Happy new year, gentle readers. In between recovering from the usual festive excesses, I’ve enjoyed incoming Tory MP Rory Stewart’s two-part film about T.E. Lawrence on BBC 2. Stewart’s a bit of a force of nature himself, having walked across Afghanistan and governed an Iraqi province by the time he was about my age, speaking ten languages and now lecturing at Harvard – as Ian Dury put it, there ain’t half been some clever bastards. He’s clearly styling himself as the New Lawrence, and with luck he’ll act as a wise, romantic corrective to the legions of braindead PR whores about to replace parliament’s last lot of braindead PR whores. His point in the film is that Lawrence’s message about the Arabs – in a nutshell, don’t try to rule them – applies today, and that we should be deeply wary of liberal interventionist fantasies about changing the world by exporting our values with force.
The alternative view was put by Tony Blair at the Iraq Inquiry yesterday. This seems to mark the end of Iraq as a political issue in Britain – our troops have left for Helmand, the worst of the chaos in the country is long gone, there will be no more inquiries, and after the general election it will all surely pass into history. I’ll make this my first and last comment on the matter, then.
Like many who took Blair’s word for it at the time, I have had political egg on my face ever since. We still haven’t had a convincing explanation for why nuanced intelligence reports, full of doubts and caveats, were transformed into sensational headlines about the singular threat posed by Saddam’s weapons. We still don’t know why exactly we went to war – was it WMD, regime change, “regime change plus” in Michael Howard’s abstruse phrase, humanitarian reasons, defiance of the UN, oil? Like the fall of Rome, there seem to be dozens of plausible reasons, none entirely convincing on their own. I even remember Bruce Anderson arguing at the time that powerful nations were absolutely right to invade poorer ones to secure control of their resources. You don’t hear much from him these days. And we still don’t know why the coalition was so tragically unprepared for the aftermath of the war. Whatever the reasons, Bush and Blair hadn’t been reading their Seven Pillars of Wisdom. There ain’t half been some stupid bastards.
Each of the three main parties has tried to rewrite history. Jack Straw, possibly the least ingenuous man ever to enter parliament, now claims to have had doubts at the time about the legality of the war, as if that lets him off the hook – if anything it makes him even more culpable. The Tory line has become “if we knew then what we know now” – but do you believe Hague and chums would have done anything other than back America no matter what? The Lib Dems absurdly claim they were against it the whole time. Even the reliably cynical Peter Hitchens has fallen for this line, writing that Charles Kennedy “behaved with courage and honour over the Iraq war”. He did nothing of the sort, so let’s set the record straight: the Lib Dem policy was to support the war in the event of a second UN Security Council resolution. They would have gone along with it if the unelected hooligans in Beijing and Moscow had waved their assent. Of all positions I still find this the hardest to respect. It’s hypocritical too, since the Lib Dems cheerled the Kosovo war, which was a Nato assault on the closest ally of another member of the Security Council. In that operation we blithely bombed a European capital, ostensibly to stop a bad guy expelling a few hundred thousand Muslims. A fat lot of thanks we got.
Was the war in Iraq worth it, in the end? Like the French Revolution, we could argue it’s still too early to say. Of course it was nice to see Saddam and his henchmen meet the hangman, but I can’t honestly believe it was worth $3 trillion – about a hundred grand per Iraqi – not to mention the renewed power and untouchability it has given Iran, the debasement of democracy and dissent in Britain, and the further worldwide disgrace to our already pretty toxic brand.
I would be alone on the blogosphere if I didn’t offer a few predictions for 2010, so here goes. Any talk of a hung parliament is just an excuse to fill the column inches: there will be a workable two-figure Tory majority. It will soon become apparent that the rump of Tory backbenchers are well to the right of Cameron, and he will have far more problems from them than from the opposition parties (especially since Labour will be too busy with internal recriminations – if they want my advice they should elect a socially conservative economic populist, not that many fit the bill, but they’ll probably just go for one of the second-rate Blairites). The PCP will agitate for a far harder line on tax and spending, and we must hope Cameron can steer the right course between the twin delusions of the current government, spending with no regard to the deficit, and his own nihilists who relish cutting for its own sake. Similarly, I wouldn’t bet against an Australian Liberal-style split on climate change. Speaking of which, this seems to be the last and most important issue still unaffected by political violence – after the failure of Copenhagen, might 2010 be the year environmentalist (or anti-environmentalist) direct action turns into assassinations and terrorist attacks? If unprecedented economic growth and evenly spread prosperity in Germany in the 1970s could spawn the murderous Baader-Meinhof gang, what might our own combination of recession, inequality and environmental calamity produce? As for the economy, I can’t quite decide whether the inevitable spending cuts and public sector layoffs after 6 May will give us a second dip, or whether the new prudence will restore market confidence enough to offset this. But my hunch is that the reckoning is yet to come.