Looking for redemption
Will Tony Blair be mainly remembered for his claims about Iraq and WMD? Not if he can help it, writes Eddie Ford
Getting his gloves off, Tony Blair signalled last week that the political establishment was not going to take Brexit lying down - the fightback begins for real. In a speech hosted by the cross-party Open Britain at Bloomberg’s London office, Blair on February 17 urged the British people to “rise up” against Brexit - you were deceived on June 23 last year.1 But the truth will out.
All those who backed ‘remain’, argued Blair, need to “build support” for a campaign or movement to prevent the “rush over the cliff’s edge”. Indeed, Blair added, even the term ‘hard Brexit’ requires changing: “The policy is now Brexit at any cost”. But, alas, he told his City audience, another challenge is the absence of an opposition party which looks capable of beating the government - the “debilitation of the Labour Party is the facilitator of Brexit”.
“Our challenge,” he declared, “is to expose relentlessly the actual cost” and to “show how this decision was based on imperfect knowledge, which will now become informed knowledge” - proceeding with Brexit “will cause real damage to the country and its citizens”. Blair stated that the British people voted without understanding the “true terms” of Brexit - but, as the real terms become clear, it is “their right to change their mind” and “our mission” is to “persuade them to do so”.
Boris Johnson, one of the leading Brexiters - but only because he thought it would never happen - complained about Blair “insulting the intelligence of the electorate”. He wanted the British people to “rise up and turn off the TV” the next time Blair “comes on with his condescending campaign”. As for Michael Gove, a Brexit true believer, who brought Johnson’s prime ministerial ambitions to a swift and bloody end, he accused the ex-Labour leader of “trying to undermine British democracy” - the Brexit vote is sacrosanct. Green Party leader and Brighton MP Caroline Lucas was not impressed either. Though anti-Brexit, she called Blair’s intervention “staggeringly unhelpful” and said it would be better if he had “butted out” of the debate. Blunter in its assessment, the Daily Mail described Blair as “away with the fairies”, not to mention “delusional and messianic”.2
However, as communists are the first to point out, there is a kernel of truth to what Blair says - just to denounce his speech would be idiotic. It is surely a statement of fact that the mass of the British people, even some readers of the Weekly Worker, were not familiar with the details surrounding article 50, the single market, customs union, World Trade Organisation rules, etc. They did not know what the end result of the Brexit negotiations would be, nor do we now. Were the over 17 million who voted ‘leave’ going for a hard Brexit as opposed to a soft Brexit? Whatever the likes of Johnson or Gove might insist, the answer is less than obvious. People voted ‘leave’ for all sorts of different reasons, some contradictory - the same can be said, of course, for ‘remain’ voters.
As for Scotland, we were told that the independence referendum would settle the matter for a generation - an obvious nonsense, as we are now seeing and as the CPGB pointed out at the time (unlike some of the left who economistically thought that politics would now return to ‘normal’). As soon as the EU vote was announced on June 23, both Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond began making noises about a second attempt at independence. Under conditions of a bad Brexit deal, you can imagine that swinging the vote in their favour - William Hill currently giving odds of 8/11 in favour of ‘yes’.3 Furthermore, there have been noisy protests on the main road between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland - with anti-Brexit campaigners wearing World War II-era greatcoats setting up fake customs checkpoints and bringing traffic to a standstill.4
Naturally enough, Lord Peter Mandelson lined up his anti-Brexit guns behind Blair in a show of solidarity. Appearing on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show, he said the public could be turning against Brexit when they eventually realise they are being offered less trade at a higher cost and with no real cut in immigration. He claimed that the “crucial issue” was the ability of MPs and peers to look at the deal Theresa May eventually strikes with Europe and “send the government back to the negotiating table” if necessary.
Then, writing next day in The Independent, he denounced Theresa May for lacking “political courage” and going “full pelt” to “avoid any public debate” about Britain’s options in Europe - instead “rushing off to Washington to show we are not friendless” (February 20). We must not lose sight of the fact, implored Mandelson, that our prosperity for “decades to come” is at stake and the country is entitled to make up their minds on the issue - “not just half of it”. Brexit can be stopped.
Though not exactly a revelation, Mandelson told an event for the Jewish Chronicle that he was working “every single day” to bring an end to the present Labour leadership - Corbyn “literally has no idea in the 21st century how to conduct himself as a leader of a party putting itself forward in a democratic election to become the government of our country”.5 Mandelson was not prepared to “pass the title deeds of this great party over to someone like Jeremy Corbyn” - something that he could only “resent”. Mandelson pledged to the JC’s readers that he will do everything possible to “save the Labour Party from his leadership”.
Meanwhile, the government generously set aside five days for debating the Brexit bill. This is guaranteed to go through the House of Lords, with Labour once again promising not to obstruct or block it - even though the government, rather oddly in some respects, does not have anywhere near a majority in the second chamber. Slightly pathetically, Labour merely hopes to force concessions on issues like giving parliament a “meaningful” vote before the end of the Brexit negotiations and guaranteeing the rights of EU citizens already legally settled in the UK.
If the bill is not amended, which seems the most likely outcome, then it could theoretically be approved by the Lords at the third reading on March 7, becoming law shortly afterwards. Once article 50 is invoked, as our readers know, there will be up to two years of talks on the terms of the UK’s departure and its future relationship with the EU unless all member-states agree to extend the deadline - which could happen.
Of course, if the referendum result had gone the other way, with a narrow margin for ‘remain’, then you can be sure that Tony Blair would not be making these kinds of arguments: ie, for continued debate and discussion and some sort of revote. The sensible will of the people must be obeyed.
Blair, it needs to be said, is not necessarily arguing for a second referendum - that is a ‘tactical’ or secondary question. What he really wants is a broad-based, cross-party political movement - like a mass version of Open Britain - to reverse what he considers to be the madness of Brexit. From his point of view, and that of the UK ruling class as a whole - together with much of the western establishment - Brexit is very bad news indeed: it opens up a Pandora’s box with regards to France, Holland, Italy, Hungary, Poland, etc. With Donald Trump now in the White House, who knows what is going to happen to the EU project?
By all appearances, the establishment is beginning to get its act together - but were they wise to pick Tony Blair as their mouthpiece? When Nicola Sturgeon praised the “quality of analysis and argument” in Blair’s speech, she came under a hail of criticism. At the very least, her words were considered tactically inept, given that people deserted Labour for the Scottish National Party in their droves because of Tony Blair and Iraq. Blair might well go down in history as the man who lied to parliament - surely he knew that Saddam Hussein had no “weapons of mass destruction” ready to hit targets in Europe within 45 minutes? Politically, Blair is highly toxic, but he did not suddenly decide to make a speech one day: he is fronting a campaign which will be joined by others - Peter Mandelson, John Major, Nick Clegg, Kenneth Clarke …
Then again, maybe Blair’s own self-conception - or delusion - is that he will go down not as the man who lied about Iraq, but as the man who saved Britain from the disaster of Brexit. You cannot entirely dismiss such a possibility - Blair is not just a failed politician. We can surely envisage a situation where opinion polls can be swung around, where the parliamentary balance can be changed, or where the cost to big business is so great that - one way or another - Britain end ups staying within the EU.
Look, for example, at Vauxhall, which directly or indirectly employs tens of thousands. PSA, which owns Peugeot and Citroen, is talking about taking over not just Vauxhall, but the whole of General Motors’ loss-making operations in Europe, including plants at Luton and Ellesmere Port. But these plants, obviously, are heavily dependent on EU sales, as well as large numbers of imported components from mainland Europe. Apparently, PSA has been offered the same ‘sweetheart’ deal by the May government as Nissan - whatever the hell that is. Presumably a guarantee of subsidies if they find themselves having to pay tariffs? According to World Trade Organisation rules, however, subsides that create an ‘unfair advantage’ are illegal - and therefore extra duties, charges and tariffs could be imposed on Vauxhall, or PSA.
All this is happening in the context of chronic overcapacity: crazily, they are producing more cars than consumers can possibly want or afford to buy. Therefore it is only reasonable to assume that this takeover, if it happens, will go hand in hand with closures. Now, under Brexit conditions, if you are PSA what do you do - close down your Rennes or Luton factory? Luton operating under WTO rules, with tariffs on the parts you import from Germany - then more tariffs again on the cars and vans you export back to Europe. The answer is obvious. All things being equal, you would tend to close down Luton or Ellesmere Port. This is precisely the problem with Brexit. In the words of the Financial Times, there could be “an outbreak of buyer’s remorse” - something that “would be far more worrying for the Brexiters than any speech from Tony Blair” (February 17). Brexit will not be plain sailing, but neither is departure inevitable.
In a dismal survey of the Brexit situation, Alex Callinicos of the Socialist Workers Party bemusedly notes that “on the face of it” the Tories “should be more divided than Labour by the vote to leave the European Union” -185 Tory MPs voted ‘remain’ last year, while only 135 were for ‘leave’, and yet 58% of Tory voters backed Brexit. On the other hand, only 10 Labour MPs and 37% of Labour voters opted for ‘leave’ (Socialist Worker February 14). Remember, the reason given by the SWP for backing Brexit (ditto Scotland independence) was that apparently, it would damage the ruling class and - you guessed it - “shatter” the Tories. Unfortunately for comrade Callinicos, reality has intervened - only one Tory MP (Kenneth Clarke) voted against the triggering of article 50, and the Tory Party as a whole is solidly united behind May’s premiership. The SWP’s Brexit premise was radically false.
Wretchedly, Callinicos also writes that it is “an illusion to imagine the referendum result can be reversed” - the immediate response being it is an illusion to think that Brexit cannot be reversed; that it is somehow immutable and eternal. Given the right opportunity, the ruling class could well still seize its moment to call a halt to a process that is clearly not in its interests - although, of course, the election of a certain Donald Trump has made that altogether uncertain. With tiresome predictability, Callinicos concludes his article with the asinine remark that Corbyn can only save his leadership “if he breaks out of Westminster to lead the emerging mass movement against the racist future offered by May and her new friend in the White House”.
Yes, forget all this parliamentary and electoral stuff - just get out on the streets to protest against racism alongside … most of the establishment, who too are outraged by racism, some getting enthusiastically involved with the anti-Trump protests. John Bercow, the speaker of the House of Commons, wants to ban the US president from addressing parliament - unlike the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, whom he praised in 2015 as “the leader of a nation that is both very ancient and truly modern”, which is “engaged in an experience and an experiment without equal in history”: ie, the “second Chinese revolution”.6 But Xi Jinping is not a racist, so it is a completely different story.
But what exactly is the SWP’s position on Europe? We could be waiting a long time for an answer, as the SWP takes an essentially anarchistic position when it comes to high politics, avoiding questions about the way we are ruled and instead looking forward to the next demonstration.