There are many reasons for condemning the London bombings. One is that the attacks have, temporarily at least, politically strengthened Tony Blair.
This is despite the fact that the government has failed in its efforts to deny any connection between the bombings and the war in Iraq. No less than 85 percent in a Daily Mirror/GMTV poll blamed the bombings on the invasion of Iraq.
The final nail in the coffin of the government’s case came at the weekend. Details of the police interrogation of Hussain Osman, arrested in Rome on suspicion of being one of the 21 July attempted suicide bombers, were leaked to the Italian press.
According to La Repubblica, Osman said, “More than praying we discussed work, politics, the war in Iraq. We always had films about the war in Iraq… in which you could see Iraqi women and children who had been killed by US and UK soldiers.”
It is interesting that at his press conference on Tuesday of last week Blair himself began to backtrack. He said, “I read occasionally that I am supposed to have said it is nothing to do with Iraq, in inverted commas. I haven’t said that.”
Blair then went on to try and confuse the issue by saying that those who traced the bombings to the Iraq war were trying to justify them. This is nonsense. Nevertheless, the government’s
total failure to isolate the bombings from the war doesn’t mean that Blair is on the ropes politically.
Commentator Andrew Rawnsley pointed to the “paradox” that “the prime minister who took Britain into Iraq is also enjoying the best approval ratings he has had since before the war. They judge him to be good in a crisis even when they think he has some responsibility for that crisis.”
We shouldn’t overstate this change. According to Mori, 44 percent of people polled in mid-July said they were satisfied with Blair’s performance, compared to 39 percent a month earlier — hardly a popular earthquake.
There are several reasons for the shift that has nevertheless taken place. One is that Blair and his ministers behaved much more intelligently and cautiously than the Aznar government did after the Madrid bombings in Spain in March 2004.
They didn’t, as Aznar did, launch a media campaign designed to deceive people about who placed the bombs and they didn’t try to stir up a hue and cry against all Muslims.
But the most important factor playing into the government’s hands is fear. People are scared, particularly in London. The careful official response encouraged people to look to the state for protection.
Fear, however, won’t necessarily continue to work to Blair’s advantage. The Financial Times reports that Labour MPs are worried that “anti-government sentiments could develop over the next weeks and months if there are more attacks”.
Blair himself is a liability for the government, as his petulant press conference performance showed. “11 September was for me a wake up call,” he said. “Do you know what I think the problem is? That a lot of the world woke up for a short time and then turned over and went back to sleep again.”
This kind of self-righteous John the Baptist stuff isn’t going to go down very well with people who have to commute every day on vulnerable public transport while Blair is swept everywhere in an armoured limousine protected by a police convoy.
The other thing the press conference made clear is that the government’s priority is further attacks on civil liberties in the guise of anti-terrorist legislation. The public mood is fragile and contradictory. The government is trying to use the bombings to create a pro-war consensus.
The combination of new anti-terrorist legislation and calls on Muslim leaders to “root out” the “evil ideology” of radical Islamism is intended to isolate Muslims in Britain and intimidate them from involvement in the anti-war movement.
There is no reason why these efforts should succeed. The connection between Iraq and the bombings can very easily turn against the government. But to help bring this change about the anti-war movement needs to oppose the assault on civil liberties that is now at the cutting edge of government policy.