REPORTER: Geoff Parish
At the University of York, an old political warrior has come to address the students.
MC: Without further adieu, I’d like to welcome Tony Benn.
Tony Benn is a veteran of the Labour left, a former cabinet minister and party chairman. He’s also a strident critic of any war on Iraq.
TONY BENN, FORMER CABINET MINISTER: They don’t see this as a protest, they see it as a majority of the world’s population demanding no war and resolution of the underlying problems – poverty and justice and so on.
Many of the students have come to see the man who recently interviewed Saddam Hussein.
TONY BENN: Does Iraq possess weapons of mass destruction?
While Benn has long been known in Britain, this interview gained him worldwide recognition. Now he’s the media’s man of the moment.
TONY BENN: (Phone rings) I think this is probably CNN. (Answers phone) Am I what? No, I’m not in New York, I’m in the old York. Well, I saw Saddam Hussein in 1990. I had three hours with him then just before the Gulf War and I persuaded him to release all the British hostages.
Benn is popular with his audience and it’s no surprise – there’s a strong anti-war mood in Britain. Try as he might, Prime Minister Blair can’t swing public opinion. Polls suggest 80% of the British people are opposed to war with Iraq, with 40% opposed even if war is sanctioned by the United Nations. Benn is known for speaking his mind and in a cab en route to his next appointment, he has plenty to say about Australia’s involvement in a war.
TONY BENN: Well, if somebody’s killed by an Australian soldier without a UN resolution, the person killed will be the victim of a war crime. I mean, that needs to be thought about, because why have we made all this fuss about Pinochet and Milosevic and so on if an International Criminal Court isn’t seen now, as it is, it should be, as an integral part of the process of international law.
Next stop is York’s Theatre Royal and again, a full house for Benn. The audience is neither young nor radical.
MAN ON MEGAPHONE: Join the global day demonstrations against war in London on February 15.
And here’s another problem for Tony Blair – 400,000 anti-war protesters are expected in London on Saturday as part of a global day of protest.
MAN ON STREET: If you look at any of the statistics, the majority of people in the UK are against a war in Iraq.
Benn knows the Prime Minister is struggling on the issue and attacks him, much to the delight of the audience.
TONY BENN: Well, the Prime Minister said, “I’m not going to accept a UN veto.” It’s like a judge saying in a courtroom, “Even if you acquit the guy, I’m still going to hang him, you know,” and he hasn’t gone to parliament.
At about the same time Benn was wowing the crowds in York, Tony Blair was having far less success in a special BBC panel session.
TONY BLAIR, BRITISH PM: And the fact is he is the one power in this world that has actually used chemical weapons against his own people.
BBC INTERVIEWER: But Prime Minister, if you’re looking at countries in the Middle East that have got arsenals of chemical weapons, what about a country like Syria, which has if biggest chemical weapons arsenal in that part of the world and whose president you invite to this country to have tea with the Queen?
TONY BLAIR: But he has not started a war with his neighbours using those weapons.
And then there was this question.
WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: Yes, I would like to ask do you believe that the people of your country are behind you at the moment?
TONY BLAIR: I think that…I think if there were a second UN resolution then I think people would be behind me. I think if there’s not, then there’s a lot of persuading to do.
WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: Because I don’t share any confidence that the people are behind you at the moment. Everybody that I’ve spoken to within my circle oppose what’s happening at the moment.
TONY BLAIR: Supposing there were a second resolution though, would that make a difference?
WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: Yes.
Aside from public disquiet, Blair’s problems were compounded by a series of intelligence failures. Even as troops prepared for war, the Government could not sustain the allegation that al-Qa’ida had links to Saddam. And a government intelligence document with new information on Iraq turned out to be plagiarised from a student thesis. It’s clear that without UN backing for war, Blair may find his own MPs in revolt and the party rank and file. At a meeting in Islington in the heart of London, there’s dismay over Blair’s hardline on Iraq.
WOMAN AT MEETING: I just wonder – I’ve already written to Blair myself to say I’m not going to vote for him again if he goes into this war, and I know lots of people who think like me.
Jeremy Corbin is a vocal left-wing MP, one of 150 MPs who forged a cross-party alliance calling for a vote on military action.
JEREMY CORBIN, MP: The British Government has put 35,000 British troops into the theatre of war. At no stage have I, as a member of parliament, been able to register my point of view on this. I find it unbelievable.
If Blair can’t find a way to deal with these party dissidents, things may get even tougher for him.
JEREMY CORBIN: He’s going to face a very, very hard time indeed. If the war takes place, I suspect the casualties will be high, I suspect the damage will be very, very serious and he will then be under enormous pressure and enormous criticism. He yesterday interestingly conceded that he hadn’t won the public relations argument – he hadn’t won the public over. He seems to still think he can. I don’t see it that way.
The days ahead will be critical for the Prime Minister and his party.