This was written late 2003 and published in the Bengali paper Anand Patrika Bazaar mid 2004.
The mood in London when it comes to Brother Number One, Tony Blair, is difficult to gauge. His image has been with us for so long – it is ten years since his Cheshire Cat smile took over the Labour Party and removed Clause Four (the nationalization of industry policy). Just a few years later he led the refashioned ‘New’ Labour into Government. Though some of the key back room apparatchiks have now been discredited, the spin-doctored era of Blair has seen a prosperous Britain saddled with the War on Terror and a US-UK alliance-fuelled rush to global war. Neo-liberalism and a new imperialism seem the order of the day, and any opposition goes unheard.
There is significant opposition to the warmongering of Blair. But public sentiment wavers between absolute mistrust and what seems to be a resignation that more Blair is all there is – no viable alternative is on offer. The Conservative Party shoots itself in both foot and head with its racist policies; the Liberal Democrats seem incapable of making anything but small gains; and the Socialist Left are mired in organizational disarray at a time when they should be riding success. How can this be?
We cannot say the opposition to Blair has been lazy. Just over a year ago almost 2 million people marched in London against the plan to bomb Iraq. Valiant, if perhaps naïve, “Human Shields” traveled to Baghdad to stand in front of the bombs; senior members of the cabinet resigned in protest; critics wrote in the press (for and against – but we knew who was on which side); and school students played truant to join the vigils against war outside the parliament. Opinion polls – of course these are unreliable – told of more than 60% opinion against the war. BBC commentators were asking critical questions of Government ministers and spokespersons. A chief Government analyst told a journalist about the ‘sexing up’ of the dossier on Iraqi weapons, and another dossier was exposed as the plagiarized work of a doctoral student.
The troops, however, were committed, and the War on Terror found another set of innocent bystander victims in the markets of Baghdad. The Prime Minister insisted the war would be waged on the moral ground of removing the dictator “Saddam” (first name only). “Tony” assured us that this regime change would ‘make the world a safer place’. He has not yet admitted just when he told Bush he would join the ‘coalition of the willing’, and he has not yet admitted when he knew that there were no WMD. Nor has he survived the various scandals unscathed, but – he smiles here – he has survived.
Protest on the streets during the war was almost as large as in the run up – with the notable exception of the Liberal Democrats, who decided to keep quiet once the shooting began (at best they called for the troops to be brought home ‘soon’). At the demonstrations there were unprecedented scenes – not just the huge numbers of people, but the fact that many of whom had never been to a demonstration before. As a personal observation, I tried to start the usual chant “one, two, three, four…”, thinking the response would be something like “we don’t want your stupid war”, but instead the inexperienced but enthusiastic reply came back: “five, six, seven, eight”. I found this encouraging. Other protesters carried home made banners (not the usual party sponsored ones) which said “Make Tea, Not War”, misspelled the leader’s name to make a point: “Bliar”, and carried pictures of a bush with a poodle (a play on the great Emperor’s name and Tony’s role as the US President’s pet Foreign Ambassador).
In the wake of the war, and the death of the weapons expert who had exposed the ‘sexed up’ dossiers, the Hutton Inquiry was a whitewash in which the BBC was targeted with allegations of bias and an anti-Government stance. The heads of the corporation were forced to resign; wrongly as it turned out. Another Inquiry, led by Lord Butler, and reporting in July, 2004, found the journalists to be largely correct when they said the dossiers had been doctored to look more convincing (the ‘sexing up’ included the removal of ‘caveats’ which would have made the claims seem less certain as a case for war). Butler’s report shows that Government information was inaccurate, inappropriate and based on very flimsy intelligence, but no-one was actually found to be to blame. Collective responsibility for an ‘intelligence breakdown’ meant that as yet there have been no resignations by politicians or secret agents. Blair has smiled through it all; though that charismatic grin sometimes looked a little forced as week after week was declared “a difficult week for Tony Blair”.
Difficult weeks indeed, but after seven years in Government, the failure of opposition parties to present a viable alternative to Blair is disturbing. It is not that there has been a universal shrug of indifference on the part of the electorate; rather perhaps problems of organization have limited the options. The Stop The War (STW) coalition had been massively successful in rallying people onto the streets at protests, but when it came to an electoral alliance, factionalism and opportunism undermined the gains. The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) – the largest of the Trotskyite sects – undermined an emergent progressive parliamentary initiative by postponing the annual congress of the ‘Socialist Alliance’ and proposing instead a pact with the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB). That left wing parties should work closely with Muslims in Britain was welcomed by many, especially as it built on experience from the protests, but the nature of the SWP deal was debated in relation to the MAB because of its links to conservative religious elements. Secular and other left Muslims were largely ignored in favor of those organized through the mosques. This in itself was built on the back of the alliances formed after September 11th 2001, where some white left activists had joined defense vigils outside London mosques that had been attacked. What was unfortunate perhaps was that SWP eagerness to trade the size of the anti-war demonstrations for long dreamt of electoral success meant that more sustained modes of organizing and alliance were neglected.
It had been the case historically that British Muslims voted predominantly for the Labour Party – and a number of times in recent years they had been wooed by the Prime Minister’s wife attending elite South Asian business functions wearing designer versions of Salwaar Kameez. The spin-doctors saw this as a multicultural vote-winner. However, it came at the very time that bombing of other South Asians, in Afghanistan, rather undermined allegiance to the Blairs. In the run up to the war, support for Labour rapidly evaporated among Muslims, although the alternate second party, the Conservatives, with their history of xenophobia, were hardly a viable representative option. There was subsequently no vehicle for South Asian political expression other than one they could build themselves.
As elsewhere, Muslims in Britain have been increasingly targeted in the wake of September 2001. There were a number of racist attacks reported in the days after the New York and Washington events, and subsequently racist attacks have risen across the country. At the same time the Police have increased ‘stop and search’ methods on the streets of British cities. Where previously it was Britain’s African-Caribbean population that was disproportionately questioned by street patrols, today young South Asian men (Muslim or not, born in the UK or not) are targeted. Add to this the calculated hysteria whipped up around immigration and asylum laws, fuelled by inflammatory comments by the Home Minister, David Blunkett, which referenced the old Thatcherite charge that ‘some people in this country were feeling swamped by people from other cultures’ (Blunkett also used Maggie’s swamping word when referring to Asylum seekers). With both major parties on attack at home and abroad, there is an urgent need for solidarity from progressives for South Asians in Britain.
What was an important alliance between South Asians and the anti-war left in the STW coalition may yet translate into a political party that could displace Blair, but not in its present disorganized form. The numbers who marched against the war included a very broad mix of London’s population: black and white; middle and working classes; students and unemployed; activists and concerned omnibus passengers from Clapham. Could the alliances be forged into a political threat to Blair? The SWP-sponsored vehicle called RESPECT has had a difficult birth, but it does exist. It has not gone unnoticed that support for RESPECT in the elections is best achieved alongside more local modes of organizing that will address wider community concerns around policing, racism, immigration law and war. A genuine progressive party needs a broad social(ist) platform. The singular goal of getting rid of Blair is not the main prize, even though his war-mongering is disguised by a smile that no longer works, and his religious zeal threatens now that we realize he thinks ‘God wants him for a sunbeam’. (The writer Gore Vidal amusingly pointed this out, noting that both Blair and Bush are ‘god-botherers’ who have access to world-destroying nuclear weaponry and an unsubstantiated belief in both their historical role and the reality of the here-ever-after. Sunbeams indeed). What would secure the world from the terror that confronts it now if not the immediate disarming of Blair’s grin? It is a serious question as to whether Muslim and anti-war elements can combine with general progressive and anti-Blair opinion to find a way to organize and mobilize an alternative to dodgy intelligence, spin doctoring, and neo-liberalism as it comes in the guise of caveat-free ‘New’ Labour. But if this question can be answered positively, London might even surprise us and lead the world to a better place.