One regular correspondent, who is critical of my intention to vote for a pro-war Conservative against an anti-war Labour candidate in a Labour marginal, queries the limited character of my conclusion (I have cited only two constituencies where I would not support the Labour candidate, including my own). He argues that, given my premise, I ought to be arguing for far more widespread Tory voting, as a larger proportion of Conservative MPs voted for war in Iraq than did Labour MPs.
One new correspondent, who is very much concerned - and in an admirable way - with security issues, also criticises my reasoning. He is intending to vote for an anti-war Labour MP in another marginal, on the grounds that he cannot trust the Tories to support Blair in another contingency like the Iraq War. He also worries that if other Labour supporters follow my example, then there would be no Blair premiership for my pro-Blair Tory candidate to support. Finally, he notes that for all Blair's imperfections, he would be a better PM than the "bad Alf Garnett impersonator" who leads the Conservative Party.
I agree, of course, with every point made by my second correspondent. Blair is not merely an outstanding statesman, but the most important single figure in international relations in the world today. Having shown no obvious concern with foreign policy before becoming Prime Minister, he has been the most powerful force for good in the international order of any Labour politician since Ernest Bevin. By contrast, I have lost so much respect for Michael Howard in the course of his leadership that I would not even countenance tactical voting in his constituency to defeat the Liberal Democrats, who have hopes of the seat. I would not have thought this humanly possible, but Howard has proved a worse leader than Iain Duncan Smith. His populist campaign on immigration and asylum has besmirched his own reputation and that of his party; his feint towards the anti-war movement and his advocacy of greater state control of the universities (i.e. his opposition to student fees) fail even as electoral politics, being patently incredible.
The Tories' cynicism over Iraq and their (ironically) mendacious campaign to brand Blair a liar give weight to my correspondent's concern that the party could not be trusted to support a progressive foreign policy on matters of comparable importance to Iraq. I entirely share that concern (which is, incidentally, why I don't agree with my first correspondent's point). The Tories are so heedless of ideological bearing that they campaign even against the White House - and it is worth recalling that no post-war British Prime Minister has been so mistrusted by Washington than a Conservative, Edward Heath, while the two worst crises in post-war US-UK relations have both been engineered by Conservative Governments (Eden, over Suez; Major, over Bosnia).
Let me therefore restate the reasoning behind my own decision. I seek the return of a Blair Government with a large majority. I share the revulsion of Christopher Hitchens towards "the cretinized British Conservative Party" and "am glad to have seen the day when a British Tory leader is repudiated by the White House". But those of us on the Left who support regime change must face up to the fact that that noble cause is not widely held. It is intuitively appealing - particularly as it seems to augur a way of avoiding costs, most particularly humanitarian ones - to argue that war must be fought only for defensive reasons in response to a clear and present danger. Blair's great insight as a statesman is to have realised the import of 9/11: defensive war cannot wait on the identification of a clear and present danger, because the threats we face are no longer solely from other states. But - and this is the one point on which Michael Howard has a fair case against the Government - the arguments for this strategy have been muddied by the tactical error of reducing them to a case about WMD, the gross failures of intelligence accompanying that decision, and the incompetence of - excepting Blair himself - almost everyone involved in the UK government and US administration in arguing the case for pre-emptive war. When the most powerful arguments for an interventionist foreign policy against clerical barbarism and Baathist totalitarianism are put not by public servants but by freelance writers such as William Shawcross and Christopher Hitchens, then - with due respect and immense honour to those outstanding participants in the revolutionary cause - we're in trouble. And we're in trouble particularly because Iraq is not an isolated issue; it is a precursor of a liberal foreign policy geared to the spread of democratic government in regions with no history of constitutional process. We have to do this for moral reasons, and because our security depends on it.
I am, like Hitchens, a left-winger and sometime Labour activist. Having campaigned for the party when it was unelectable and extreme, I am faintly incredulous but very pleased that the party once led by George Lansbury and Michael Foot is now the only party meriting support on defence issues. But the support inside the party is shallow. Just as the anti-totalitarian struggle in the Cold War depended upon a rapprochement between the forces of the moderate Left and the internationalist centre-Right - what was known in Germany as 'Militant Democracy' - so this struggle against another existential threat requires a broad coalition, and the encouragement of liberal-democratic internationalism across the parties and civil society. If we forgo this coalition-building, then we'll find that support for our cause evaporates - the Conservative Party's trajectory over the past couple of years being an awful warning.
My inchoate views on our responsibilities in this election are thus that we should be looking to change the Conservatives as well as defeat them, and to maximise the representation of liberal-democratic internationalists in Parliament as well as support the Labour Party. I am in this respect a single-issue voter: if we do not get our security policy right - by which I mean a militant defence and expansion of liberal democracy - then nothing else will matter. It is for that reason that I am prepared to support particular Conservative candidates, subject to one criterion: not only that the candidate should have supported the war in Iraq (a wide category that includes several who now loudly bemoan what they consider a mistake - such as the former Shadow Foreign Secretary, John Maples), but that he is the type of politician who would defy a party whip in order to support an interventionist foreign policy. I don't know if the Tory candidate whom I shall be voting for, Nicholas Boles, comes into that category: I know too little about him. But I think he probably is. I have found his answers to my questions on this subject to my liking, and he is on record in support of a statement on foreign policy principles that I share. On the other hand, my Labour candidate would certainly defy a party whip in order to oppose an interventionist policy (I know this because she has written to me to say so). I asked her for permission to quote her private message to me, for my Times column on this subject. As she didn't give it, I naturally respect her wishes - but I think it is in order nonetheless to say that her message included reference to a type of docile canine, which I took to be not merely a figure of speech but an allusion to the Prime Minister's conduct of foreign policy. Perhaps I am wrong on this, but I fear I am not. I have voted for some highly variable Labour candidates - and one despicable one - in past elections, but I will not vote for a Labour candidate who thinks in these terms when there are plausible grounds for believing that her challenger will provide principled support for the foreign policies of a third-term Blair Government. This, then, is my answer to my correspondent's caution that if all pro-defence Labour supporters acted as I shall do, then there would be no Labour Government to support. I specifically urge and hope that Labour voters elsewhere vote Labour. The constituency where I shall vote is a highly unusual case.
But in deference to my first correspondent I will name another case, and there may be others. I can say with certainty that the long-serving Tory MP for South Staffordshire, Sir Patrick Cormack, is the type of candidate who would defy a party whip in order to support a reputable foreign and defence policy. He's already done it. The only parliamentary division on the Bosnian crisis took place (at the Liberal Democrats' request: they were better-led in those days) in November 1992. In his magnificent book Unfinest Hour: Britain and the Destruction of Bosnia, 2001, p. 275, Brendan Simms records:
The motion - condemning government action as 'too little, too late' - was defeated by 166 votes to 37. Only 206 MPs actually voted. Patrick Cormack was the only Conservative MP to vote against the government.
In the debates on the Iraq war, Sir Patrick was similarly principled in defiance of his party. As Tories pressed for a judicial inquiry into the war, The Times reported:
Mr Blair received help from an unlikely quarter. The senior Conservative Sir Patrick Cormack rebuked his own MPs over their behaviour since the war ended. He told the Commons that he was ashamed of the Tories for their obsession with silly details.
“It grieves me deeply that my party, which I am honoured to belong to, should have started nit-picking when it was so right to give support on the principal issue (of going to war),” Sir Patrick said.
“It also grieves me that those young men and women in the Gulf must be wondering if we have lost our marbles in this place, spending our time on these silly accusations which have no substance.”
Sir Patrick also has the distinction of having performed the not especially onerous task of exposing the cynicism of Liberal Democrat policy on the war. In the parliamentary debate of 18 March 2003, ahead of military action, he asked Charles Kennedy, who had been professing support for British troops simultaneously with an amendment requiring a second UN resolution:
Can I therefore take it that if the amendment is lost the right hon. Gentleman will vote for the substantive [pro-Government] motion?
Kennedy fluffed it. If you read down the Hansard report, you'll see he then loses control altogether, peevishly expostulating, "We do not need moral lectures from the Conservative party."
Sir Patrick will in fact not be facing election later today, because of the tragic death during the campaign of his Liberal Democrat opponent. This means that a by-election will be held in the constituency in a month's time. Given the circumstances - with an incumbent who is no foreign-policy theorist, but an honourable man with an independent political judgement, and when the overall result of the general election will already have been decided - I would support Sir Patrick, even without knowing the stance of his Labour challenger.
Taking all these things into account, this is what I hope for from the general election (which is not to say I think this scenario will happen in any, let alone every, particular). Not all of these wishes are of equal weight (e.g. point 5 in this list is a fundamental moral issue that goes beyond party politics):
1. A large Labour majority - of at least not much below 100.
2. The shoring up of the liberal-democratic internationalist contingents of both main parties.
3. Failure by the Liberal Democrats to win their target seats - though I am no longer so exercised by this prospect that I would advise tactical voting to defeat them; the Conservatives ought not to be supported even on tactical grounds.
4. Failure of the Nationalist parties to make headway.
5. Defeat for the pro-fascist parties, Respect and the BNP.
6. Defeat for all Independent candidates. The one Independent elected at the last election, Dr Richard Taylor, has proved not so much ineffectual as invisible: he even managed to miss the division on foundation hospitals (i.e. the single issue on which he was elected). Likewise the Independent candidate running against Tony Blair in Sedgefield on an anti-war ticket, Reg Keys. I have great sympathy for Mr Keys as a father (his son was killed in Iraq), but I would not patronise him by suggesting that a large vote or even an extraordinary victory would provide him with solace. He doesn't want solace: he wants what he sees as justice. That is not within the power of any British government to give, for the only injustice involved in our decision to resume (not launch - for the first Gulf War never formally ended) war against Saddam Hussein was that it ought to have been taken a dozen years earlier.
7. The return of David Trimble in Upper Bann.