Monday, June 04, 2007

The New Chamberlain

This article of mine appears in today's Morning Star.

Tony Blair has often been compared to Winston Churchill by neo-conservatives, particularly in the lead-up to the Iraq war. But the British Prime Minister Blair has most in common with, at least in regard to foreign policy, is Churchill's predecessor, Neville Chamberlain, who became Prime Minister exactly seventy years ago this week. Chamberlain came to office with a clear agenda: to appease the sovereignty-destroying, warmongers of Nazi Germany. Blair's agenda was very similar: to appease the sovereignty-destroying, warmongers of the United States. Millions of deaths may have been avoided if Britain had stood firm at Munich, hundreds of thousands if Britain had said no to war against Iraq.

But while both men's policies of appeasement proved disastrous, Chamberlain, unlike Blair, did have some valid excuses.

Britain was relatively unprepared for war in 1938. Radar, which played such a decisive role in the Battle of Britain, covered only the Thames Estuary at the time of Munich; when Britain did finally declare war a year later, the chain ran from the Orkneys to the Isle of Wight. The RAF had 400 Spitfires in September 1939, a year earlier they had only five. Only 240 aircraft a month were being made in 1938, in 1939, the total was 660.
Chamberlain's capitulation to Nazi demands at Munich may have been shameful, but it did buy the country another crucial year.
Because it was clear to everyone that Chamberlain had done all he could to avoid war, when the conflict did finally break out, the British people stood united. No one disputed that the Nazis were the aggressors and that Britain held the moral high ground. How very different to 2003!

Rather than being the last resort, war against Iraq had been long planned by Washington's neo-conservatives. The attack- however its apologists try to dress it up- was a blatant act of aggression- which in terms of its immorality and illegality was no different to Nazi Germany's attack on Poland in 1939. Instead of helping to instigate an illegal invasion of a defenceless and impoverished nation, Blair could instead have allied Britain with countries such as France, Germany and Russia who were trying to prevent the conflict. Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter said recently that if Blair had distanced himself from the Bush administration's policy during the run-up to the Iraq invasion it might have made a crucial difference to American political and public opinion. "One of the defences of the Bush administration... has been, okay, we must be more correct in our actions than the world thinks because Great Britain is backing us. So the combination of Bush and Blair giving their support to this tragedy in Iraq has strengthened the effort and has made the opposition less effective and prolonged the war and increased the tragedy that has resulted."

There's also one more important, moral difference between Chamberlain and Blair. Whatever we think of his strategy, Chamberlain, scarred by the horrors of the First World War, was acting out a genuine desire to avoid bloodshed. "I am myself a man of peace from the depths of my soul", he declared in 1938. A gentle man whose hobby was bird-watching, Chamberlain mistakenly believed that if some of Hitler's territorial claims could be met, a major European war could be averted.
Tragically, Chamberlain´s policies only made war more likely, as they encouraged Hitler to up his territorial demands.

Blair, from a generation who have forgotten what war is like, is, by contrast, someone who can't get enough of military conflicts- as his record of five wars in ten years evidences.

It's also interesting to reflect on the fates of both men. In 1940 Chamberlain left office a broken man and died soon afterwards. Blair leaves office equally discredited, but planning a glittering post-Downing Street future, possibly at the World Bank, almost certainly on the lucrative U.S. lecture circuit. At least in the 1940s, politicians still had some honour.

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