British Rail Union Leader Blasts Blair on Iraq

“Blair’s Suez”

by Mick Rix

Mick Rix is general secretary of the locomotive engineers union in Britain (ASLEF). His article first appeared in the Financial Times (London) on August 29. We post this version, edited for Labor Standard, for the information of our readers.

I never thought the day could arrive when I would find myself in the company of James Baker, Brent Scowcroft, General Sir Michael Rose, and other establishment political and military figures from Britain and the U.S.

All are deeply skeptical over the necessity of launching an attack on Iraq, a plan whose only real supporters may be found in the Pentagon, in the Israeli government, and around U.S. President George W. Bush. Perhaps these conservatives are simply catching up with the mood of the British labor movement, most of which is totally opposed to attacking Iraq.

I have never known the movement to be so united in firm opposition to a war apparently supported by a Labour government. That opposition is certain to be voiced in the forthcoming Trades Union Congress and Labour Party conferences. Where antiwar resolutions are tabled for debate, I would expect them to be passed by large majorities.

A number of trade unions are also supporting the “Don’t Attack Iraq” demonstration to be held in London on September 28, the day before the Labour Party conference opens. I believe there will be a massive turnout. Tony Blair would be well advised to listen.

The British trade union movement has a proud record of internationalism and solidarity with oppressed peoples. For example, ASLEF has campaigned actively for human rights in countries such as Colombia, where hundreds of trade unionists have been assassinated and imprisoned. So we will take no lectures from those who might accuse us of not caring about the plight of ordinary Iraqis by opposing war.

British trade unionists were marching against Saddam Hussein’s regime when he was still in favor with Washington. We support the Iraqi people’s struggle for democratic government. But we have to ask whether the sanctions regime of the past 10 years has helped moves toward democracy — or whether it has brought even more suffering on an innocent people. And we must think hard as to whether an externally imposed change of regime can really bring about democracy.

It is debatable whether the Iraqi regime still has the capacity to produce weapons of mass destruction. The dossier that has been repeatedly promised by Mr. Blair on the Iraqi weapons program has never materialized. And Scott Ritter, former head of the United Nations weapons inspection team, is convinced that Iraq no longer has the capability to develop weapons of mass destruction.

However, there are other countries in the region that do possess weapons of mass destruction, not least Israel. There is a clear risk that Iraq, once attacked, will retaliate against Israel, and the government of Ariel Sharon will have little compunction in turn about hitting back with nuclear weapons.

The Middle East is a tinderbox and Mr. Bush stands ready with his box of matches. There can never be peace in the region without justice for the Palestinians. Yet Mr. Bush appears oblivious to this truth.

Most of the British labor movement is also appalled at the double standards of American policy toward Israel, which currently illegally occupies the West Bank and Gaza. That is the main source of instability in the region today. Indeed, not a single state in the Middle East, among those that ought to feel most threatened by Iraq — if threat it is — is remotely supportive of a U.S. attack.

Mr. Blair can play a pivotal role in helping to bring about a peaceful settlement. Even the Bush administration would find it hard to go to war without Britain at its side. So far, however, the prime minister has never given any indication other than that he will back Mr. Bush over Iraq. In recent days — no doubt shaken by the strength of feeling in the country and within the labor movement — ministers have sounded a little more equivocal.

It is right that Mr. Blair should be reflecting long and hard on what will undoubtedly be the most important decision of his leadership and of our lifetimes. I hope that the forthcoming conferences will make matters even clearer to him.

In 1956 Anthony Eden’s Conservative government failed to heed U.S. advice and launched what proved to be one of the most ill-fated of British expeditions in modern times. The Suez campaign marked the end of Britain’s unilateralism and its empire. Now it is our turn to warn the U.S. that an attack on Iraq has incalculable consequences for the Middle East and for world peace.

On an issue of such importance, it is vital that both parliament and the cabinet have an opportunity to debate Mr. Bush’s war plans. Nothing else will do.

In the meantime, those of us who have consistently argued for peace and justice have a duty to try to persuade the Iraqis to comply with the UN Security Council resolutions on weapons inspections.

That, I am sure, is the view of the great majority of the labor movement.