Tue, Feb 18, 2003 - Page 9 News List

The spirit of Churchill pervades in Britain's government

By Timothy Garton Ash

A defiant British soldier stands on the white cliffs of Dover, shaking his fist. The caption reads, "Very Well, Alone!" It's the most famous British cartoon from 1940, a classic British self-image. And now it's British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Of course Blair is not without important allies in Europe or across the Atlantic, unlike then prime minister Winston Churchill in 1940. But he is, at the moment, without the support of his own people. According to opinion polls, little more than a third of the British would, at the moment, endorse a war on Iraq. His own party in the House of Commons looks daggers in his back when the prime minister rises to defend US President George W. Bush. And last Saturday, perhaps as many as half a million people converged on London to demonstrate against the war.

Why does he stand like this, risking his whole political future on what Neville Chamberlain famously called far-away quarrels in a country of which we know nothing?

The first and most important answer may be: Churchill. The spirit of Churchill pervades No. 10 Downing Street and charged the imagination of all British boys of Blair's generation (which is also my generation). Churchill's example says: you must never appease dictators. It says: whatever you do, you must stay close to the US. It also says: if need be, alone. And after all, did not Churchill stand and rail against the majority of British public opinion which favored appeasement right up until he rallied it to war in 1940? So Blair believes, like Churchill, that a leader's duty is to lead, not to follow public opinion.

There are other reasons of course. In his increasingly presidential style of government, used for more than six years now to a large parliamentary majority and a feeble Conservative opposition, Blair exhibits touches of hubris. And then, he has to some extent diplomatically boxed himself into a corner. His strategic choice after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks was to manifest and maintain solidarity with a US that felt itself now at war.

As Churchill to US president Franklin Roosevelt, so Blair to Bush. But the engagement with the Bush administration led, last September, to the demarche on Iraq -- and the logic of influencing Washington by staying close to it leads inexorably to where you are now.

Does he really believe it? Does he truly think that the credible threat of military action is the only way to remove the real danger of a half-crazed dictator such as Iraqi President Saddam Hussein obtaining and then using weapons of mass destruction, or passing them to terrorists? He says he does.

More, in my judgement: he thinks he does. He tried, with seemingly passionate conviction, to convince a live British television audience of this only the other day (without success). But if you injected him with a truth serum in the dark hours of the night, I am sure that he would share most of the doubts that liberal internationalists like myself have about the course being pursued by the Bush administration.

He takes comfort from the fact that, unlike Churchill in 1940, he is not alone among the states of Europe. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, former Czech president Vaclav Havel of the Czech Republic, the post-communist prime minister of Poland and the leaders of, now, some 14 other European countries have signed letters of transatlantic solidarity and support. But in their own countries, the majority of public opinion is usually behind the position taken by France and Germany.

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