When Labour came to power in the UK in 1997, the left/centre majority heaved a sigh of relief after 18 years of Conservative rule. Britain had become a far more progressive place in those years, and the feeling that our leaders were finally in tune with us was elating. Anti-gay laws were repealed, police were subject to more control over their street behaviour, pay of teachers and nurses rose and massive investment was pumped into the crumbling education and health services. “Cool Britannia” was announced, and top music stars were seen rubbing shoulders with government ministers.
It was all so much fun that we chose to ignore the parts we didn’t want to see. Labour wasn’t going to re-nationalise any privatised industries, however messy or unwise the privatisations had been; most of the new schools and hospitals were built under a “Public-Private Partnership” regime that would work out more expensive in the long run; Blair and his top ministers seemed to love the company of Bankers and CEOs, and the rich-poor divide was allowed to widen even further.
I voted Labour in 1997 and again in 2001. And then came 9/11, and Blair’s fangs appeared. His religious mania started to be slowly unveiled (religion is a vote-loser rather than a winner in UK politics, and his spin-doctors played it down as best they could). Days after 9/11, it became obvious, to those who watched, that Iraq was in the cross-hairs of the neocons, and by mid-2002 there was no doubt that an attack on Iraq was in the planning stages (we later learned that Blair had already committed in early-2002). A large anti-war march was held in London in October 2002 (while Blair was still pretending that all options were on the table) and a huge march was held in February 2003, a month before the war. But Blair ignored the marchers, ignored the facts, ignored the majority within his own party, and took Britain to join one of the least justified, most brutal wars in modern history.
From that moment, he was widely hated by the British people, and the hatred steadily increased. When, in July 2005, terrorists killed 52 in London, and injured 700 more, most people held Blair’s Iraq adventure partly to blame, and his popularity fell further. It wasn’t just that he had carried out an unforgiveable act – it was that he had come to power as a progressive, and our eyes had finally been opened to reality. When Blair left power, exposed his deep Catholic fundamentalism, and began to profit from oil and other companies who had benefited from the Iraq war, the transformation was complete.
In the UK, we were as elated as American progressives by Obama’s election in 2008 – Bush had been hated here and worldwide for his moronic foreign policy, long before the majority of Americans turned against him. We knew, though we didn’t want to acknowledge it, that America is more than the President, and that Obama’s main reforms would be on domestic ground. Sure enough, America’s murderous behaviour towards Afghanistan and Pakistan was little changed – some things (such as drone attacks on civilians) became even worse. But we tried to ignore these, and enjoy the knowledge that Obama was more intelligent, more progressive than Bush could ever be.
So now we have a bombardment of Libya. We want to cling on to the idea that this is being done to protect civilians, but even as the bombing started, civilians were being shot dead in the streets of Yemen, Syria and Bahrain with barely a word of condemnation. It becomes increasingly clear that far from boosting the Arab revolutions, this attack on Libya will deliberately undermine them.
American progressives are going to increasingly feel about Obama the way we felt about Blair in 2003. It was easy to hate Bush – he gave us plenty of reason to, and he’d been elected by morons anyway, but Blair and Obama were ours. We can try to justify Obama’s capitulation – we already knew that America’s democracy is no longer strong enough to represent the will of the people over the interests of corporations and the military. But whichever way you look at it, betrayal hurts.