2000s >> 2003 >> no-1186-june-2003

Greasy Pole: Short Cuts And Runs

Now that the fighting in Iraq is over – and perhaps before it starts somewhere else like Syria – it is time to remind ourselves of the adage that in war the first casualty is the truth. In fact a close runner up is what might be called the vocabulary – the way words are used and what results from their misuse. So during the war we heard, as we did in the Gulf War in 1991, of “friendly fire”, a phrase designed to conceal the embarrassing fact that British and American forces were at times liable to kill each other. We grew accustomed to the concept of “collateral damage” as a term which implied that civilians who were killed were part of a necessary accident. We had Geoff Hoon who, as Minister of Defence is another of those ex-left wingers trying to expunge an inconvenient past, informing us that cluster bombs, which are murderously indiscriminate in their effect, were not only “perfectly legal” but also “highly legitimate”. (It is whispered that when the time is ripe Hoon’s career might be another casualty).

And then we had Clare Short, who trumpeted it to the world on 9 March that if Britain went to war without first getting some kind of approval from the United Nations she would resign from the government. She left no room for doubt about her intentions and for good measure she laid into Blair for being “reckless with our government, reckless with his own future position and place in history, extraordinarily reckless”. But when the fighting started and the bombs fell and the bodies piled up it turned out that the words “I shall resign” did not mean that she would leave the government. Then, after the war was over, she finally did resign.

Perhaps Short decided to gamble on the fact that resignations in the past were not always harmful to the person who fell on their sword. Aneurin Bevan recovered from leaving the Attlee government in 1951 to become a close ally of Hugh Gaitskell and, had he lived, may well have succeeded as leader of the Labour Party. Harold Wilson, who left at the same time as Bevan, shrewdly kept all his boats unburned. Michael Heseltine’s resignation in the Westland affair did him no long term harm; after the Tory defeat in 1997 he might well have stood for the party leadership – and won – but an attack of angina prevented him. Of course there are examples of the opposite effect, like George Brown, whose regular bibulous nocturnal threats to resign eventually threw him off the greasy pole – and there is Robin Cook; has anyone seen him for a while?

Like some of those people, Clare Short has a rocky history, which has not exactly smoothed her path onto the lower slopes of power. During the 1980s, in her role as a militant feminist, she upset the Sun by trying to introduce a parliamentary bill to ban the publication of pictures of topless women. This was before Blair was desperate to keep the Sun’s support; nowadays, undermining so important an outpost of Rupert Murdoch’s press empire might be seen as a sackable offence. During Blair’s early days she was not one of his most ardent supporters; in fact she voted for Margaret Beckett in the leadership contest. She changed her tune when Blair got the big job. In August 1996 she raged against the “people in the dark” for portraying the new leader as an unprincipled “macho man” when he was actually “fresh, principled and decent”. This compliment, muted though it may have been, came too late because Blair had already demoted her from shadow Transport Secretary to shadow Minister for Overseas Aid.

Some leaders are highly skilled in navigating the political waters – avoiding the shallows and the rocks, cultivating the ability to make all their mistakes appear to be triumphs of ingenuity. Clare Short is not one of them. Perhaps she has been too eager to assure herself of a place in history as a kind of feisty feminist conscience of the Labour Party. If so, she has overlooked the fact that politics has no room or time for consciences. The wars of capitalism don’t happen by accident, because people without a conscience are in power or because the passages of diplomacy have not been thoroughly enough explored. They happen because they are an essential stage in the disputes between sections of the ruling class. They are not about the freedom of people but the competitive drive to capture marketing opportunities, or vital mineral wealth like oil.

There is a lot of profit to be made in exploiting the oil of Iraq and the people there. There is a lot of profit to be made in clearing up the mess left from the war and rebuilding the cities, the industries, the financial system and the infrastructure. The Bush administration have ensured that they have the dominant say in who gets the best chance to rake in the profits. The plans were already laid, before the first American soldiers so much as picked up their rifles. The giant American energy company Haliburton has been selected to work to revive the oil industry in Iraq; the deal could be worth about $7 billion dollars to them over the next two years. Bechtel is a company with close links to the Bush administration in Washington operating in big building contracts like the Channel Tunnel. Circling greedily are some British companies like Costain, Balfour Beatty, Rolls Royce. If all goes according to plan Iraq will be a country where in the immediate future economic growth yields mouth-watering profits to those who are in on the act.

Shock and Awe
One of these is the electronics giant Sony, which makes games for computer, video and broadband. Some of these games, played addictively by children of all ages, involve virtual combat with plenty of bloodshed. Sony have been quick off the mark; within hours of the war starting they had patented the phrase “Shock and Awe” which was used by American Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld when he promised the people of Iraq what they would experience during the war. So a game called “Shock and Awe” will be coming soon to a computer games shop near you. If you can bear to play it it will say everything necessary about that war and about the cynicism of leaders who told us that it was about freedom when it was about exploitation and oil and profit.

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