July 7, 2004 | Commentary on National Security and Defense

"Shock and bore"

Summer in England has many rituals. There's village cricket, a sport that is as leisurely as it is picturesque. There's Wimpledon tennis, invariably beset by pouring rain. There are college balls at Oxford and Cambridge, May balls as the festivities curiously known at in Cambridge even though they are held in June. And there's the newspaper "silly season," when everybody's on vacation and series news stories dry up.

One good, old stand-by on the newspaper front pages is the state of the marriage of convenience between British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown. The two remain archrivals for leadership of the Labour Party, but are uneasy allies in the Labor government. The news this summer is that a tell-all book soon to be published by Derek Scott, former economic advisor to Mr. Blair, is threatening to bust this fragile truce and expose all the Blair-Brown rivalries, the acrimony and the dirty laundry.

A spokesman for Mr. Brown called the book a "deliberate peddling of lies and distortions about Europe, tax and public spending and the management of public finances is deliberately designed and orchestrated to put the Treasury in a bad light." It is great grist for the mill of Britain's scandal-loving tabloids.

For the British Prime Minister, anything that keeps the focus off U.S. policy in Iraq and on domestic issues or on European politics probably has to be considered good news. Mr. Blair loves to call Britain the transatlantic "bridge," but as noted by Peter Riddell, chief political commentator for the Times of London in European Affairs magazine, "In the words of one of Mr. Blair's closest advisers, 'sometimes we will be at one end of the of the bridge and sometimes the other.' " The U.S. end of that bridge is a pretty perilous place for British politicians right now.

While he has been a staunch ally of President Bush in Iraq, Mr. Blair's political standing at home has suffered as a consequence, with the British people deeply divided over Iraq. An inquiry into intelligence failure over the weapons of mass destruction (WMD), headed by Cabinet Secretary Lord Butler, is due to come out on July 14, which could reopen a lot of unpleasant issues for the British government. It follows the Hutton report of last summer, which exonerated the government from having lied about the WMD evidence, as had been alleged by the BBC.

From the British government's point of view, focusing on domestic and European issues provides relief. The British have recently been treated to lengthy discussions of reform of the National Health Service and improvement in school choice. Both are platforms on which the Tories have staked their ground -- a "shock and bore" strategy for Labour as the Sunday Telegraph put it.

The new EU Constitution is one subject that can get the British press going. The document, which was finally accepted by EU governments in June, is in many quarters in Britain considered a perfidious French-German plot to undermine British sovereignty. The fact that Britain has never had a written constitution and now seems about to acquire one that has been written by a gaggle of foreigners doesn't go down well.

Mr. Blair has promised the British a referendum on the Constitution, sometime after the next election, widely expected in May of 2005. This has happened under pressure from the Tories and the U.K. Independence Party. The Prime Minister has pledged himself to campaign for a British "Yes," and Mr. Brown has promised to support him in this campaign. As many as one third of EU members will vote; Spain and Portugal have recently announced their public referenda.

If the British vote "Yes" -- a rather unlikely outcome -- Mr. Blair will be known as the leader who finally committed the British fully as a European power. Unfortunately for Mr. Blair, if the referendum were defeated in Britain, his political career would probably be at an end.

In that case, however, Britain could emerge as the leader of a new group of EU members, those who have said "No" to the constitution as the next step in European integration. This is a group that would be Atlanticist in outlook and could include some of the new EU members, as well as Scandinavian countries. This would be the end of Mr. Blair's long balancing act between Europe and the U.S., but overall not a bad outcome as looked at from this side of the Atlantic.

Helle Dale is director of Foreign Policy and Defense Studies at the Heritage Foundation. E-mail: helle.dale@heritage.org. Her column ordinarily appears on Wednesdays.

About the Author

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

First appeared in The Washington Times