Wednesday, March 22, 2006

A Simple Disagreement

Yesterday, I tried to write about Blair's speech on foreign policy. It didn't go very well. After reading Harry's view of it, I've realised what the problem is. Harry says:
Sadly, I suspect his speech won't change many of those minds. Too many refuse to listen simply because they disagreed with him about Iraq...
Harry is sort of close to being right.

The actual problem is that too many refuse to listen because they objected to his behaviour with regard to Iraq.

That's not the same thing. It's not just a disagreement over a matter of opinion which makes me loathe Tony Blair's Iraq policy. That's just yet another strawman in a field already overflowing with them.

At it's heart, the problem is that Blair lied to parliament, to the British people, and to the world. He said the intelligence on Saddam's WMD was "extensive, detailed and authoritative" when we now know it was "sporadic and patchy". And we now know that Blair knew it at the time. The Butler Report appears to be offline at the moment but it made clear that Downing Street had been advised of the actual state of affairs. Blair said the intelligence was "beyond doubt" in the full knowledge that this was not the case.

Defenders of the PM, and the PM himself, have attempted to open an intellectual argument about the alleged good intentions behind the lie, the motivations behind it, and the sincerity with which it was told, but that argument, in which there certainly are deeply held differences of opinion, does not change the fact that Blair made a statement to parliament which he knew to be untrue. That he was prepared to lie in this way, for whatever reason, says a great deal about his character.

The convention in British politics is that any minister found to have lied to parliament, on whatever issue, should resign. So when the prime minister is caught lying to parliament over a matter as serious as war, it is not unreasonable to conclude that he is tainted, that his word is of limited value, and that he ought to resign. This is not a conclusion based on a difference of opinion on foreign policy issues but on strong objections at having been lied to by the prime minister in order to make the case for war. We learned more about about the character of Blair when he refused to resign in such a circumstance.

It is Blair's conduct which cannot be overlooked. He lied to parliament and to us and he continues to evade responsibility for that. For that reason, I, and huge numbers of other people, will never trust him again. We do not believe that a man who is willing to lie to us in order to promote his policy objectives should be allowed to continue as prime minister. It is not a matter under which a line can be drawn.

And that's ultimately the problem with trying to write about Blair's speech on foreign policy. It's the conflation of two issues which ought to be entirely seperate: Tony Blair and British foreign policy.

Once these two have been finally seperated, real progress can be made in developing British foreign policy for the 21st Century. Until that happens, the lie will continue to pollute the debate. It certainly pollutes this speech.

More on the actual contents of the speech may follow shortly. To be honest, it's hard to know where to start.

Reading the comments to Harry's post (the same one linked above) over at H'sP, unearths solid gold. SeanT, not someone I'm prone to agreeing with on a regular basis if truth be told, makes the perfectly sensible observation that "Blair is a brazen liar, I think we can all agree on that".

The facts are no longer in dispute and so the ultimate response is all that's left. It's supplied by Joshua.
Sean is shocked that politicians lie. How old are you Sean?
Brilliant. All my preposterously idealistic notions of democratic accountabilty smashed to pieces in one fell swoop. They all lie. Get over it.

I. Will. Not, And I'll tell you for why. This lies at the very heart of democracy. It's not just me who thinks so either. "The difference between democracy and tyranny is not that in a democracy bad things don't happen. It is that in a democracy, when they do happen, people are held to account." I'm sure I don't need to remind anyone who it was who said that.

Extrapolating this idea that it is OK for a leader to lie if their intentions are honourable can lead in all sorts of odd directions. I'm thinking Stalin.* It seems highly likely that Stalin, despite the fact that he was a brutal murderous tyrant, genuinely thought he was doing the right thing. He made many sacrifices for what he believed to be the greater good of the motherland. Millions of people died as a result and he lied about it all the while. The lies too, he justified as necessary for the greater good. It was authoritarianism on an unprecedented scale but it was done with intentions which Stalin believed to be honourable.

Fortunately for us, in a democracy, we have protections against this sort of authoritarianism. A leader must publically explain and justify his decisions and policies. Members of Parliament, the media, and the general public are free to debate these issues. These debates are conducted, as far as is possible, with all participants knowing the full extent of the relevant facts. If a leader is found to have withheld crucial information or misrepresented or obscured the facts in order to boost support for his policy it is a matter of grave concern. There is no place for practices of that nature in a democratic country. If you are caught at it people rightly expect you to do the honourable thing.

That's how things used to be anyway. Lot's of people thought it was quite good. Not a perfect way to run a country by any means but it was probably humanity's best effort to date. Now, such notions are apparently childishly naive. All politicians lie. Of course they do. So we caught one at it in a fairly enormous way? What's the problem? Why are you shocked? Get over it.

I. Will. Not. And neither should anyone who professes to care about democracy.

* Blair is not Stalin. I'm not implying a direct equivalence in their actions. It is, instead, an extension, an extrapolation. I did already say so but wanted to make it extra clear. In other words, take your "this loonie thinks Blair is just like Stalin" strawman elsewhere.

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