Still a special relationship

Still a special relationship

What if Hitler had won the war? Or Lee Harvey Oswald had missed? History is full of what-if questions, the stuff of fiction and almost-fact — and here are two more as we pound into 2010. What if Tony Blair hadn’t dissembled about weapons of mass delusion? And — absolutely connected — what if Britain hadn’t copped out at Suez?
That final question is posed (in crisp counter-factual terms) by Robert Skidelsky at the end of his essay on ‘20th century Britain for A World By Itself’, a chronicle of our small island’s upheavals from Bede to Blair. What if the Brits and the French had told Eisenhower to go hang in 1956, he asks. What if they’d put the Suez Canal Company back in place, set up a joint garrison on the waterway — and become the empowered driving forces of a united Europe?
Imagine a permanent and very cordiale entente, a new Third Force for planet Earth. And go on imagining. You saw Messrs Brown and Sarkozy playing natural best mates over bankers’ bonuses the other day. Now head for the Westminster conference centre as a very ex-prime minister faces the genteel drip-drip of Iraqi water torture.

Harsh truth
We know already that there’s something dodgier here than the odd dossier. We have heard a parade of the diplomatic great and good curl civilised lips over Downing Street’s antics in March 2003. We have seen top lawyers furrow their brows at the illegality of it all. We have even endured Tony singing ‘Je ne regrette rien’ as per usual. Yet the basic point — and harshest of truths — has barely been touched on.
George Bush and Dick Cheney had the intelligence they required. America’s great secret sausage machine was sizzling with links to Saddam. It may all have been craven rubbish (as a few brave souls declared). But it was what the commander-in-chief deemed conclusive, with necessary action to follow. Mighty armies marched to the top of the hill with no chance of marching down again.

And what could our PM do then, poor thing? Wimp out and order the fleet to sail away? Court derision amid a frenzy of knocking knees? Back John Scarlett’s iffy-squiffy conclusions against the torrent of supposed certainties pouring in from Washington? Of course, millions marched for a different answer. Of course doves and hawks were at it again. But cast your mind back to Eden and Suez and ask, in reality, what other choice No 10 had.

So 53 years ago, strapped for cash, short of too many troops fighting a US war in Korea, we let Ike ring down the curtain on empire. (Good job? But that’s not the point). So Britain’s bomb became America’s bomb, lease-lent by default and impossible of independent operation. So MI5 and 6 became mere needy adjuncts of the CIA. So we couldn’t fight a war of our own — see the Falklands — without US help, and permission. So our self-esteem and diplomatic status came to rest on a bit-part role as America’s best friend over the water, the Oval Office’s bridge to the heart of Europe.

Blair, being Blair, gave such spear-carrying a rhetorical ring. He talked up our influence. But why, after Clinton, put so much effort into getting cosy with George W? Because he thought — and surely still thinks — that it’s the office that matters, not the name of who happens to be president. Don’t worry whether it’s an elephant in the room, or a donkey: just stick close to a relationship of extra special importance to Great Britain, because it haplessly defines us.

But Wilson stayed out of Vietnam. Why couldn’t Blair do the same for Baghdad? Because Europe in 1964 wasn’t the Europe of 2003. Because the whole dependency culture of British political life had changed. Call Tony Blair a ‘sycophant’ like the ‘Daily Mail’, if you wish. Call him a twister and a cheat, like many in his own party. Call him any of the names Chancellor Brown used to whisper behind his hand. But don’t forget that PM Brown is first out of the traps when Obama wants more troops in Helmand, or that would-be PM Cameron, mending his White House fences fast, stands right behind him. Regime change when Mullah Omar departed; regime change again if Karzai doesn’t perform.

By all means dump on Blair if it makes you feel better. By all means cheer Chilcot  on. But remember that this is by no means the whole of the story. Remember that we are impaled on a relationship none of our leaders — past or immediately present — will change, specially constrained by a truth that cannot be boldly told. For what would happen if they did? Then — no counter-factual needed — the emperor would run desperately short of clothes.