Britain's Shock Election: Labour's Big Defeat Seeded in the Sands of Iraq

The truth is that, intriguing as Scotland always is, it was in Iraq -- and in the reaction to Iraq -- where Labour got off the winning course.
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The shock results from the British election at the end of last week will reverberate for a long time. Rather than the near dead heat between the Conservatives led by Prime Minister David Cameron and the Labour Party led by Opposition Leader Ed Miliband, the actual vote resulted in a smashing win for the Tories, giving them an outright majority in parliament. No need to continue a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats, who melted away nearly to nothing. Lib Dem Leader Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister, promptly resigned. As did Labour leader Miliband, whose promised return to a more traditional Labour approach after the many center/left years of Tony Blair resulted in the worst showing for Labour since 1987.

While the recent shift in Scottish politics, where the Scottish National Party, having recently failed to secede from the United Kingdom, won most of the seats in what had been a great Labour stronghold has something to do with this result, that was already accounted for in the forecasts before Labour support collapsed in England.

The truth is that, intriguing as Scotland always is, it was in Iraq -- and in the reaction to Iraq -- where Labour got off the winning course.

Tony Blair marked his landslide election of 1997 with these victory remarks.

For it was his diehard backing of the backfiring Iraq War that made former Prime Minister Tony Blair, winner of national elections at the head of Labour in 1997, 2001, and 2005, a fairly radioactive figure in Britain. To the extent that Labour narrowly chose Ed Miliband, protege of Blair's more conventional successor Gordon Brown -- who lost narrowly to Cameron when he finally stood for a post-Blair election in 2010 -- over Miliband's Blairite brother David, the former foreign minister who had been Blair's young policy director.

Most Labour members of parliament backed David Miliband, but not by margins large enough to overcome Ed Miliband's backing from labor unions.

Over the weekend, Blair acknowledged

"Ed was absolutely right to raise the issue of inequality and to say that Labour should focus anew on it. This will stand as his contribution to the party's development. In so far as this was an implied rebuke to my politics, I accept it. But we still need ways relevant to today and tomorrow, not yesterday, to tackle it.

"He said that Labour could be convincing in advancing the case for greater equality only if it does so within a wider pro-business agenda. "We have to conduct the big argument on the wealth-creating potential of the macro-economy, not only the targeted campaign on the injustices of it. So we were proud in 1997 to put forward the case for Britain's first minimum wage. But we could never have an election on it unless set within a broader framework. The same is true with zero-hours contracts."

As we've seen in American politics, it's become an unfortunate truism of more centrist politics in the West that it is prone to becoming a monied courtier society. But it needn't be that to spur an economics of innovation and entrepreneurship, and Blair is quite correct that the old leveling socialist shibboleths do nothing to move the many voters to whom they hardly apply. That's what he means by an "aspirational" approach.

But Blair fails to address why his many great political successes have been so easily ignored by his own party. I don't doubt that his not infrequent coziness with the City of London, the British equivalent of the far more recent Wall Street, would have gone down more easily if he hadn't so fervently backed and participated in the Bush/Cheney invasion of Iraq.

The beginning of the Blair era was a time of exuberance, marked by the theme song "Things Can Only Get Better." But it ended in confusion and no little amount of tears.

Like many, I was thrilled when Blair and what he dubbed New Labour swept to their great victory in 1997, winning one of the biggest landslides in British history. Blair, who pledged to modernize the UK's extensive welfare state, proved also to be a world leader with flair on climate change -- he later helped California with its pioneering program, taking part in the signing ceremony with Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger -- and intelligent interventions to roll back wrongdoing in Kosovo and Sierra Leone.

With eloquence and openness, he seemed perhaps the key global statesman of the age, a natural choice to be the European Union's first president. Yet when he sought that post, after resigning as prime minister, he was left behind by colorless rivals as part of the European backlash to the Iraq disaster.

The great ally of President Bill Clinton, a natural connection, had become an even more important ally to President George W. Bush, whose essentially illegitimate 2000 victory, based on Florida shenanigans and a narrow conservative US Supreme Court majority, over Vice President Al Gore, another natural Blair ally, led to the rollback of the "Third Way" approaches Blair and Clinton jointly championed in a series of high-profile international conferences.

Blair threw it away on Iraq, using his gifts and credibility to make the dubious sound much better than Bush was able to. I vividly remember their conference in the Azores, a few days before the invasion. Hoped for UN support had evaporated, Blair's own foreign minister was headed for the hills.

Bush spoke, and it was a load of junk, even if you didn't know that the supposed intel was spurious nonsense. Yet Blair was earnest and compelling, almost plausible.

Why Blair acted as he did, and why he still won't admit his mistake, is a massive question that is still unanswered. A mystery on several levels.

Much, as I wrote at the time, as I enjoy The Ghost Writer -- a brilliant roman a clef Roman Polanski suspense film featuring ex-007 Pierce Brosnan as ex-PM "Adam Lang," a brilliant Olivia Williams as his wife, and former Obi-Wan Ewan McGregor as the never-named scribe of the Blair figure's memoirs -- the answer seems more mordantly amusing than real. Though it would, as former Blair friend Robert Harris, who wrote both the screenplay and the best-selling novel which preceded it, explain everything as little else does.

Ironically, with Labour having moved away from the politically successful approach in its modern history, it was the now ascendant Tories who did their best to copy the Blair playbook. David Cameron, after all, was selected as the Tory standard-bearer because he was, and is, the most Blair-like figure.

Between their shortsighted rejection of Blair's general approach and the sliding away of Scotland, Labour is in very big trouble.

My ethnicity is English, Scottish, Irish, and Danish, in that order. I like Scotland but have to admit that when I first heard a concerted argument for Scotland's independence -- at a gathering featuring a certain advocate named Sean Connery many years ago -- I was a little taken aback. Yet what once seemed something of an eccentricity on Sir Sean's part has become one of the biggest dynamics in Britain.

Scotland came fairly close to seceding from the UK last year. Now virtually all its parliamentarians are Scottish Nationalists, replacing Labourites. I don't know what Labour can do about that. Maybe Tony Blair does.

Meanwhile, the pleasant news for Americans is that Cameron, no Netanyahu, largely backs President Barack O Obama's play in geopolitics, working in concert on peace negotiations with Iran and attempts to bring climate change under control.

That's the mark of a true ally. But it could have been so much more.

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