July 16, 2003 | Commentary on National Security and Defense

Labor Pains

It's a strange world, indeed, when one finds oneself rooting for Alistair Campbell, the slick communications strategist and miracle worker behind the scenes of British Prime Minister Tony Blair's government. Mr. Campbell is sometimes known as Britain's "real prime minister," a hard-line, take-no-prisoners Laborite type. Britain's Labor government is in major trouble, and many Americans undoubtedly feel a sense of loyalty to our best ally in the war in Iraq. Yet, war makes strange bedfellows, and not all that Britain's Labor Party stands for would make Americans feel at ease.

 

What happened this week was that Mr. Campbell was exonerated by a parliamentary committee of "sexing up" the facts in the government's first dossier on Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction (WMD), dating back to last September. Additionally, Mr. Campbell had the satisfaction of sticking a thumb in the eye of the BBC, also now known as the Baghdad Broadcasting Co., which initially broadcasted the accusations against him.

 

The House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee concluded that Mr. Campbell had not exerted "improper influence" on the intelligence dossier, which included a much disputed section stating that Saddam's WMD could be deployed within 45 minutes. The foreign affairs panel, on the other hand, did harshly criticize Mr. Blair's February presentation to the British Parliament on Iraq's WMD, now known as the "dodgy dossier," which included a plagiarized section on uranium smuggling from an Internet source with 12-year-old information.

 

With the Labor government under intense attack at home for its handling of intelligence estimates -- far more than anything felt in Washington, where allegations of undue pressure on intelligence officers are also being leveled at high-level government officials -- you have to feel some sympathy for Mr. Blair. He stood by the United States when we needed allies, courageously and steadfastly.

 

And while Americans continue in their support of the Bush policy in Iraq, in Britain, public support for the war was always much more fragile. Mr. Blair's domestic popularity ratings have taken a bad nosedive to the point where Labor has actually been overtaken by the long-languishing Conservative Party in the polls. This is a most unexpected turn of events.

 

But this crisis of confidence goes beyond foreign policy. In terms of Mr. Blair's domestic policies, reservations are definitely in order. Mr. Blair has been high-handed and arrogant in the way he has tried to change age-old British political institutions. Sometimes his maneuvers have been opportunistic and brought Labor an unfair advantage. Sometimes, the result has simply been chaotic.

 

The most recent such move was the creation of a new secretary of constitutional affairs to rule on civil legal matters, a position to which Mr. Blair appointed a buddy of his. This new position was to assume some of the powers hitherto held by the Lord Chancellor, head of the House of Lords and the highest law officer in the land, which dates back beyond the Middle Ages. Mr. Blair decided overnight and without consultation to abolish this office, but the sitting lord chancellor has shown no inclination to give up his job, making the line of authority in constitutional matters unclear.

 

The House of Lords itself, a quirky and venerable institution, has particularly been in Mr. Blair's sights, in part because the Lords have the power to delay legislation and therefore do have political influence. Reforms have been initiated, but not completed, to the effect of increasing the number of peers for life that are appointed by the prime minister. While Mr. Blair argues that his intention is to bring Britain into the 21st century, critics have suggested this looks more like a bloodless coup.

 

And finally, there's the perennial question of Britain's entry into the euro-zone. In late June, Mr. Blair's government said that economic conditions are not yet right for entry, and pledged to work hard for it. This pledge has been made before without any significant follow-up, and leaves Mr. Blair sounding rather like the saint who prayed to be made virtuous and chaste, "but not yet." The British, however, remain firmly behind their currency and their cherished institutions, and resent attempts to take them away. 

 

Mr. Blair, in other words, has lost the confidence of the British electorate, despite huge initial popularity and a commanding majority in Parliament. For Americans, the main regret is that the issue that has now brought this to a head is his steadfast support for the United States.

 

Helle Dale is deputy director of the Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom