Against the war, in the U.K.

Print edition : November 24, 2001

There is a growing tide of opposition in the U.K. to the country's role in the military action in Afghanistan, particularly to Prime Minister Tony Blair's total commitment to whatever the U.S. does.

ON November 1, a full seven weeks after the terrorist attacks on the United States, the House of Commons finally had a vote on British actions subsequent to the epoch-making horrors of September 11. Even then it was only a vote on the technicality of an adjournment and not a substantive debate allowing for a motion and possible amendments. In the event, only 385 of the 655 members voted, with only 13 (plus four tellers) voting against the adjournment and thereby against the bombing campaign in Afghanistan. The dissenters were 11 Labour members accompanied by some Scottish Nationalists and some Plaid Cymru (Welsh Nationalists).

Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon said during the debate that the members of Parliament would have to back the military action "for as long as it takes to achieve our aims". But it is the apprehensions about exactly what those aims are and who is setting them that are leading to growing concern throughout the United Kingdom.

Immediately after the terrorist attacks, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, acting with characteristic impulsiveness, announced that Britain would "stand shoulder to shoulder with the U.S." He said this without waiting to ascertain what the U.S. would do in its widely anticipated retaliation, and without consulting his own Cabinet, let alone Parliament. The "aims" have moved swiftly from bringing Osama bin Laden to justice, to removing the Taliban government, to combating terrorism everywhere. Simultaneously, Blair has undertaken a strenuous round of shuttle diplomacy nominally to strengthen "the alliance" in favour of supporting the U.S.'s actions. However, he was clearly uncomfortable with the frank and hostile differences of opinions expressed by such contrasting parties as Syria and Israel.

Blair's critics have hinted that Blair was ill-advised to go on such a round, for rather than strengthen his own position it actually underlined how subservient he is to the U.S. The robustly independent British weekly news digest The Week took a line following many political cartoonists with its headline 'Is Mr. Blair America's puppet?'

As the bombing intensified and the television screens were filled with evidence of civilian casualties opposition to the military action in Afghanistan grew. A poll published in the liberal newspaper The Guardian showed that 54 per cent of interviewees wanted a pause in the bombing to allow the distribution of humanitarian aid. The Welsh Nationalists, who have made huge electoral inroads into traditional Labour heartlands in recent years, came out unequivocally against the military action. And the Liberal-Democrat leader Charles Kennedy became the first prominent national figure to speak against the blanket bombing by the infamous U.S. B-52s. Blair and his allies, ever proud of their presentation skills, are worried that they are losing the war for "hearts and minds".

The manipulation of consensus in Westminster came to light when a hitherto unrebellious and unremarked Labour backbencher, Paul Marsden, gave voice to his own doubts. Many in the House hooted scornfully at Marsden's naive sincerity when Speaker Michael John Martin dismissed his request for a vote by sarcastically saying that he did not understand Parliamentary procedure. To add insult to injury, Marsden was then interrogated by Labour's Chief Whip, Hillary Armstrong, who told him war was not "a matter of conscience" and accused Marsden as being akin to those who had appeased Hitler in 1938. A doubly outraged Marsden had his revenge by publishing the Whip's remarks and signing up for the newly founded "Labour Against the War". Blair had to retrieve something from the situation, and he tried to do so with a public statement that dissent was part of democracy.

"Labour against the War" has drawn up a statement condemning the outrages of September 11 as a violation of "the human rights of working people of many races" and goes on to call for the U.K. government "to use diplomatic and political methods to bring the alleged perpetrators of terrorism to justice". Outside Parliament though people have been less hesitant in expressing their opposition to military action. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), which is enjoying a revival with its opposition to the U.S.' plans for 'son of star wars', has played a leading role.

Britain's three railway unions have made executive statements against the military campaign and they have been joined latterly by other unions. An important influence on the growing tide of opposition to the military action has been the vigorous non-governmental organisations (NGOs), many of whom have been carrying out humanitarian missions in Afghanistan.

ANOTHER significant source of opposition to Blair's undeclared war is the attitude of Britain's Muslims. Although national leaders have been muted in their opposition, there is simmering discontent among the Muslims in the industrial centres which are only gingerly recovering from outbreaks of racial hostility over the summer. The situation has been inflamed by the media playing up stories of small numbers of malcontents volunteering to fight with the Taliban. Nor is the situation aided by the jumbling up in the news media and by politicians of the terms "Muslims" and "Arabs". Overall, what is at best a reprehensible slackness of expression and at worst deliberate confusion, does little to assuage those fears excited by George W. Bush's initial call for a "crusade". The government spokesperson quickly dropped the description "Islamic terrorists", but the damage had been done.

Blair's commitment to whatever the U.S. does has left his government with no exit strategy of its own. The Prime Minister does not seem to grasp the fact that horror and condemnation of terror does not necessarily translate into support for military action in Afghanistan. Blair is finding the domestic coalition as hard to hold together as the international one.

Michael Hindley was a Labour Party member of the European Parliament from 1984 to 1999.

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