Tuesday, February 13, 2007

A Churchillian dilemma

With the Blair era drawing to a close, attention in Britain is now turning to the way in which his probable successor, Gordon Brown, might define a fresh start. One possibility is that he might order a rapid withdrawal from Iraq. The rumour is persistent because, while he has publicly supported the war, Brown has carefully also managed to sound rather sceptical about it. When asked whether he did support the policy before the last election on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, a millisecond's pause before his answer "...Yes", conveyed the opposite impression: "No."

Winston Churchill would have understood the dilemma well. In 1922 Britain was faced by a resurgent Turkey. Churchill, who had been lumbered with the job of dealing with Iraq, feared that the Turks would invade that country, then under the British mandate. Britain might have to send more troops to fight off an invasion, an outcome he knew would be extremely unpopular.

Churchill wrote to the beleaguered Prime Minister Lloyd George (to whom Blair increasingly bears an uncanny resemblance) on 1 September 1922: "I do not see what political strength there is to face a disaster of any kind and certainly I cannot believe that in any circumstances any large reinforcement would be sent from here or from India. There is scarcely a single newspaper – Tory, Liberal or Labour – which is not consistently hostile to our remaining in this country. The enormous reductions [in the number of troops stationed in Iraq] which have been effected have brought no goodwill, and any alternative Government that might be formed here ... would gain popularity by ordering instant evacuation. Moreover in my heart I do not see what we are getting out of it. Owing to difficulties with America, no progress has been made in developing the oil. Altogether I am getting to the end of my resources." (CHAR 17/27)

The same prospect haunts Mr Brown today.

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