Friday 19 May 2017


What if Tony Blair never went to war in Iraq?

I've been thinking about this question, in the context of Brexit and the general election. How might things be different by now?

Demonstration against the Iraq War in Universe Alpha.

Here's a purely subjective guess at how history might have played out. It's a little on the optimistic side, and I suppose it makes our current situation look even more gloomy, but such is life nowadays.

Suppose we're Universe Alpha, and in Universe Beta, Blair refused to go to war in Iraq. It's easy to make up butterfly-effect scenarios, resulting in Prime Minister Nick Clegg or something equally implausible; but I'm going to assume events are "stable", with a tendency to revert back to what happened in Alpha. Here is a timeline:

  • 2001 (June): General election. Labour re-elected with a landslide majority of 167.
  • 2001 (September): 9/11 attacks in New York, Washington DC and Pennsylvania. UK and other nations join the USA in invading Afghanistan. The Bush administration begins pushing for war in Iraq, on the pretext of eliminating its weapons of mass destruction.
  • 2003: After much stalling for time and reports of private agonizing, Blair refuses to join the USA in invading Iraq. He holds a vote in Parliament; most Tories and a handful of Labour rebels oppose the government, but it wins easily with support from the Lib Dems and smaller parties. Geoff Hoon resigns as Defence Secretary and makes a speech supporting the war, but nobody much cares. The US government and most of the British press are furious, and the war goes ahead anyway, but Blair holds the line and rides out the criticism.
  • 2005: General election. By now, it is obvious the Iraq war is a catastrophe and there are no weapons of mass destruction. Blair's leadership is widely praised. Labour wins with a majority of 120 (66 in Universe Alpha).
  • 2007: Blair steps down as Prime Minister, handing over to Gordon Brown (just as in Universe Alpha).
  • 2008: Banking crisis. As in Universe Alpha, the Brown government intervenes to rescue British banks, and helps coordinate the international response.
  • 2009: With French and German support thanks to his stance on Iraq, Blair becomes the first full-time President of the European Council.
  • 2010: General election. Brown's government has been badly hit by the financial crisis and parliamentary expenses scandal. Nonetheless, helped by its many incumbent MPs, Labour secures a majority of 19. (Universe Alpha: Hung Parliament with Conservatives as largest party, resulting in a Conservative/LibDem coalition.) David Cameron celebrates substantial Tory gains, and stays on as Conservative leader.
  • 2011: Scottish Parliament election. In Universe Alpha, the SNP get an overall majority, fuelled by resentment against the Conservative government in Westminster, and the accompanying collapse of their LibDem coalition partners. With a Scottish Labour Prime Minister and the LibDems retaining popularity, the SNP falls short of an overall majority, but carries on running a minority government at Holyrood. No Scottish independence referendum will be held.
  • 2014: Blair retires after two terms as European Council President.
  • 2015: General election. The Brown government has presided over a modest economic recovery, but is tired, beset by infighting, and lacking in direction. It has been propped up in Parliament by the Lib Dems, whose popularity has also suffered. Riding a general sentiment of "time for a change", David Cameron's Tories win a Commons majority of 12 (just as in Universe Alpha). David Miliband becomes Labour leader.
  • 2016 (May): Scottish Parliament election. Nicola Sturgeon, now SNP leader, wins a third term in government but again falls short of an overall majority.
  • 2016 (June): Cameron acts on his promise to hold an In/Out referendum on EU membership. Blair, by now a respected elder statesman, takes a leading role in the Remain campaign alongside David Miliband. Remain wins, 53-47. Nigel Farage vows to fight on against the establishment. Everyone else complains about how boring politics is.

The key point is Blair's role in the EU referendum. Here in Universe Alpha, of course he campaigned for an In vote; but Iraq had wrecked his credibility, and that of the political establishment in general. Say what you will about Blair, his campaigning skills are second to none. A Tony Blair who was generally respected, and a Labour party led by an enthusiastic pro-European instead of Jeremy Corbyn, could have done much more to avert Brexit.

If you believe as I do, that Brexit is an act of national self-harm, this is part of the tragedy of Blair's premiership. He broke his reputation looking for dragons to slay in the Middle East, and was unable to help when his country really needed him.

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