We have moved on, but our politicians are stuck on war

Democracy is in danger when we can't recognise ourselves in our rulers

Jackie Ashley
Thursday March 6, 2003
The Guardian

Why are they so out of touch? On Iraq, there is a gaping gulf between the views of most people and the views of the political elite. We protest, they smile and nod; but they don't really listen. Polling has consistently shown the majority of the country opposed to a war on Iraq: only around 25% would back war without much stronger evidence from Hans Blix and a second UN resolution. Yet, the government insists, if necessary, Britain will join the United States in going it alone.

Is it simply that the political classes are literally insulated? A short taste of travelling with the Blair team last week reminded me of that - the cheery, supportive team of advisers, the polite civil servants, the police outriders clearing the traffic, the natural deference that surrounds a prime minister. Even for ordinary ministers, Westminster and Whitehall act as a kind of cocoon. The shouts in the street have bounced off those walls for centuries.

The rebellion of 122 Labour MPs shows that the backbenchers, at least, have been listening to the views of their local party activists. The whips may be frightening when trying to persuade MPs to toe the party line, but when reselection comes around, the constituency parties turn out to be more frightening still. The Liberal Democrats, with some nervousness, are with the majority of ordinary people in their scepticism about war. Even the Tories, though overwhelmingly pro-war, have their dissident group, which makes up in quality what it lacks in numbers.

But for all that, the Commons is much keener on war against Iraq than the country is - Tony Blair has a commanding majority there, even now - and the government is even keener than the Commons. Stretch the idea of a political elite a little further to include editors and opinion-forming columnists, and you see the same thing: this paper and the Mirror aside, most of the influential political writers and papers seem to be pro-war, despite the views of their readers.

The gulf in opinion is awesome. Day after day, week after week, psephologists bring back evidence of a country at odds with its rulers, and a Labour party at odds with its leadership. Tony Blair is now getting his lowest ratings ever. Some Labour MPs warn of a "tragic split". Many are becoming jittery about the willingness of local parties to go out and campaign. The anecdotal evidence is overwhelming: through middle England to the inner cities, from the Scottish countryside to the terraces of Bath, this is a country that does not believe a moral case has been made for war.

And it is the political elite that is out of kilter, not the rest of influential Britain. The churches; most well-known writers, musicians and actors; academics and philosophers - all of them are with the majority.

The picture looks even more striking if you compare it to the European continent. There too, huge majorities are against war. More than 70% of Italians oppose it, even with a second UN resolution; 83% of French voters back President Chirac's stance; 57% of Germans regard the US as "a nation of warmongers" against just 6% who believe George Bush is striving for peace. In Spain, where Jose Maria Aznar is a rare ally of Tony Blair's and a co-sponsor of the draft second resolution, the polls are heavily against him and even two-thirds of his own rightwing party oppose war.

Yet in most cases, Spain and Italy being notable exceptions, the European political elites are far closer to the views of their people. In France, Germany, Russia, most of Scandinavia, as well as the Mediterranean countries, politicians are wary about going too far ahead of their voters. This gulf of opinion between political leaders and the country seems to be particularly strong in Britain.

Leave aside, for a moment, the question of who is right, and ask again: why? What is it about the British political classes that has made them so pro-war? There are three explanations that go beyond the simple one of them being insulated, or out of touch.

The first is the historic one. The British political culture is saturated with imperial and Churchillian memories, even now. We saw it during the Falklands and are seeing it again today. Comparisons between local dictators and Hitler; the peculiar force of the word "appeasement"; the notion that you should strike early, while there is still time; and a residual sense of sub-imperial mission - they are all still there in the genetic code of British politics.

It is something that the British political elite shares with Washington, particularly under Republicans. Churchill's bust decorates the White House and his words flavour the rhetoric and the thinking of Bush and Rumsfeld.

This is a two-way traffic: the second reason for our pro-war political elite is that British politicians are very susceptible to Washington thinking generally. They follow American politics. They read American speeches. They are flattered and feel at home when visiting Congress. The political TV with the strongest emotional hold over British politics recently isn't Newsnight or Panorama. It's The West Wing.

So, in the case of Iraq, there is a kind of cascade of conviction. Bush is determined on war, for reasons that run from the religious to the cynical. His conviction infuses the administration, which in turn infuses the British political elite.

Not that they are being entirely high-minded: the third reason is naked power politics, explained with impressive bluntness by Jack Straw to the Commons foreign affairs committee this week. We live in a "unipolar" world, he told the MPs: you either worked with the giant superpower, and tried to keep it inside international law, or you let it rampage unchecked.

Many of us would say that the British position is that we have decided to work with the superpower outside international law, and simply rampage alongside it. But the fundamental argument is clear. Like the Thatcher administration, the Blair government believes that British interests are always served by being as close to America as possible, come what may. We are their pilot fish, scavenging in Leviathan's wake. That is British foreign policy, stripped bare. It is not dignified and it is against this that the Tory grandees, like Hurd and Clarke, revolt with old-fashioned nationalistic pride.

We have an Americanised, historically warlike and pro-superpower political elite. It is also overwhelmingly male, and generally older than the population as a whole. The political problem is that the rest of the country has moved on, and changed. The British public is like the French public and the German public. We are a mixed, liberal, sceptical lot, who don't take to Bush and flinch from Christian fundamentalism almost as much as from the Islamic variety. That is why there is such turmoil, such enthusiasm for mass marches and protests. We look at our ruling elite and we do not recognise ourselves in them. In any democracy, that is a dangerous moment.