The warfare state

Now that the fog of war has lifted and the post-war triumphalism has proved short-lived, it is time to assess the implications of Blair's drive to war for British democracy writes David Beetham

June 1, 2003 · 13 min read

In the January 2003 edition of Red Pepper (‘Nothing rotten with the state of Britain?’) I summarised the conclusions of Democratic Audit’s latest assessment of the state of democracy and freedom in the UK, identifying both positive and negative features of New Labour’s record. Some people thought we had been too generous. Yet we had already identified the increasing prevalence of the ‘Hyde’ tendency in New Labour’s split personality and the severe limitations of ‘modernisation’ in the Blair approach to questions of political reform.

How does the decision to go to war against Iraq look from this perspective, and what does it tell us about the condition of our democracy? Does it represent a deep flaw in the democratic process, or is it simply a one-off fit of recklessness by a political leader misled by his own moral enthusiasm for tidying up the world on the back of US power?

We need to distinguish the questions of why Blair came to dig himself into such a deep hole with no exit strategy in the first place, and how he managed to drag the country kicking and screaming into that hole alongside him. Both have democratic implications, while the first also touches on the international dimension of our democracy. I shall start with that.

Democracy in international policy

Although democratic norms are often not seen as relevant to a country’s foreign and international policy, in its framework of democracy assessment Democratic Audit identified a number of questions to help judge this whole area. One question asks about a country’s respect for international law, on the grounds that a government can hardly claim the democratic accolade for the rule of law at home if it manifestly violates it abroad.

Now it may well be a fact that international law is often vaguer than domestic law, but most international lawyers agree that the invasion of Iraq was a flagrant breach of the UN charter. The charter only allows the use of armed force in self-defence or with the explicit authorisation of the UN Security Council.

Nor was the Iraq war simply a one-off disregard by Blair, since he has consistently argued for a right of unilateral enforcement of UN resolutions. In a speech in 1999 in South Africa he said: ‘When the international community agrees certain objectives and then fails to implement them… countries with a sense of global responsibility must take on the burden.’ In other words, Blair claims the right to act as international policeman in enforcing UN resolutions. Clearly, he has also claimed the right to choose which resolutions to enforce and which to ignore. In our view this does not count as ‘respect for the international rule of law’.

Blair has argued that to wait for UN resolutions explicitly authorising force may mean standing by while humanitarian catastrophes unfold, as in Kosovo, and that the moral imperative for intervention must override considerations of narrow legality. Whatever our view may be about Kosovo, it is clear that the moral argument has now been stretched beyond the prevention of humanitarian catastrophe to justify the forcible removal of any undemocratic regime that violates the human rights of its people – as in Afghanistan and now Iraq.

At this point a second Democratic Audit question becomes relevant, one that asks about the consistency of a country’s support for democracy and human rights abroad. When democracy and human rights are used to morally justify government policy ‘consistency’ is crucial. Such arguments lose all force if they are applied selectively, as they have been. And while we believe that it is indeed a characteristic of democratic countries that they should support democracy and human rights internationally, this cannot be done by bombs and armed invasion; these means violate the very norms in question.

Tony Blair and his supporters justify the costs of war and foreign occupation to the Iraqi people by their liberation from the evils of Saddam’s regime. Yet how can anyone presume to make such a calculus with any conviction, let alone do so without the invitation of those people?

A claim to the moral high ground does not come well from governments that have actively colluded in the deaths of thousands of Iraqi children through economic sanctions and the denial of medical supplies, and which ignore great evils across the world that could be ameliorated at much less economic and social cost than that incurred by warfare.

The argument that Saddam represented a unique threat to world peace was not credible, even before the failure to find any so-called weapons of mass destruction. A much greater threat to world peace has been the undermining of the UN and its principles, and the weakening of the restraints on the use of force as an instrument of international policy.

Democratic Audit also examines the extent to which a country is free from subordination to external powers. The logic is that democratic self-government is compromised when decisions affecting the well-being of a country’s citizens are determined through such subordination.

Although the idea of a ‘special relationship’ between the UK and the US implies a voluntary compact between equals, in practice it conceals a fundamental dependency by the UK on US military technology and intelligence to sustain British nuclear status. It also encourages considerable self-delusion about British influence over US foreign policy.

Both of these aspects have been thrown into sharp relief since the start of the Bush presidency, since when the UK has been bounced into policies that have more to do with the paranoia and imperial ambition than with the UK’s own national interest or security. It is high time that this dependent relationship was subjected to serious public scrutiny and debate, not out of crude anti-Americanism but for its damaging consequences to our international relationships – especially with our European partners.

Selective disregard for the international rule of law, inconsistent and self-defeating intervention to support democracy and human rights abroad, subordination to the agenda of an imperialist US clique and its economic paymasters – these have been consistent features of Blair’s administration over the last few years. The invasion of Iraq is no aberration; it constitutes the model of Blairite international policy.

A lack of accountability at home

What does the decision to invade Iraq reveal about the state of our democracy at home? Some have argued that it shows UK democracy in fine working order. Thus Blair’s decision to back the UN inspectors with British troops shows him doing what political leaders are supposed to do – giving a clear lead to the country. In this he was supported by a large majority in the cabinet.

Protests in the country and in his own party forced Blair to hold a parliamentary vote before troops were actually committed to battle, and not to rely on the Royal Prerogative as he was constitutionally entitled to do. He persuaded a majority of Labour MPs and Parliament to support his decision. Public opinion then rallied behind him once battle was joined. In other words, the system of representative democracy worked exactly as it should.

This purely formalistic account of the decision-making process is wholly disingenuous. The decision to oust Saddam Hussain by force was taken by Bush in early 2002 at the latest; it was rapidly endorsed by Blair. A timetable for military action was set. A phoney UN arms inspection process was inaugurated as cover for the amassing of US and UK troops on the Iraqi border. Once the troops were gathered it was inconceivable that they would not be used, as neither Bush nor Blair could survive the loss of face involved in withdrawing them. But if they were to be used, then it had to be done by mid-March for logistical reasons. All the rest was so much window dressing. In effect Labour MPs on 18 March were presented with a stark choice: vote for war, or allow the Blair government to fall.

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that our democracy has been substantially degraded by this breathtaking demonstration of bad faith, with its continuously shifting justifications for war and its continuously shifting attitude to UN Security Council resolutions.

Particularly damaging has been the manipulation of public opinion through the doctoring and fabrication of intelligence information about weapons of mass destruction. ‘Trust us because we know something you don’t, but we can’t reveal our sources’ may serve to convince the gullible, but it undermines the democratic processes of public scrutiny and independent verification as the basis for policy. For a government so immersed in ‘spin’ such manipulation may have become second nature, but it raises a fundamental question about the accountability of the intelligence services and their relation to government and Parliament.

Admittedly, foreign policy has traditionally been the area least subject to democratic debate and control of all our politics; and the high level of public debate and reasoned opposition to war against Iraq among all sections of society clearly took the government completely by surprise. Yet the way Blair was able, despite this opposition, to push through a very personalised campaign for war reveals much wider problems of our democratic condition.

Successive Democratic Audits have highlighted the lack of effective democratic checks and balances in the political process. These absences allow political leaders to develop a belief in their own infallibility, and to become so personally identified with their own chosen policies that they have no way of backing down without incurring an unacceptable loss of face. This is the story of Mrs Thatcher and the poll tax, and now, more tragically, of Blair and the invasion of Iraq. At the root of these and similar policy disasters is a combination of systemic defects in the democratic process:

  • the power of the prime minister’s personal policy office and propaganda machine, which undermines the spirit if not the letter of cabinet government;
  • the dominance of the government over its MPs in Parliament through the payroll vote and the patronage and sanctions exercised by the party whips;
  • an electoral system that delivers enormous parliamentary majorities to a single governing party on a minority of the popular vote;
  • the decline of inner-party democracy, and the inability of party members to hold their leaders accountable; and
  • the enfeeblement of opposition parties – there has been only one transfer of power in nearly a quarter of a century.

    Cumulatively, the democratic checks on prime ministerial power by the cabinet, by Parliament, by the prime minister’s own and other parties and by the realistic threat of electoral defeat have been progressively weakened.

    Whatever one’s view of Clare Short her resignation speech provided a powerful confirmation of these defects, as experienced from the inside. She spoke of the centralisation of power in the hands of a prime minister combining ‘the powers of a presidential-type system with the automatic majority of a parliamentary system’. Short said: ‘The cabinet has no collective responsibility because there is no collective, just diktats… from on high.’

    The weakness of Short’s analysis is that she explains the undemocratic accumulation of individual power as the product of Blair’s style and obsession with his own place in history – not as the consequence of a system of ‘elective dictatorship’ that repeatedly goes to the head of those in charge. What is needed is not a change of leader, but a programme of reform that seriously addresses these systemic defects. New Labour’s huge programme of constitutional reform has only affected the periphery, not the centre, of this system.

    In contrast to this dismal litany, however, there have been the unprecedented mobilisations and demonstrations against war. In Democracy under Blair Democratic Audit argued that the decline in party and electoral democracy was counterbalanced by a vital tradition of participatory democracy across all aspects of civil society. This tradition found its finest expression in opposition to the war. Some have claimed that the demonstrations were merely an outlet for anger and had no political effect. ‘We failed to stop the war!’ True, but we should not underestimate what was achieved:

  • as part of an international movement we contributed to denying the invasion legitimacy through a fig leaf of UN authorisation;
  • the demonstrations helped stiffen the resistance of MPs who opposed the war;
  • all faiths – and non-believers, too – showed that they could unite in pursuit of a common goal;
  • we witnessed the politicisation of a whole new and supposedly apolitical generation; and
  • the political stakes were raised for any future acts of ‘recklessness’.

    These are not insignificant achievements. There is an acute paradox here, however. It was the policy of a self-enclosed, self-righteous political leadership that provoked such a far-reaching democratic response.

    Does this mean that all is really well with British democracy after all? Is it simply that we can demonstrate on the streets in a way Saddam’s subjects could not? By no means. Despite the rebellion in Parliament, what this critical episode reveals is not just a failure of political representation – a disjunction between public opinion and the political class; it reveals the enormous gulf between the democratic vigour and potential in the country at large, and the oligarchic system of government at Westminster. This merits urgent attention.

    Professor David Beetham is director of the Centre for Democratisation Studies at the University of Leeds

    Democratic Audit monitors democracy and political freedom in the UK through a series of regular reports. It is sponsored by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust and is based at the Human Rights Centre, University of Essex

    From our archive: Five years on

    Five years ago Red Pepper published a number of articles on the Iraq war, we’re reprinting a selection here covering the period March to June 2003

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    Tam Dalyell on why Tony Blair should reconsider his position as leader of the party

    No more demockery

    We failed to stop the war but another world is still possible writes Hilary Wainwright

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