Argus title : Brown needs to trust the British people
Gordon Brown has done pretty well since he took over from Tony Blair. He is no radical, but then unlike Blair, he never pretended to be. He’s a soft-hearted free marketeer, a conviction politician from a solidly right-wing Labour stable,
Brown coped well in his crisis-ridden first month, quietly ditched some of Blair’s worst initiatives, distanced Britain from Washington – to the extent of crawling out from under Bush’s behind – and is carrying through the public’s demand for withdrawal from Iraq.
Brown’s popularity has been high, not just because his presence in Downing Street cocks a snook at his predecessor, but also because he appears “unspun”, competent and deeply serious. He has succeeded in appearing trustworthy to an electorate sickened by lies and duplicity. The difficulty is that though he may not lie like Blair, he does not always tell the truth.
There seems little doubt he has personal integrity and is unlikely to suffer the stench of corruption that plagued the Blair administration. However, Brown holds his cards – and his truth – close to his chest.
As Chancellor, Brown was regularly criticised by fellow politicians for his apparent lack of trust in his colleagues. Given their conduct towards him, it was hardly surprising. However, a far graver potential weakness is that Brown seems not to trust the people. An example of this is over the issue of Iraq, where he has so far failed to explain his strategy to the public.
Blair’s illegal decision to invade Iraq in support of the USA was deeply unpopular with the electorate. It was this above all which drove Blair from power. Brown knows that to earn the respect of the British people he has to distance himself from the Bush administration and assert British national interest in foreign policy, while maintaining traditional alliances. Above all he has to organise orderly withdrawal from Iraq, both because the majority of people want this and because the army is stretched across two fronts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Brown has begun the withdrawal and predictably the Bush administration is deeply unhappy. At the very time the US is increasing troop levels and promoting a “surge” in Iraq, the British government is complying with the wish of the elected Iraqi government to have foreign troops withdrawn from its soil. It must find it hard for Washington neo-conservatives to accept that after 10 years of craven compliance, Britain has now, at long last, got off its knees.
There can be no doubt that, despite Brown’s well-known admiration for the USA and his established links with its political hierarchy, the Bush administration will seek to punish and destabilise him. All British politicians know that defying Washington is like yanking the tale of a Rottweiler. There is only so much of it that a mild-mannered social democratic ally can get away with.
And this is why Brown is being cautiously circumspect about the withdrawal. He’s doing it. He’s just not fully admitting it.
The difficulty from the electorate’s point of view is that his cautious presntation begins to make him look as shifty and devious as his predecessor. The British people have become highly politicised during the course of the war, as have individual soldiers, who are pumping information back to their friends and families. There is simply no point in lying to people, either by pretending that the Coalition has been successful or that the Iraqi government is in control. For this clearly is not the case.
Brown doesn’t have to say the army has been defeated. He can even keep up the fiction that the Iraqis welcomed the invasion. But he must make the British public aware that in withdrawing the troops he is acting in accordance with the wishes of the Iraqi prime minister, who has more than once called for withdrawal.
Over the course of the conflict, the US and British governments have given the impression that violent attacks and the disproportionate number of civilian casualties resulting from them have arisen from conflict between warring Iraqi factions. However, the journalist John Pilger has revealed that according to the Pentagon’s own figures, almost 80% of Iraqi attacks are directed against the occupation forces. These attacks may have resulted in the deaths of Iraqis, but their focus has been resistance to foreign invasion. Gordon Brown should ensure the British people are aware of this.
Nobody expects Brown to defy Bush like a Castro or a Chavez. However, he does need to understand the depth of public disquiet about British/US relations. There is simmering rage amongst the troops and their families about deaths in Iraq. Parents of dead soldiers are currently pursuing the government through the courts on the question of whether or not the war was illegal.
In addition, there is growing anger amongst former and serving British service personnel in Afghanistan about the conduct of the US air forces. Soldiers’ comments are reaching the press and the internet.
The British army in Afghanistan is under-resourced and under-staffed, and therefore all too often troops on the ground are forced to call in US air cover. There have been repeated British complaints that US personnel bomb without due regard for the lives of civilians and allies, creating increased resistance amongst the Afghans and deep resentment amongst the British at both civilian fatalities and troop deaths by so called “friendly fire”.
Embattled British troops may derive some comfort from the fact that so many senior British army officers have spoken out to condemn the conduct of the war. From General Richard Dannatt who said that the presence of his troops in Iraq “exacerbates the security problem”, to General Michael Rose, who called for Tony Blair to be impeached for taking Britain to war “on false grounds”, soldiers have spoken out in unprecedented numbers.
Most recently, General Sir Mike Jackson, the former Head of the British Army referred to America’s post war strategy as “intellectually bankrupt” while Major General Tim Cross, the senior British officer involved in post war planning in Iraq, described US planning as “fatally flawed”. Cross says he raised his concerns with Donald Rumsfeld, the former US Secretary for Defence, at the time, but that his warnings were “dismissed” or “ignored”.
In many ways such statements should have been balm to Brown’s ears. They have shielded him from any need to make such criticisms of the US himself, while indicating to the public that these apparently plain-speaking soldiers are unlikely to oppose withdrawal. All Brown needed to do was to be seen to be taking their statements seriously.
In fact, as soon as the USA began to bare its teeth and snarl, the Ministry of Defence began to wobble. According to the Guardian newspaper, an MoD spokesperson, far from supporting Jackson and Cross, said only “both men had served their country and were entitled to their opinions”.
Foreign Secretary David Miliband and Defence Secretary Des Browne made a carefully worded joint statement to the “Washington Post” which achieved very little – for while it gave no real comfort to George Bush, it was sufficiently ingratiating to enrage their own fellow citizens.
They said “Basra province will in months not years, be judged to have met the conditions for transfer to full Iraqi security control”. This gives no comfort to Bush, who wants Britain to stay until the next presidential election – or the many observers who advocate swift withdrawal, arguing that our presence there is so pointless it does not justify the loss of a single additional life.
Miliband and Browne then reassured the Americans that the final decision would be taken “in full consultation with the US Commander of the multinational force”. This does not mean that Britain will seek permission to leave, but it sounds perilously like it. Brown should beware. If the British electorate come to believe he is offering his throat to Bush as Blair did, he will seem weak and untrustworthy and will lose the General Election.
There is no point in Gordon Brown seeking to placate the neoconservative US beast. Elements with the US security services will already be working to dominate or destabilise the Brown government and gain control of a potential Tory one. The stakes are high for the Republican adminsitration, for they don’t just want to avoid a withdrawal from Iraq. They want Britain as an ally in the bombing of Iran.
Brown needs to be honest about mistakes that have been made and the genuine dangers we face. His only real hope is to trust the British people