The House of Commons is currently pondering whether to start impeachment procedures against Boris Johnson following his disastrous Supreme Court defeat. Ironically Boris Johnson along with George Galloway were behind an attempt to impeach Tony Blair over the Iraq War.
This attempt failed, but I still get people who tell me that Tony Blair is a war criminal, who lied to Parliament in a sinister neo-liberal conspiracy to deceive Britain in order to take us into a war for oil.
I hear these statements from time to time, sometimes from the right, sometimes from the left. People’s belief in this version of events is untroubled by any of the investigations that have taken place from Butler, Hutton, Chilcott, or the Foreign Affairs Select Committee.
I don’t really share this view, but I do wonder – how different was Blair’s foreign policy from other Prime Ministers? How does he compare to other Labour PMs? Was there anything unusual about Blair’s foreign policy that made it more violent or bloody than other post war Prime Ministers?
To answer the question I created an index comparing the number of military interventions for each post war Prime Minister. I then added the deaths that occurred after that intervention. This isn’t an exact science, for example for the Afghan war I have excluded deaths in the conflict before the UK and US intervened. There is something very uncomfortable about that – ignoring the million who died in Iraq before Western intervention in order to count only those who died since. Despite this I can’t think of a better way of doing it. I also included policy interventions that weren’t conventional wars, but where the decision led to violent deaths, for example the partition of India, or sending the troops into Northern Ireland
This gives us this table:
You might spot that there are 3 PMs who aren’t on the list; May, Brown and Callaghan. They managed to serve as PM without sending any troops anywhere. Callaghan holds the record for the longest time spent as PM without a military intervention.
We should really adjust for length of term as PM, which gives us this:
I’ve tidied the table up to make it easier to see the relative scores per PM:
These are the countries we have been at war with the most times:
As you can see Attlee was a right bloodthirsty bastard, Thatcher was basically a hippie pacifist and Iceland are a major threat to world peace.
This gives a slightly odd perspective, so breaking it down by decade and region:
If we look at the trend British foreign policy gets progressively less violent, until Major:
This matches the global trend – wars are less frequent and less bloody over time.
I would probably use the data to split the post war era into 4 periods:
- Attlee and the post war aftermath
- Churchill, Eden, Macmilan, Douglas Hume: post colonial misadventures
- Wilson, Health, Callghan, Thatcher: give peace a chance
- Major, Blair, Cameron: wars in Arab countries, break up of Yugoslavia
Blair is the second most trigger happy PM of the post war era, after Attlee, who is remarkably violent. His foreign policy however is little different to Major, which is to say that both react to the disintegration of Yugoslavia and events in the Middle East with reactive military deployments.
My personal view is that the decision to go to war in Iraq was a massive, and tragic mistake. However I don’t think that it was different to many other decisions to deploy troops in the post war era – a too hasty decision, based on flawed information, without thinking through the consequences.
It was however the first decision to go to war taken after the Freedom of Information Act, and Public Inquiries Act 2005, which gave people the ability to interrogate political decisions to a greater extent than ever before. Attlee’s decision to involve Britain in the Greek Civil War involved misleading Parliament, and lying to the public. The fight against the Mau Mau involved actions that looked much like War crimes. We didn’t find out about these events for 30 years afterwards, by which time politics had moved on, the PMs were dead, and their reputations weren’t affected by them.
Personally I think that this is a good thing.
Since the Iraq war inquiry British Governments have been notably more reluctant to deploy troops, and the House has assumed the convention that a vote is needed before deployment. The defeat of Cameron by Ed Milliband over the bombing in Syria was a huge turning point, and Ed’s major contribution to politics.
After all of this I am still perturbed by the statistics for the pre-Wilson era. I grew up with a particular view of the end of Empire; the Attlee Government started the process of giving up Empire after WW2 driven by a mixture of anti-Imperialist principle and pragmatic realism.
It might have been a mess, particularly in India, but essentially we meant well. The voluntary withdrawal from Empire was a good thing, recognising that we shouldn’t have had an Empire in the first place.
Subsequent Tory administrations might have been less keen on decolonisation, but once the process was started there was no way back.
This is a positive, almost idealist liberal view, that Britain saw that Empire was wrong and did the right thing.
The death toll tells a different story. Our disengagement with Empire was violent, and brutal. Attlee made mistakes, but his Conservative successors indulged in post colonial blood shed, for little reward.
I think that there might be another view of Empire, less commonly spoken of. For people who lived through the end of Empire there was a sense of loss. That once being British meant being something special, the end of Empire was something to fight against. No longer did being white and British mean you were part of a superior race.
The descent from being the greatest nation on the planet to the sick man of Europe, begging for EU membership was a source of humiliation.
Maybe we need to acknowledge that for a group in the UK the retreat from Empire wasn’t a graceful or noble endeavour, but a source of humiliation, to be resisted violently.
I don’t think we fully understand how much this world view still haunts the politics of voters who grew up as Empire was ending.