Nicholas II, the last Tsar of Russia, once recommended that what his people needed was a ‘short, victorious war’. That, I hear you say, sounds like a terrible idea. Said war, the Russo-Japanese War, didn’t go well. Neither did anything else afterwards, really. Hence him being ‘the last Tsar’.
Can there ever be a ‘successful’, mercifully short and (relatively) blood-less and, let’s be Machiavellian about it, poll-boosting military action? Is there a lesson here for the UK’s post-war leaders? Looking across recent UK Prime Ministers there have been very few successful large-scale military interventions. In fact, there is no such thing. War has a relentless, cruel momentum to itself, and any politician embarking on it with ‘political’ aims finds there is no way out.
The two events that jump out are, of course, Suez and Iraq. Anthony Eden intervened in Suez in 1956 as part of a complicated secret deal to seize back said canal from Nasser’s Egypt with other allies while pretending to be peacekeepers (I don’t have space to explain the whole plot, and you’d think I was making it up, but if I did you’d probably say, again, ‘that sounds like a terrible idea’). The move backfired spectacularly, as the rather swirling plot came undone and the American pulled the plug. Eden resigned.
Then we have Iraq and Blair. Unlike Eden, Iraq did not destroy Blair straight away. In fact, a slight majority supported the war until December 2003. But, eventually, it eroded his reputation and support among voters and his own party, even if he still feels it was ‘the right thing to do’. There is a rather spooky set of parallels across these two interventions: both leaders felt they were dealing with a new Hitler, both convinced themselves it was ‘right’, and relied on unclear intelligence. Eden is still rated as one of Britain’s worse leaders: 53% of Britons said they will never forgive Tony Blair.
Iraq has made any war even trickier, for two reasons. One, we have lost our collective faith in intelligence and ‘evidence’. Though Blair was ‘emotionally truthful’ (what a phrase) he relied on ‘faith not facts’, as Chilcot put it. The claims that Saddam Hussein had WMDs and, as my old supervisor the great Martin Burch put it, ‘rockets that could reach Scunthorpe’, has left us all very sceptical about anything a Prime Minister says about, well, anything.
Second, more importantly, because of Iraq, Parliament must now be persuaded. Most military action now has had some sort of vote. Now, the precedent isn’t quite as clear as it could be (Libya for one) but most leaders know they should ask Parliament’s approval, at some point (see this great article here).
There’s lots of risks to asking parliament. You could lose, as David Cameron did in 2013. You could also win, but not win big enough (May is already pretty familiar with this phenomenon). Or you could avoid parliament, as May looks she might, and chance being seen as high, mighty and un-democratic. More dangerously, it means May embarks upon military action with less legitimacy and support. As James Strong points out, with Westminster behind it, a one off strike may work but a broader campaign could bring serious trouble, especially with Trump in charge.
Ah, I hear you say, what about the Falklands war? Surely, you say, that’s the very model of a short, victorious war? Thatcher sent off the task force, took back the Falklands and won the 1983 General Election. It even has a name: ‘The Falklands Factor’. But IPSOS Mori, who polled at the time, think it didn’t have much effect and two of the big names in voting behaviour concluded it was only worth 3 points over 3 months. It was much more about very long suicide notes, with a dash of ‘why don’t we break the mould of British politics and create a new centrist party’ (I’ll say it for you-that sounds like a terrible idea).
So is there any prime minister who benefited from a war in the last few decades? One definitely benefited from not being in a war. That person was Harold Wilson. Wilson was long criticised as a rather slippery and cunning short-termist. Yet his record puts our current leaders to shame: between 1964 and 1975 he won four, yes four, general elections and a referendum on Europe, all while in possession of a KGB code name. He also repeatedly refused to send British soldiers to Vietnam in the 1960s, despite much pressure from US President Lyndon Johnson, because the war in Vietnam, to him, seemed like a terrible idea. He would, he told Johnson, be swayed ‘not by political pressures but by what I know to be right’. As May ponders whether to follow Trump’s lead, she should remember Blair’s defence for going to war was also Wilson’s reason for avoiding it.