Commentary

Britain’s Blitz Spirit

By Jamie Dettmer
This article originally appeared in the Washington Times on July 28, 2005.
A political truce has broken out in London over the wisdom of Prime Minister Tony Blair joining President Bush in toppling Saddam Hussein. In the wake of the recent bombings on the British capital, most politicians here, even those outspoken in opposition to British involvement in Iraq, have been reluctant to draw a clear link between the Iraq conflict and the London bombings. They fear accusations of justifying the terrorist actions.

Just a handful of fringe politicians and minor far-left parties have highlighted a report from the respected think tank Chatham House. Written before the bombings, the report concluded the war in Iraq had increased the terrorist threat to Britain and that the invasion was ill-advised in terms of winning the broader war on terror. Those few who have highlighted a causal connection include the mayor of London, the colorful Ken Livingstone. But Mr. Livingstone’s talk about decades of Western intervention in the Middle East was roundly vilified as being inappropriate and even prompted behind-the-scenes grousing from fellow rebels in Mr. Blair’s governing Labor Party.

The caution of Mr. Blair’s critics, both within his own party ranks and in the main opposition parties, is in tune with public opinion. Britons have no doubt that there is a link, judging by a poll taken for the Guardian newspaper which showed that two-thirds of the British public believes the Iraq conflict and the bombings are connected. But the public reaction to the bombings has been a mix of horror and solidarity and a determination not to be intimidated by terrorists.

There is precedent for the reaction of solidarity and determination to win out. Back in the 1970s and 1980s when London was under assault from the Irish Republican Army, the attitude was similar, despite growing public skepticism about British policy towards Northern Ireland. You could dub it the Blitz spirit. Brits can be a stubborn lot, and in the case of the London bombings they are drawing a distinction between causality and moral responsibility. What is happening in Iraq in no way justified the actions of the young British-born Muslims who carried out those bombings.

Much of Britain’s political class and public remain opposed to the decision to go to war in Iraq, or harbor deep misgivings about the conflict and the chances of success. However, few are ready to use the mayhem in the heart of London as a stick with which to beat Mr. Blair or to raise yet again the issue of the Iraq intervention.

That may change, but while the immediate threat lasts, and as long as Mr. Blair continues to win plaudits for how he and the government respond to terrorist attacks, the signs are that public support for the government will remain high.

In fact, some in Mr. Blair’s cabinet believe that a turning point may have come and that political and public opposition to the war in Iraq may diminish as a result of the bombings.

There are already signs that this may be happening. Two major British newspapers that were opposed to the war, the left-wing Guardian and the conservative Daily Mail, are now saying that while the war was a misbegotten adventure, there can’t be an immediate withdrawal from Iraq because it will lead to greater bloodshed there and may be seen as handing the terrorists a victory. According to the Daily Mail, “if the allies scuttle home with the job undone, as some on the Left want, it would plunge the region into even worse anarchy. Whatever mistakes have been made, this would be the most dangerous of all.”

If one of the bombers’ aims was to further the al Qaeda effort to undermine the coalition in Iraq and to force the Brits out, they may now be regretting the effort. A Blair argument that now appears to resonate among Britons is that in al Qaeda, the West and — one ought to add — the Middle East are faced with an evil ideology that was a threat before Saddam was removed. It was poisoning impressionable minds among a small minority of disaffected Muslims in Britain and in Europe well before U.S. and British troops entered Iraq.

If he wishes to diminish public disapproval of the Iraq intervention, the British prime minister will need in the coming weeks to reassure Brits that the Iraq commitment is not open-ended. He needs to convince them that he and Mr. Bush know where they are going when it comes to Iraq and that it is a mission now with clear, limited goals that are achievable.

He also needs to continue to work in a consensual way with opposition parties when it comes to counterterrorism efforts and consideration of new laws. So far Mr. Blair has been careful to coordinate with opposition leaders and to reach out to moderate Muslim leaders. And he has avoided using the bombings to rush through parliament divisive counterterrorism legislation that would seriously curtail civil liberties. If he can maintain his current measured handling of the crisis, then he should be able to weather the outcry over the tragic shooting last week by undercover police of an innocent Brazilian.

Jamie Dettmer is director of media relations at the Cato Institute.