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We Must Take Power Away from the Prime Minister

A week really is a long time. That’s all it took for the discredited Deputy Prime Minister, John “croquet” Prescott, to go from zero to hero, after making those unguarded remarks about George W Bush’s “crap” foreign policy. Suddenly he was being feted by antiwar MPs as a blunt, no-nonsense spade-caller. The Independent, announced that “everyone needs a Prezza”.
John Prescott also criticised the American President’s “cowboy” mentality, which was pretty rich coming from a politician only lately in the dock himself for pursuing his own Wild West fantasies at the US ranch of billionaire gambling magnate, Philip Anschutz. Though Prezza at least had the decency to acknowledge this himself.
There will be few who would disagree with the scatological assessment of American policy in the Middle East. Even some US neocons, like the former national security adviser Richard Perle, have begun to disown George W. Bush – though mostly for the wrong reasons. They think he hasn’t been hard enough, resolute enough in prosecuting the war for civilisation in the Middle East.
These are the people who think that the USA is involved in a war of Christian good against Muslim evil, and that only the absolute triumph of Israel over its Arab neighbours is going to make the world safe for America. Somehow, despite the disaster in Iraq, these people still seem to exert an extraordinary influence in the Pentagon and the White House, as America’s support for the abortive Israeli invasion of Lebanon confirmed.
That the policy is crap seems beyond argument. The latest Israeli incursion, supposedly to deal a fatal blow to Hezbollah, has ended with the nearest thing to a defeat that the Israeli Defence Force has experienced since 1948. The pro-Iranian militias of Hassan Nasrallah have lived to fight another day, and launch their rockets at Israel and spread their virulent anti-semitism across the Middle East. To have made heroes of Hezbollah is surely the greatest cock up in the Middle East since, well, the last one.
Where do they go from here? The Republican Right have set the Middle East on fire by the attempt to occupy a Muslim country. They have turned Iraq into a seething cauldron of hate and terrorism, immeasurably increasing the threat to the world. They have alienated young impressionable Muslims in western countries like Britain and turned Islamism, a profoundly reactionary fundamentalist creed, into a global phenomenon. In their present state of self-delusion, it could be that the Republicans may even go for broke and attack Iran for failing to abandon its nuclear programme.
After 9/11, the world was united behind America and its values of liberty, tolerance, freedom of speech and religion. But the actions of the Republican leadership since then, from Abu Ghraib to Guantanamo Bay, from Baghdad to Beirut, have shattered faith and trust in the United States a beacon of liberal democracy. The Bush Republicans, by insisting on their right to launch pre-emptive war, abandoning international law and the conventions of war, have made the world a more dangerous place – if only because of the likelihood that other countries will emulate them. This is one hell of a charge sheet.
But here’s a question: if the US policy has been so misguided and Bush such a cowboy, why have we been so prepared to ride shotgun? Why did Prescott not call a halt earlier, lead a cabinet revolt against this policy, mobilise opposition on the Labour backbenches to exercise restraint on Tony Blair? If the PM has been captured by the neocons and deployed as a useful idiot by Bush, why didn’t someone try to rescue him from himself. Why did the Deputy Prime Minister not support a return of parliament a fortnight ago to express Britain’s rejection of the crap policy in Lebanon. In short, why does Labour do nothing as the world burns?
In the wake of the attempted London bombings, and as we await to see the next disastrous turn of events, there really is no bigger question in British politics. And we need to be asking it of Gordon Brown also. The silence from the future leader of the Labour Party has been deafening. Yes, he is on paternity leave – but that doesn’t mean he can’t open his mouth, or let his views be known indirectly.
By his inaction over the years, the Chancellor has made himself complicit in this global train wreck. He has repeatedly failed to disown the disaster wrought by his boss, Tony Blair – presumably in the hope that this will ensure that “orderly transition of power” in Number Ten. But this isn’t just passive acquiescence.
During the last general election campaign, the Chancellor announced that he would have done “exactly the same” as Tony Blair faced with the Iraq WMD crisis. Are we to presume that he would have done ‘exactly the same’, again, over the Israeli invasion of the Lebanon? Well, we need to know.
Of course, some have interpreted Brown’s mega-silences as an indication that he is a closet dissident. I’ve flirted with this argument myself. Deconstructing the Chancellor’s words, it is possible to make the case that, in endorsing the war, he has only been following collective cabinet responsibility – in other words accepting the form but not the content of Tony Blair’s foreign policy. He has not made the policies his own, or indulged in triumphalism.
But that’s really not good enough. Politicians have ways of getting their messages out through unofficial channels, and no one knows this better than Gordon Brown who is a master at media politics. There are any number of ways he could have consciously distanced himself from the Iraq chaos, just as he did over variable tuition fees, foundation hospitals. Yet, he and the rest of the Labour ministerial hierarchy have simply failed to act.
Of course, he has to be careful not to cause a fall our with Blair. But this is not Saddam’s cabinet, where dissent means death, but a democracy in which all ministers are supposedly equal. The Prime Minister, as the cliche goes, is merely the First Among Equals. So where have all these supposedly co-equal Labour ministers been all these years? Why didn’t they act over the dodgy dossier of February 2003 which falsely claimed that Britons could be attacked by WMD in 45 minutes? Why didn’t they revolt in March 2003 when Blair broke his promise of a second United Nations resolution on using force in Iraq? Or over the failure to let the UN weapons inspectors do their job.
And when no weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq, why the the Labour ministers then not draw a line in the sand? Instead, they allowed the BBC to be emasculated for trying to tell the truth about how intelligence was manipulated by Downing Street to bounce Britain into a war it never wanted. As the insurgency grew in Iraq, through 2004 and 2005, why did British ministers not then again call a halt – after Abu Ghraib? Fallujah? and now Lebanon?
Where were they all? Presumably forming huddles in the liquid dungeons of Westminster, where they wrung their hands and moaned about US military adventurism – as Prescott did last week – hoping that the policy would somehow come right in the end. A lot of good that has done us. Some probably supported Saddam’s removal for humanitarian reasons, at least initially. But they should have seen that this was not what George W. Bush was looking for in Iraq, but a demonstration of US military might in the region.
Others no doubt believed America to be justified in hunting down the killers of 9/11. But if so, they should have called a halt after the invasion Afghanistan in 2001. Everything since has been an unmitigated disaster. But only the late Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, had the courage to stand out against the perversion of British foreign policy in the interests of American neo-imperialism. (And the former Development Secretary Clare Short, who resigned so belatedly it no longer counted). Where stood Harriet Harman, Charles Clarke, Jack Straw?
It is a truism that UK cabinets have become weaker in recent decades, as the power of the Prime Minister and his private office have become immeasurably greater. However, Tony Blair isn’t an absolute monarch, even if he sometimes behaves like one. He hasn’t scrapped the constitution of the United Kingdom. Parliament is still sovereign, and if Labour cabinet ministers – even three of them – had made a stand, then Blair could have been stopped in his tracks. Even the threat of a cabinet revolt might have halted the madness, because Tony Blair would have realised that he faced his own political ruination in sticking by Bush.
But clearly, the existing constitutional arrangements are no longer working. Relying on the conscience and independence of ministers, individually and collectively, is no longer enough. Something has to be done effectively to curb the arbitrary and unaccountable power of the Prime Minister – if only to prevent him being captured again by powerful American interests.
Reading accounts of the origins of the war, what comes over most strongly is the enormous discretion a British Prime Minister seems to exercise. It was Tony Blair, personally, who signed up to the Middle East strategy, not his government, still less Britain. Millions marched in the streets against a war in Iraq. Members of the security services, and weapons analysts like the late Dr David Kelly, warned Number Ten about the strategy. We know from the Butler Report that there was widespread disagreement in British intelligence about the reliability of the sources on which the PM based his assertions that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction.
The opposition was reflected in parliament. In September 2002 and March 2003, Tony Blair suffered two of the worst rebellions inflicted a British Prime Minister since Irish Home Rule. It did no good, because our system of election confers something close to dictatorial powers on a PM between elections. Labour’s inflated 160 seat majority in the last parliament did not reflect the true minority support for Labour in the country, but it allowed Tony Blair to do more or less what he liked. A messianic politician, who has an unshakeable conviction in his own infallibility, he exploited this to the full.
Now, of course, the British voters had an opportunity to pass their verdict on his conduct in the general election of 2005. Tony Blair was re-elected, which reignited his own faith in himself. However, that election was an unreliable guide to the popularity of Tony Blair himself.
After the opinion poll meltdown in the first week of the 2005 election campaign, Gordon Brown allowed himself to be ‘joined at the hip’ with Tony Blair in order to save the Labour government. So desperate were Labour ministers to retain their own precarious hold on power, they lined up behind their discredited leader and pretended that Iraq was a dead issue. Like royal courtiers, their own fate became inextricably linked to that of their leader. The power of patronage places too much power in the hands of the Prime Minister of the day.
Perhaps Brown was under the impression that Blair intended to hand over power shortly after the election. But if so he was singularly naive – Blair had broken his promises before and Brown had nothing in writing. As things stand today, the PM seems minded to hang on and on until 2009 if he can.
The only way of holding politicians to account is to keep them on a tight democratic rein. The reality is that, while the PM may have theoretical powers, derived from Royal Prerogative, to declare war without a vote by MPs in parliament, in practice, he needs their political support.
We can’t rely on ministers. Only parliament can exert democratic control. It is therefore imperative that there is the introduction of proportional representation in Westminster, to strip the Prime Minister of his powers of elective dictatorship. Party representation in Westminster must reflect votes cast in the country, and not the vanity of the party leader. Under a co-operative system, no PM, however headstrong, could steamroller legislation or bounce the country into war simply because of his thirst for glory. If the House of Commons had been elected on the same electoral system as Holyrood, Britain would never have gone to war in Iraq. And we wouldn’t have been landed in the crap we are in now.

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About iain2macwhirter

Writer and journalist.

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