Blair's Rhetoric of Conviction

UK prime minister Tony Blair has struck a strong note in the face of opposition on Iraq. 'I believe in it', he told Jackie Ashley in the Guardian. 'Let the day-to-day judgements come and go', he said, 'Be prepared to be judged by history.' (1)

'There is a sense of overwhelming determination', wrote Jackie Ashley. 'When others are beset by doubts and anxieties, I ask where his conviction comes from.' (2)

But what is interesting is how Blair has been forced down this line of argument. Neither the public nor parliament has been convinced by the need for war with Iraq. While during the Kosovo conflict in 1999 Blair was able to talk in general terms about 'good' versus 'evil', he has now had to fall back on his personal conviction and the judgement of history.

Under the pressure of the past few weeks, Blair has tried many different approaches to convince people of the need for war -- threatening or cajoling, and gearing his appeals to different audiences. He has shifted away from formal arguments about UN resolution 1441, and increasingly attempts to win the moral case. And as Blair's support has fallen away, this case has become more personalised.

As the anti-war demonstration approached on 15 February, it was clear that Blair was beginning to lose the moral high-ground in the debate. The night before the march, Blair's official spokesman said that the number of people on the demonstration was the same as the number of Kurds who fled 'into the mountains' from Saddam at the end of the 1991 Gulf War (3). New Labour officials also pointed out that such a demonstration would not be possible under Saddam's regime, and the spokesman declared Saddam's regime 'tyrannical, dictatorial and evil'.

But there were also attempts to make contact with the marchers' concerns. Blair's spokesman said that the government was in no doubt the demonstrators 'are motivated by the best intentions and believe sincerely in their views', and said that 'the prime minister respects that' (4).

On the day of the anti-war rally, Blair moved his speech at the Labour Party spring conference back to 10:15 a.m. so that it would be reported before the march began. He said that the consequences of ignoring Saddam would be dire: 'weakness will be paid in blood.' (5)

At this point, he began to talk about his personal conviction, and the need for leadership. 'I do not seek unpopularity as a badge of honour', he said. 'But sometimes it is the price of leadership. And it is the cost of conviction.'

Again, there was an attempt to present his case in moral terms. Blair insisted that he had a 'moral purpose' equal to that of the protesters, and quoted an email he had received from a 19-year-old student, whose parents had fled Iraq, which he later handed out to the delegates. (This was slightly marred when it transpired that sections of the letter were actually quotations from a column by Guardian journalist David Aaronovitch.) (6)

Three days after the anti-war rally, Blair's tone was less assertive, and his arguments suggested that he was attempting to take many of the anti-war movement's concerns on board. Many of those on the demonstration had complained that there was a rush to war. On the 18 February press conference, Blair said that 'there is no rush to war. Indeed we have waited 12 years' (this quote was flagged up in press releases) (7).

Another of the protesters' accusations was that Blair was not listening to them, and that he thought he was God. At the press conference, Blair turned the issue around, professing humility and complaining that the protesters weren't listening to him. 'Look I don't pretend to have a monopoly of wisdom in these issues, or I always know what is right and everyone else is wrong, I don't say that at all. I totally understand why people want to march and protest against what we are doing. I just ask people to listen to the other side of the argument.' (8)

There was another attempt to use Iraqi exiles to help win the moral argument. Press were handed a letter written to Blair by a group calling itself Iraqi Exiles in the UK. 'These are voices that deserve to be heard', he said (9).

In his statement to the Commons in the debate about Iraq, Blair lowered the hurdle for the passing of the amendment as much as possible. This was not a vote on war -- there would be other opportunities for that. Instead, the resolution stated that Saddam had a 'final opportunity' to comply with the UN's demands. 'I do not want war', said Blair. 'I do not believe anyone in this house wants war.' He put the onus on Saddam to avert conflict: 'disarmament peacefully can only happen with Saddam's active cooperation.' (10)

Yet the subsequent Labour Party rebellion - the largest from a governing party in history - was a dramatic sign of Blair's isolation. The Party whips had been out in full force, and Blair had called waverers in to talk to him throughout the day, yet still 122 Labour MPs voted against him.

Downing Street sent out reports that the Cabinet was 'absolutely rock solid' behind Blair -- yet few of these seemed prepared to defend him in public. It was at this point that Blair's personal 'passion' and 'conviction' began to come to the fore. 'The prime minister believes with an absolute passion' that weapons of mass destruction pose a grave threat to the world, said his spokesman. 'He believes with a passion that tyrants such as Saddam Hussein must be confronted.' (11)

Blair's comments in the Jackie Ashley interview have been compared with statements made by Castro and Luther, as they faced down their opposition. Indeed, the language used was similar. 'I believe in it', said Blair, 'Be prepared to be judged by history'.

'Condemn me. It does not matter. History will absolve me', said Castro in 1953 while being tried as a rebel against the Cuban government. 'My conscience is captive to the Word of God', said Luther, when asked to recant in 1521. 'I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right not safe. Here I stand, I can do no other.'

But the point Castro and Luther were making was their insignificance as individuals. They saw their actions as determined and justified by the will of the people and the will of God, respectively, which would win out in the end. Blair's reliance on his own conscience, by contrast, represents a retreat from political argument into personal justification.

'People have got to vote how they feel', he told Ashley, 'but my job is also to say how I feel'. 'People have just got to make up their minds whether they believe me or not, I'm afraid.' As his support falls away, he has to rely more strongly on his convictions, on the justification of: 'I believe in it.' Indeed, this conviction is itself so personalised that it becomes conflated with emotion (12).

His appeal to the judgement of history was a reflection, too, of his present isolation. This represents an attempt to offset the harsh judgements of today by projection into a happy future, when all would be vindicated.

'History' here figures not as it did for Castro and Luther, as a law that should win out irrespective of the individual leader, but as the as-yet-unborn focus groups, that are imagined providing Blair with the respect that is currently being withheld.

Footnotes:


(1) 'History will be my judge', Guardian, 1 March 2003
(2) No moving a prime minister whose mind is made up, 1 March 2003
(3) Evening Standard (London), 14 February 2003
(4) Evening Standard (London), 14 February 2003
(5) Blair stakes his political future on beating Iraq, Observer, 16 February 2003
(6) See the student's letter and David Aaronovitch's column
(7) Full transcript of PM Press Conference - 18 February on the Downing Street website
(8) Full transcript of PM Press Conference - 18 February on the Downing Street website
(9) Blair silent on Iraq democracy, Guardian, 18 February 2003
(10) Tony Blair's Commons statement on Iraq ,Guardian, 26 February 2003
(11) Evening Standard, 27 February 2003
(12) No moving a prime minister whose mind is made up, Guardian, 1 March 2003

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