THE CURRENT state of British politics is weird. Successive governments have enjoyed majority support for the wars they have waged over the past 20 years, from the Falklands onwards. But now we find public opinion lined up overwhelmingly against the war that George W Bush and Tony Blair are determined to prosecute against Iraq. The opposition stretches right across the political spectrum.
I nearly fell out of the bath last Sunday when I heard right wing journalist Peter Hitchens, who can normally be relied on to be reactionary about everything, say that he didn't think attacking Iraq was a good idea on BBC Radio 4's Broadcasting House. Tory military historian Sir Michael Howard wrote in the Financial Times on Saturday last week that 'any participation in such a war would divide the nation as profoundly as did the disastrous Suez adventure in 1956'. The comparison with Suez is interesting.
There are important differences. In 1956 it was US opposition that put paid to the Anglo-French attempt to seize the Suez Canal. This time, of course, it is with the US that Blair wants to go it alone. All the same, then the Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser was demonised as another Hitler, just as Saddam Hussein is today. And, more intriguingly still, the failure of the Suez war brought down the British prime minister, Sir Anthony Eden, who had made overthrowing Nasser a personal crusade.
Iraq today has created the most serious divisions inside the Labour Party for many years. The Independent on Sunday reported that a large majority of MPs support an informal meeting of the House of Commons to discuss the coming war if the government refuses an official session.
According to the Unison union leader Dave Prentis, 'There are a number of people in the cabinet, perhaps a majority, who are against military action.' Robin Cook, Clare Short, Margaret Beckett and Alistair Darling have all expressed, more or less, public dissent.
When Labour was in opposition Cook and Short were members of the soft left 'lunch club' that was unhappy about Neil Kinnock's support for the 1991 Gulf War. Short resigned from the Labour front bench in protest. To a significant extent the disagreements represent a revival of the division between New and Old Labour. But they go deeper than that.
Mo Mowlam was in at the ground floor of the Blairite 'project'. But last week she was scathing about Bush's plans to attack Iraq. Even Peter Mandelson, the prince of darkness himself, has written articles criticising US unilateralism. Most dangerous for Blair personally is the stance taken by Gordon Brown. Peter Oborne asked in last week's Spectator, 'Will Brown do to Blair what Macmillan did to Eden at Suez?'
Harold Macmillan was Eden's Chancellor of the Exchequer. His position on Suez was described as 'first in and first out' - he encouraged Eden to attack Egypt, but quickly jumped ship when the adventure went wrong, and replaced Eden as prime minister.
Last week Brown broke his long silence on the Bush-Blair war drive. His spokesman announced, 'Just as the chancellor has been unwavering in his support for the war against terror since 11 September, so he has consistently made clear his support for the prime minister's position on Iraq.'
No doubt this statement followed intense pressure from 10 Downing Street. But this doesn't alter the fact that Brown has carefully positioned himself to take advantage of any cabinet crisis precipitated by a war with Iraq. It's important to keep these divisions and manoeuvres in perspective.
It's Brown at least as much as Blair who is responsible for the substance of New Labour policy - the public spending freeze of the first two years, the drive to impose the Private Finance Initiative, and the support for neo-liberal policies worldwide.
Nor do the Old Labour stalwarts now sticking their heads above the parapet have any coherent alternative to the ideology of the Third Way. Remember the 1999 Balkan War, when Cook (who was then foreign secretary) and Short were among the most strident defenders of 'humanitarian' warmongering. From Seattle onwards Short has been an assiduous PR woman for the WTO and free trade. All the same, the divisions within the Labour Party are of enormous significance.
If Blair continues to press ahead with his support for Bush's war plans, he may be putting his premiership in danger. More immediately, Blair has split the labour movement from top to bottom. This is the most important difference between the planned war on Iraq and the other wars of the past 20 years.
The bigger the trade union turnout at the anti-war demonstration in London on 28 September, the worse the crisis for the government.
Alex Callinicos is the author of The Revolutionary Ideas of Karl Marx and a contributor to Marxism and the New Imperialism. Both are available from Bookmarks - phone 020 7637 1848 or go to www.bookmarks.uk.com