Spain confirms the huge impact the Iraq war has had on our world

The US and Britain now find themselves that bit more isolated. Spain’s exit from the ranks of supporters of the Iraq war may have been surprising, but hardly unexpected. Its government, in its support of the invasion, defied not simply half the population, as in the case of Britain, but the overwhelming majority. Clearly there was a price to pay, which has been paid by the Aznar government, though only following a horrific and tragic event. Inevitably, it poses the question as to whether other governments which have defied the will of the people in such a flagrant manner might pay a similar price. There was barely a democratic country in the world where, at the time of the invasion, the majority of the people supported it – barring the obvious exception of the US.

It is hardly novel for governments to disregard public opinion. Democratic governments ignore the will of the people on major issues all the time: that is the difference between government by election and government by referendum. But if the issue is big enough, persistent enough, extraordinary enough, then one day the government may have to pick up the tab for its defiance. Iraq is just that kind of issue. It is one of those rare historical moments that change the world and leave nothing quite the same afterwards.

Britain is a case in point. It was not unreasonable for Tony Blair to have assumed that this most bellicose of nations, which has for long believed that the true test of its virility lies in going to war, would support its closest ally in bringing to book a recalcitrant and despicable despot. In the event, it was a most serious miscalculation. The prime minister is now desperately trying to concentrate the mind of the nation on domestic matters. Yet Iraq will not go away. It will continue to haunt him until he leaves office; and probably for the rest of his life.
The refusal of Britain – or half of us at least – to go along with the war remains one of the most extraordinary political phenomena of the past 30 years. It points to a profound change in attitudes – concerning Britain and its place in the world – that no one yet really understands.

The left has lost virtually every major political struggle of the past three decades. Politics has been redefined on the terrain of neo-liberalism. Even that last bastion of the collectivist ideal, the NHS, is on the defensive, if not yet under siege. New Labour represented the final victory of Thatcherism, the acquiescence of Labour in neo-liberalism, the triumph of a profound pessimism, albeit dressed in an absurd New Labour hyperbole.
Yet on Iraq the left has, bizarrely, found itself in the majority. Bizarre, because for the past half-century, the right has monopolised the ground of foreign policy and military prowess, intimately associated as it is with our imperial history. Who would have guessed that the left, vanquished on more or less everything else, would find itself in a majority on the biggest international issue for decades, with British troops committed and a Labour prime minister leading the charge? The fact that public opinion could have run so much against the historical grain suggests much deeper changes are afoot. It is no longer safe to assume that the public will support American foreign policy: nor that the involvement of British troops in a military adventure will command automatic backing.

These shifts in opinion are partly bound up with a delayed reaction to the end of the cold war. The affinity between the US and western Europe was, not least, a product of the cold war. Once, after 9/11, the US decided to pursue a unilateralist policy in support of its own interests as the world’s sole superpower, Europe found itself out in the cold. We are only at the beginning of this period, and many surprises lie in wait – Spain is but one example. British opinion has certainly shifted. It has moved away from the US, though not – except by default – towards Europe.

There is another twist to the Spanish story. Without the bomb outrage, perhaps the right would have won the election. Overwhelming popular sentiment against the war coupled with the terrorist attacks proved to be a lethal combination for the government. Generally, terrorist attacks tend to strengthen the hand of the incumbent government, but not in this case. Indeed, rarely has a terrorist attack proved so effective in persuading public opinion to move in the perpetrators’ desired direction. That is another extraordinary feature of this episode. If it had been during the cold war, the effect would have been the opposite. Now, though, we are in a completely different magnetic field: even though no one is quite sure what forces constitute the field.

Could it be that in the days before the next Italian election – another government that supported the US even though the vast majority of the population were against – Islamist terrorists (assuming they were responsible for the Madrid bombings) might, emboldened by the Spanish experience, try the same in Rome? And what of the next British election? The arithmetic of public opinion might be different but the temptation could be even stronger, given Blair’s pro-war stance. According to a Sky News poll yesterday, 20% of those who voted Labour in 2001 said, in the event of a terror attack, they would switch from Labour – the majority to the Liberal Democrats.
European politics is going somewhere very different from what we have been familiar with for so long. Western European opinion is now adrift from, and inimical towards, the US. It rightly abhors Israeli behaviour and is therefore unsympathetic towards US policy on the Middle East, though its hostility is constrained by memories of the Holocaust. The gulf that opened up between European and US popular opinion over Iraq could end up as a chasm over the Middle East too.

Europe has lost its old global moorings. Its newly discovered independence of mind is born not of self-confidence, nor an expansive sense of its own future, but a growing alienation from the US, combined with a heightened feeling of insecurity about the world we live in and what Europe’s place might be in it. The question has many aspects, some of which have a dark side: it is abundantly clear, for example, that the European public feels deeply insecure about the growing multiracial character of its populations.
For over three centuries the world was hugely Euro-centric. The cold war may have granted a 50-year extension on its lease, but 9/11 finally marked closure. How does a relatively small continent, which has played such a humungous global role for so long, adapt to tumultuous and troubling changes that require it to assume a very different place in the world? That is now the European story, and will be for a long time to come.