Tony Blair and the imperial temptation in Britain and America

Ahead of Blair's testimony on the Iraq war, it is worth considering a recent exchange in the American blogosphere which illustrates the imperial temptation in the politics of both nations

Thomas Ash
27 January 2010

Why did Tony Blair decide to go along with, and even cheerlead for, the invasion of Iraq almost seven years ago? I don't pretend to know the full explanation. But ahead of his testimony to the Chilcot Inquiry on Friday - which I would guess is more likely to devolve into a media circus than to provide a truly satisfying answer to this question - it is worth considering one factor many informed commentators consider key. I have in mind the imperial temptation in British politics - the desire to "punch above our weight", reshape the shaken kaleidoscope of the world, or whatever description you favour (there is no shortage of purple prose to choose from). In his illuminating history of twentieth century UK politics, Britain Since 1918: The Strange Career Of British Democracy, David Marquand illustrates how leader after leader has fallen prey to this temptation, Blair included.

I was reminded of this history by a recent exchange in the higher-browed reaches of the American blogosphere which is well worth your time. The debate was prompted by a thoughtful but flawed essay by conservative Jim Manzi in the journal National Affairs which made the following claim:

From 1980 through today, America's share of global output has been constant at about 21%. Europe's share, meanwhile, has been collapsing in the face of global competition — going from a little less than 40% of global production in the 1970s to about 25% today. Opting for social democracy instead of innovative capitalism, Europe has ceded this share to China (predominantly), India, and the rest of the developing world.

Jonathan Chait of The New Republic, who appears to have taken over what was until recently the magazine's diverse and interesting group blog, The Plank, responded by doing a little digging and discovering that Manzi's figures suffered from a number of problems. As you may have noticed, the passage quoted above considers America's share of global GDP "from 1980", but Europe's from "the 1970s" - a period of severe economic downturn which is thus made to count against Europe but not America despite affecting both blocs. Manzi's definition of Europe also proved to encompass countries like Ukraine and East Germany which suffered a catastrophic economic collapse during and after the death throes of the Soviet bloc, and were not by any stretch of the imagination social democracies over this period.

The most important problem with Manzi's essay for the purposes of understanding the imperial temptation in British and American politics is that, while it may appear to be an indictment of Europe's prosperity, the figure it considers is not GDP per capita, which would be a fair(er) measure of this, but share of global GDP. In large part this reflects, and is explicable by, population growth - America has indeed been more 'successful' than Europe in increasing its population, largely through immigration though also through a higher birth rate. Whether you regard this as a success or a failure will depend upon your attitude to population density and its effects on the environment. But I doubt many Europeans would seek an explosion in our numbers simply to increase our economic might relative to China, despite the fact that, as Manzi correctly observes, "economic clout represents the latent capacity for military and cultural power".

The fact that a wide swathe of the American right sees this as an important goal - despite vociferously opposing the laxer immigration policies Manzi's figures show are the surest means to achieving it - is therefore telling. I vividly remember attending a lecture at a conservative American institution in which the European speaker was interrogated by his audience on the feeble breeding habits of native Europeans compared to Muslims. Despite the efforts of some Daily Mail columnists, such concerns are not widespread in Europe itself - and when they do occur, it is rarely in the context of worrying about Europe's global clout.

The connection of all this to Tony Blair's desire for Britain to punch above its weight may appear obscure; population growth is its own issue, worthy of separate discussion. But Manzi's essay and the debate that it provoked exposes a mindset concerned with national power that it is quite alien to the British electorate, but less alien to their leaders. Both Blair and Chirac, despite their different attitudes to Iraq, clearly felt the temptation to play Churchill, or Napoleon. Many of those in power do. That it can lead to disaster is part of the lesson of Tony Blair's ill-fated adventure in Iraq.

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