Tony Blair received a body blow last week from a most unexpected source – General Sir Richard Dannatt, the head of the British army.
In an interview with the Daily Mail published last Friday, Dannatt called for British troops to get out of Iraq “sometime soon” because their presence “exacerbates the security problems” in the country.
Both statements directly contradict the government’s line that the British presence in Iraq serves to prevent “terrorism” and that they should remain there for as long as it takes to “get the job done”.
When the head of the British army openly challenges a key government policy, a prime minister has two choices – sack the general, or surrender and drop the policy in question.
Instead Blair has chosen a strategy of spin, bluster and denial. He seized on milder comments made by the general the day after the Mail interview to declare that “what he is saying… is precisely the same as we’re all saying”.
Across the Atlantic, White House aides chipped in to Blair’s defence, falsely claiming that the general had been misquoted. In private George Bush’s administration was furious, bombarding Blair with phone calls demanding to upbraid Dannatt directly.
Blair refused that demand, perhaps belatedly recognising that allowing such a thing would finally reduce Britain’s standing to that of a banana republic.
Dannatt, however, is no anti-imperialist. He wants to extract British forces from the quagmire of Iraq in order to strengthen the occupation of Afghanistan.
He also came out with some dreadful guff about how the “Judaic-Christian tradition that has underpinned British society” is under threat from “the Islamist challenge to our society”.
Nevertheless, Dannatt’s comments leave Tony Blair exposed – and pose an even bigger challenge for Gordon Brown. If Brown becomes prime minister, he will have to decide whether Britain stays in or withdraws from Iraq.
Following suggestions last week that he had harboured doubts over the Iraq invasion, Brown insisted, “I was in on all of the decisions that the prime minister and I and all of the cabinet made. I was out publicly defending them at the time.”
Indeed. We should not forget Brown’s pledge of “100 percent support” for Blair, made on BBC2’s Newsnight programme five days before the crunch House of Commons vote on the war in March 2003. This intervention was crucial to Blair securing majority support among Labour MPs.
New Labour’s plan has always been for a smooth transfer of power from Blair to Brown that would guarantee pro-market and pro-US policies remaining intact.
Even this week, Brown is busy touring boardrooms in the City of London to show he is even more pro-business than Tory leader David Cameron.
But any such hope of a “smooth” transfer has now been shattered. And the ultimate credit for that lies with the Stop the War Coalition, which has kept the Iraq issue to the fore for every week that has passed since the occupation of that country began.
This pressure from below has ensured that a crisis has erupted at the very heart of the British establishment. That does more than vindicate the anti-war cause – it creates cracks and fissures that we can exploit.
The combination of a crisis at the top and pressure from the grassroots can force a British withdrawal from Iraq.
It can also wreck not just New Labour, but the entire neoliberal consensus in British politics. Now more than ever, we must keep up the pressure.
The turmoil the government is facing over Iraq explains the depths that its ministers have plumbed in their relentless attacks upon Muslims.
The mess in Iraq has pushed New Labour into lashing out at a suitable scapegoat. And this means intensifying the “clash of civilisations” promoted by White House ideologues.
Not to be outdone, David Cameron and David Davis have stepped in to show that the Tories are just as adept and eager when it comes to whipping up racism.
The contrast between this debased establishment politics and that on show at Respect’s annual conference in London last weekend could not be greater.
To even enter the Respect conference hall felt like cleansing yourself of all the filth that had been thrown at Muslims in the past weeks.
Unlike at a New Labour or Tory gathering, here were people from all walks of life united in opposing Islamophobia and the policies which help breed racism.
Muslims, Sikhs, Jews, Christians and hard bitten atheists all sat together. Peace campaigners, housing activists, trade unionists and environmentalists – plus a swathe of student Respect supporters – debated, argued and decided policy together.
Young Muslim women from east London were listened to with warmth and respect. Our councillors gave vivid reports on their work – and were open to questions over their record. Don’t try that at a New Labour gathering.
Underlying all this was a common purpose in standing together against war and Islamophobia – but also in challenging the lack of housing and other public services.
The high point of the conference was Saturday afternoon’s rally against Islamophobia. People felt privileged to hear such fine and reasoned contributions from Oliur Rahman, Lindsey German, Salma Yaqoob, John Rees and George Galloway.
This was our third conference. It marked Respect’s progress – confirmed by the coverage afforded to it on TV news. We left united in giving hope and a political voice to the vast majority of the population that pays the price for the Blair/Brown administration.
Chris Bambery is editor of Socialist Worker and a member of Respect’s national council.
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