Tue, Nov 25, 2003 - Page 9 News List

Nothing but more trouble for Blair

Bombs, demonstrations and serious mid-term drift -- and all the direct result of the prime minister's own decisions

By Polly Toynbee  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON


The UK prime minister has waited for months now with a deadly certainty that the terror attacks would come.

"When, not if," he warned spine-chillingly about the threat to Britain. Once he had decided to take the country to war, terrorist retaliation was certain and if ever there was a prime time to expect it, then it was now, during US President George W. Bush's state visit. The wonder is only that Britain has escaped for so long. London was fortified beyond endurance this week, but there will always be soft underbellies exposed to Islamist extremist fury. There is no defense against terror.

So now Turkey has become another case of collateral damage in the spreading calamity of the Iraq war. It is tragic that it should be Turkey of all places to take the brunt of this revenge. Turkey, the actual existing model of moderate Islam. In their game of fantasy Middle East politics, how often Bush and Blair boasted they would turn Iraq into a "beacon" of democracy that would shine its light into every dark, feudal, corrupt and theocratic state across the region. What an irony if, instead, the Iraq war has dragged Turkey, a true beacon of modern Islam, down.

Turkey tried to protect itself from contamination with the war by denying US troops access through its land to northern Iraq. But it was a natural target for al-Qaeda fundamentalists attempting to turn back the clock to an Islamic dark age. To them, Turkey's ever-strengthening democracy is a Western abomination.

Visiting Istanbul this year to interview all parties and religious groups united in Turkey's determination to qualify for EU membership, I walked through the gates of the British consulate and met the consul general, Roger Short, who was, sadly, among the dead yesterday. It was well guarded but relaxed, without any sense that Istanbul was a dangerous place.

Tayyip Erdogan's new government aims to take the country into Europe as a "synthesis" between East and West. With threatening neighbors -- Iran, Iraq, Syria and Russia -- it is hardly surprising Turkey seeks to turn towards Europe. So these bombs in Istanbul serve a sinister dual purpose for the Islamist fundamentalists -- to attack Britain, but also to blow up Turkey's ever-closer European ties and haul it back into the morass of Islamist extremism.

These bombs made Nov. 20 one of the darkest days of Blair's prime ministership. As if that horror were not enough, too many other disparate pigeons came fluttering home to roost at once. Whichever way he turned, things looked black. They were no mere accidents, for everything that happened came as a direct result of his own decisions, all of them taken against the better instincts of most of his party.

While the colossal anti-Bush demonstration swirled through the capital, and central London ground to a halt due to the visit of this unpopular president, inside beleaguered Westminster two bills ricocheted between the Lords and the Commons, the UK's upper and lower houses, in a near-meaningless battle. The unimportant substance of these bills had long become irrelevant.

That a handful of complex fraud trials might be conducted without juries was, frankly, nothing that mattered much despite great protestations on both sides. Nor was the watered-down foundation hospital bill critical to either improving or destroying the UK health service. But these issues had become totemic simply because Blair wrongly attached too much symbolism to them, forcing them through without listening. The trouncing he got in the Commons was deserved. Although the Lords finally gave way to the superior right of the Commons on foundation hospitals, it was nonetheless a sharp reminder both of disquiet within his party and the constitutional mess in which he has left the House of Lords.

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