The Iraq legacy and UK foreign policy

It was evident that the Labour governments also made a catastrophic error in foreign and security policy: taking Britain to war in Iraq. As the playwright David Hare remarked, ‘Blair was much the best Prime Minister of the last fifty years’, but ‘big figures make big mistakes and Blair has made the greatest mistake in British foreign policy since Suez’.23 By joining the American mission for regime change in the Middle East, Blair squandered the government’s political and moral authority. The legal case for war was tenuous without formal UN authorisation.

The absence of agreement in the international community encouraged the prime minister to justify military invasion on questionable grounds. That led to rapid loss of trust, not least among those whose loved ones were injured or killed in battle. Blair was compromised by allegations that British forces were under-resourced, lacking essential equipment in the theatre of war. Opposition to the Iraq war united the entire progressive intelligentsia in Britain. The road to war and Blair’s conduct as prime minister were endlessly debated. The Chil- cot inquiry cleared his administration of the egregious charge of duplicity and lying. Yet the war ultimately destroyed Labour’s alignment with the progressive left of centre tradition in British politics. It left the UK without a viable security strategy in the world of escalating threats. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqi lives were lost.

Drift and indecision over Europe

Another of New Labour’s failings was drift and indecision on the issue of Europe. Blair sought to end post-war British ambivalence and was determined the UK should play a leading role in the EU. But when major decisions arose such as joining the single currency, caution overwhelmingly prevailed. Blair and Brown remained ambivalent about the European economic model’s virtues. Under the influence of the treasury, Brown never failed to point out that Britain was outperforming the Eurozone, disparaging Europe’s statism. The Labour governments opted out of key European competencies in labour market regulation and migration. Ministers did try to develop a positive vision of Britain’s long-term role in Europe. Blair saw himself as the most pro-European British politician since Royjenkins, making eloquent speeches, sometimes in fluent French, arguing for closer engagement. In reality, the prime minister was reluctant to tackle the underlying causes of anti-Europeanism. After 1997, European integration as a salient issue declined in UK politics. Yet there was no coherent effort to make the positive case for EU membership. Blair was terrified of the Murdoch press. The prime minister’s strategy to make EU membership acceptable to UK voters was that the EU should become more like America. The Anglophone critique that the continent was overwhelmed by ‘Euro sclerosis’ - rising unemployment, swollen welfare states, high taxes, and bloated bureaucracies - was endorsed by New Labour.24 As proselytisers of Anglo-American economic policies, Blair and Brown were reluctant to accept that Britain should be integrated with European varieties of the social market economy. New Labour failed to demonstrate effective political and intellectual leadership over Europe.

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