TCS Daily

A Setback, Not a Defeat

By Iain Murray - March 17, 2004 12:00 AM

"New Europe" isn't in as bad shape as some people have been saying following the Madrid outrage and the subsequent Spanish election results. To read some commentators, you might think that the entire population of Spain had raised the white flag to Al Qaeda, while it was only a matter of time before even the United Kingdom deserted the coalition of the willing. Both these assessments are in fact far from the truth, as close looks at polling numbers will reveal.

To take Spain first, the shift in power to the Socialist Party was entirely due to an increased turnout of voters. In 2000, about 21.5 million people voted in the Spanish elections. In 2004, 2.5 million more voted. The Socialist vote increased by 3 million, while the Conservative vote dropped by only 700,000. This was no massive swing away from the Partido Popular (PP) to the Socialists, but an effect of a small percentage of the population feeling motivated to vote when otherwise they would have not. In fact, it seems likely that the PP's vote actually firmed up, given that opinion polls before the Madrid bombings had the Socialists gaining on the PP even without the extra votes. By my calculations, on a turnout equivalent to 2000, the PP would have received about 300,000 fewer votes than it did.

Close to 40 percent of the Spanish people voted for the PP despite the attacks, despite the accusations of lies and despite the widespread unhappiness with Prime Minister Aznar's decisions on Iraq (90 percent opposition in some polls). It would be a clear mistake to say that the 43 percent of Spaniards who voted for the Socialist Party did so only because they wished Spain to leave the coalition of the willing and withdraw their troops from Iraq. In fact, it would not surprise me if polls found that more Spaniards now supported the Aznar stance on Iraq than previously, despite the election results.

It is clear, therefore, that the Spanish elections hinged on the feelings of those 3 million extra voters, less than a tenth of the voting population. They were, it appears, overwhelmingly young, something that in Europe at least invariably favors left-leaning parties. It seems likely that the PP's unwise move to pin the blame for the bombings on Basque separatist terrorists ETA before the evidence was in contributed to a feeling among this group that it had been lied to. The group's vengeance was terrible for Spain and the war on terror, but its effect was disproportionate.

We can see the disproportionate effect of a vocal minority in the United Kingdom as well. Since the controversy over Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) blew up, followed by the supposed "whitewash" of the Hutton Inquiry that found that the BBC's reporting on the subject was less than high standard, and the Conservative Party's opportunistic hounding of Prime Minister Tony Blair on the issue, one might be forgiven for expecting that opposition to Mr. Blair's Iraq policy would be as high in the UK as it was in Spain.

Yet a new opinion poll for the BBC finds something quite different. A plurality of the population continues to believe that the Iraq war was the right thing to do, even taking into account "everything that has happened since." (It is worth bearing in mind that the fieldwork for the poll was undertaken 10-12 March, so reaction to the Madrid bombing would be included therein. The British media reported the possible Al Qaeda connection very early on). Almost 70 percent reject the allegation that the Labour Government lied to them about WMDs, and only 15 percent subscribe to the oft-repeated theory that the war was all about oil. Majorities continue to believe that war is the right approach in the event of various circumstances that could be described as pre-emptive, such as when a nation possesses WMDs (59%), harbors terrorists (51%) or commits atrocities (55%).

Moreover, those who suspect that the United Kingdom is an inch away from joining Old Europe should take heart in the poll's findings about the Atlantic alliance. Almost half the respondents say Britain's closeness to America is good for Britain, while only 1 in 5 thinks it bad. Again, almost half say Britain should side with the USA compared with 34 percent saying France and Germany when given the choice between the two approaches. Even President Bush, whose reputation in the UK is not good, is rated as having performed better than France in the crisis. Furthermore, although the split is a statistical tie, roughly half the population favors Britain acting militarily in its interests without UN approval.

The poll does make uncomfortable personal reading for Tony Blair. It is clear he has paid a personal price for his actions. Almost half of respondents (42%) trust him less as a result of the war (although he is still the most trusted of British party leaders on military matters). However, his closeness to the President, which has led many to call him "Bush's lapdog," is viewed as bad for Britain by only 29 percent of respondents. And almost half of respondents agree with Tony Blair's personal doctrine that military intervention is justified even when Britain herself is not directly threatened.

Foreign Secretary Jack Straw commented on some of the British media reaction to the Madrid atrocities to the effect that "some people have convinced themselves that 9/11 happened after the invasion of Iraq." This poll should hopefully underscore that those commentators are a minority, just like the minority that affected Spain's vote. The chances of the disaffected affecting a British election in the way they influenced the Spanish election are small. The main British opposition party supports the war on terror, despite its attacks on the Prime Minister. As the British poll shows, personal dissatisfaction with the way Tony Blair has handled the crisis is more of a liability to his chances than the policies he has followed. In a way, the same was true of the PP, given the furious reaction to what was seen as lies and manipulation in the aftermath of the bombings. To say that Al Qaeda forced a Western government out of office may be overstating the case. New Europe may be down, but it's not out yet.


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