty so as "to give Africa hope"; to nation-building in Afghanistan; and to some, but not all, references to the Israeli-Palestinian war. "I agree U.N. resolutions should apply here as much as to Iraq"--long, loud applause. "But they don't just apply to Israel. They apply to all parties." Not a sound.

So Tony Blair faced an audience best described as violently opposed to having Britain back the United States should we move against Saddam without U.N. sanction; reluctantly willing to go along with such a move if it has U.N. blessing, the unspoken thought being that military action is highly unlikely once the U.N. gets involved; and generally in agreement that a settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict should come before any action in Iraq.