Letter from London: The guest from hell —Irfan Husain
To mix a metaphor, by hitching his wagon to Bush’s star, Blair is making sure that they sink or swim together. The Istanbul bombings are going to be blamed on the British role in the war on Iraq, whatever Blair might say
We have all had that awful moment when a guest who has forced his presence on us just refuses to take the hint and leave. He stretches out his feet on the table, belches loudly and bores everyone to tears with his self-centred drivel. The servants are close to mutinying and the kids make faces behind his back. In short, the guest from hell.
This is what Bush was to Blair and Britain last week. As the police mounted its biggest security operation in living memory to keep protestors away from the American president, Londoners wanted to know why their lives were being disrupted by the boor from Texas. Their mayor, Ken ‘Red’ Livingstone loudly declared that he did not recognise Bush as the lawful president of the United States because of the vote-counting scandal in Florida, and would invite the maverick Bush-baiter Michael Moore as an alternative American guest. He also refused to host the traditional banquet for the unwanted guest.
On the day of the big anti-Bush rally, the cops were far more grim-faced than they had been at the earlier and far bigger anti-war rally last Spring. Not only did they look more serious, but they refused to fraternise and exchange cheerful banter with the crowd as they usually do. No doubt they were under instructions not to be friendly. Helicopters clattered overhead as mounted police kept the crowd in check. There were whispers about snipers on rooftops. Although at around 150,000 the crowd was smaller than earlier peace marches, the police presence was much more pronounced.
But the demonstrators were relaxed and raucous as the march wound its way along its 5-kilometer route through central London. One elderly Asian-looking gent wore a beaver hat and a monocle and had a big cigar in his mouth. A woman came dressed as a bride and had a bunch of bombs tied around her waist.
The signs people carried were highly inventive. One proclaimed: “Bush is Sauron; save the Shire”. This was comprehensible only to fans of Tolkein’s Lord of the Ring. Another announced: “Bush is to Christianity what Osama is to Islam.” One said: “Stop this Bushshit.” Yet another suggested: “Let’s bomb Texas; they have oil too.” My favourite was: “George Bush and Son, family butchers, by royal appointment.”
At Iftar, many of the Muslim demonstrators broke their fast at Trafalgar Square. Here, a huge statue of Bush was toppled to imitate that historic moment when Saddam’s enormous statue was pulled off its pedestal in Baghdad. But towards the end of the rally, news of the awful terrorist attacks against the British consulate and a bank in Istanbul spread like wildfire. Many people said this was a result of the war on Iraq.
Before and during the Bush visit, commentators constantly questioned Blair’s wisdom in having issued the invitation in the first place. In particular, the whole idea of having the American president come on a state visit with all its protocol and royal paraphernalia was widely criticised. While Bush profited by way of numerous photo-opportunities that would be useful in his election campaign next year, nobody could figure out what was in it for Blair because ultimately, the anti-Bush demos were also anti-Blair.
By publicly associating himself so closely with Bush at a time of rising casualties and chaos in Iraq, Blair has put his own political future on the line. To mix a metaphor, by hitching his wagon to Bush’s star, Blair is making sure that they sink or swim together. The Istanbul bombings are going to be blamed on the British role in the war on Iraq, whatever Blair might say.
But in a sense, the protestors are trapped: mostly, they are the ones who put Blair in office in the first place, so where do they go if they succeed in booting Blair out? By and large, the anti-war activists are leftists who vote for Labour and are sworn enemies of the Tories. An anti-Blair movement will make it easier for the Conservatives to stage a come-back. This is a real dilemma for the British left today.
But watching Bush at all the solemn state functions, his smug, self-satisfied little grimace firmly pasted in place, made the blood boil. As he went on about the ‘war on terror’ and his demonstrably false reasons for attacking Iraq, nobody but Blair believed a word he said. His effigy was pulled down by British demonstrators last week; maybe American voters will pull down the real Bush next year. Another four years of this odious human being directing the policies of the most powerful nation on earth are too awful to contemplate.
The writer is a freelance columnist