This is an account of the road to war in Iraq in the context of the ‘special relationship’ between the UK and the US. Peter Riddell is an intelligent journalist of centre-right persuasion. He has clearly been given full access by No 10 and his account is therefore an ‘authorised version’. He is sympathetic to the war and bends over backwards to be fair to Tony Blair. But his conclusion echoes Geoffrey Howe’s criticism that:
It is hard now to identify any decision of substance, as opposed to process, on which Britain’s prime ministers secured any real change in American plans. By contrast . . . [we] have seen serious damage to the effectiveness and credibility of Nato, the United Nations and the European Union.
Riddell’s own conclusion is that: “If Tony Blair should be more consistent in his European aspirations, he should also ensure that being a candid friend to Washington involves candour as much as friendship.” And the final sentence of the book: “The danger for Tony Blair is that his views will be ignored in much of Europe and taken for granted in Washington.”
Riddell’s chapter on the history of postwar prime ministers’ relations with the US is a healthy reminder that Blair stands in a long line of premiers who have used their access to the US president (in the words of a former chair of the Joint Intelligence Committee) as “an emotional comfort blanket for declining power”. Every postwar prime minister, with the exception of Edward Heath, has made the relationship with the US a central part of British foreign policy. It was Harold Macmillan who decided that being close to Washington would prolong Britain’s global role. Thus, during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, John F Kennedy and Macmillan communicated regularly. But the prime minister did not affect Washington’s decisions. Similarly, Macmillan’s role during the Berlin crisis of 1961 was described by another senior insider as “showy and ultimately ineffective”.
Riddell repeatedly asserts, without evidence, that Blair had been concerned about WMDs since he started to read the Blair stands in a long line of premiers who have used their access to the US president as “an emotional comfort blanket for declining power.” intelligence in 1997. I can only assume that this is the line being peddled by No 10 in order to challenge the claim that Blair was a US poodle during the Iraq crisis. I have no memory of Blair raising the issue, let alone focusing on it, in the six years from 1997 to 2003. It is also highly unlikely that Blair would have picked up such a theme from his general reading of intelligence. Blair does not engage with detail, and I very much doubt that he reads intelligence unless it is specifically brought to his attention. It is also far from clear that any rational concern about proliferation of WMDs that arose in 1997 would first show itself in support for a US-led war in Iraq in 2003.
Riddell draws attention to Blair’s belief in his charm and his ability to influence events through his personal relationships with world leaders. He tells us that Blair is more of an instinctive than an intellectual politician; that he prefers the big picture; that he does not have a vast storehouse of political or policy knowledge. “The absence of deep ideological roots,” writes Riddell, “has misled many people into thinking that he does not have deep views at all.” But Riddell concludes that Blair’s theatrical skills are combined with a strong moral outlook: “Blair relies heavily on his personal moral compass – his sense of right and wrong”. This is clearly another example of No 10 spin. Not only the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury but, unprecedentedly, all the Christian churches in the US (apart from the southern Baptists) were opposed to the war in Iraq, but the line is that Blair is a conviction politician and the Iraq action was a consequence of his Christian ethics.
ThisRiddell tells us that Blair is more of an instinctive than an intellectual politician; that he prefers the big picture; that he does not have a vast storehouse of political or policy knowledge. is the born-again conviction politician who has also given us foundation hospitals and variable top-up fees – all of which makes one yearn for a return to focus groups. My own suspicion is that as Blair began to think about his legacy at the start of his second term, he became concerned that he would be remembered primarily as a master of spin and focus groups. After 11 September 2001 his tendency – in Riddell’s words – to be Panglossian and self-deluding led him to act as the cover for the US’s ill-thought-out war in Iraq. The tragedy is that the shift from focus-group to conviction politician has helped make the world a much more dangerous place and has broken the bridge that Blair wanted to build between the US and the European Union.
For those who want a detailed account of the US and UK route to war, this book is worth reading. Its gentle critique is that Blair lost his balance and has weakened the EU. Behind that lies a debate we have not even begun to have yet – about whether there is any alternative for the UK between being a fig leaf for US power or joining up with an EU superstate.