Wednesday, May 26, 2004

"That's Why We're Fighting the Bastards, Isn't It?"

In his weekly column in the International Herald Tribune, John Vinocur brings us a story on how the Iraq war is affecting the British government's chances in the European Union elections on June 10, by reporting on the election campaign from "a town where Labor has ruled since the Flood".
"It hurts that war, it hurts me," [A A Khaliq of Rotherham] said. "Blair made a mistake in backing Bush. I support the British troops, but not the United States. We should never have let the U.S. draw us in. We're in with a regime that doesn't listen to anybody. We should pull out."

All this came out like ice, with such little bombast that the visitor offered the school board official an instant conclusion based on what sounded like the controlled rage of man with his mind made up: So you believe Iraq will blow up in Tony Blair's face.

"Oh, on voting day?" Khaliq said. "I don't think so."

This is what newspapers call anecdotal evidence. Still, it's the kind of exchange that Labor cabinet members like Denis MacShane, the minister for Europe, have been hunting down for the past two weekends. Expecting poor European parliamentary results in any circumstances — more engagement in Europe is a tough sell with Britain's economy now outperforming France's and Germany's — Labor leaders have gone back to their constituencies looking for traces of a late spring catastrophe.

After all, in London, the prisoner abuse scandal had a sickening run of new chapters, the America of George Bush did not inspire confidence, and much of the British media was reporting a leadership wobble within the government. That, it was said, could lead to the prime minister's departure in favor of Gordon Brown, the chancellor of the Exchequer, whose label, within Labor, is paradoxically more pro-American and protective of Israel than Blair's.

… In London, Iraq could seem like "an elephant in the dining room," [MacShane] said, but what counted most here was a 3.1 percent unemployment rate in a place once designated as poverty-stricken by the EU, and private home values that have at least doubled in recent years. All on Blair's watch.

Rotherham's member of Parliament during the same period, MacShane said of Khaliq, "A ways back, this is a guy who was shouting that the Brits and the Americans were wimping out and demanding the 7th Fleet bombard Milosevic when the Serbs were mistreating the Muslims."

Which, he points out, wound up happening.

"Going door to door," said MacShane after two days of talking, "I don't get the impression that Iraq is what's on people's minds. It's how things are working out for them. One guy said, 'Iraq's a problem, isn't it Denis?' Then he talked about the young fellow beheaded on television, and he said, 'that's why we're fighting the bastards, isn't it Denis?'"

…In the real world of hard jobs and cheap flights to the sun, in which Rotherham holds charter member status, Labor appeared to think these arguments had their eternal merit. As for MacShane, he could report back: from up here, nothing like disaster in sight.

Incidentally, today is the Duke's birthday — he who once said: "Courage is being scared to death — but saddling up anyway."