Region's Britons ponder war, Blair-Bush links

(PHOTO: Jennifer Sharpe, left, and her husband, Mike, fly the colors of their countries outside their Clayton Street home in Tupelo. – Photo by Thomas Wells)

BY PHILIP MOULDEN

Daily Journal

British Prime Minister Tony Blair will likely recover from early public opposition in Great Britain to the war in Iraq, and it may eventually add to his stature as a strong leader.

That's what a sampling of opinion from people in Northeast Mississippi with strong ties to England suggests.

The longtime alliance of Great Britain and the United States, the English public's respect for resolve in the face of political pressure, and an ongoing awakening to the need to unseat Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein all play in Blair's favor, several Britons now residing in the area said.

The transplants also see Blair's ties with U.S. President George Bush in two possible lights – one as equals and personally close heads of state, the other as Blair in the role of a second-tier partner.

And some question whether the relationship between Blair and Bush is built on personal attraction or dedication to a cause, but it appears to make little difference as far as the results.

“I think it's both. They see this as right,” said Mike Sharpe, a Tupelo real estate and restoration company executive who moved to the United States on business 11 years ago. “I think it (removing Saddam) is close to both their hearts and it's just made their ties a lot thicker.”

The Rev. Tim Jones, vicar of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Corinth, said the English do wonder about the Bush-Blair relationship.

Not always popular

“In terms of political philosophy, Tony Blair was much closer to Bill Clinton than he is to George W. Bush,” Jones offered. “I think most British people are amazed that the prime minister has stood so firmly with the president on this issue.”

Sharpe said a leader can't always do the politically popular thing. Blair stood with the U.S. because it was right, he and others maintain.

“I'm proud of Tony Blair that he supported it (the war),” Victoria Blake, an Itawamba Agricultural High School speech and drama teacher, said. She moved to the United States in 1989 to attend Blue Mountain College on a tennis scholarship, and met her husband here.

Blake, who talks regularly by phone to her sister in England, said reported atrocities by Saddam's government, as well as the reported execution of British soldiers taken captive by Iraqis since the war began, are swaying England's public to the cause.

Many of Blair's political problems were also linked to education and health care disputes that were transposed to war resistance, Blake suggested.

“I think they (the public) will get behind it (the war),” she said. “The longer it goes on the more they are realizing it's what needed to be done.”

European ties

What Blair's unflagging support for U.S. policy may do to his links to others in the European community is problematic, although he has made inclusionary moves to try to bring European opponents on board for the rebuilding of Iraq after the war.

But it has always been a love-hate relationship, and while British public opinion falls with most Europeans on the war, on other issues it's very mixed, Jones noted.

Sharpe noted there have always been kinks in the European Union-British link, but sees ties returning to near normal once the war is over. “I think it will get better,” he said.

Regardless, most Britons in Northeast Mississippi who were contacted contended the American-British ties were clearly more important.

“I think that Blair has all along wanted to be close to America,” said Amanda Cleggett, a third-year English major at the University of Mississippi for Women who hails from Kent County, England “I think seeing the unity between the two (leaders) is a good thing.”

Cleggett said most of her friends at home don't favor the war, but understand the U.S. position. They, like Americans, also want to stem the chance of terrorism in their own country, she said.

“I think the (English public) support is growing. Maybe before the war everyone was concerned. … It seems (now) that everyone understands that that's the way it has to be,” Cleggett said.

No second thoughts

Mississippi State University history Prof. Richard V. Damms said he doubted Bush or Blair had made a convincing case that Saddam Hussein fostered terrorism, but Blair seemed to have no second thoughts on joining the president in wanting Saddam ousted.

“I think there're other reasons that Bush and Blair want to see Saddam removed from his position,” he said.

Bush and Blair have moved closer, but Damms noted their relationship might rest more in the cause than in personal magnetism.

Damms, who moved to the U.S. when he was 21 and stayed after marrying an American, recalled that Winston Churchhill wasn't the most popular person in Great Britain before World War II.

“Blair's image has improved a bit in recent days,” he said. “There is a grudging respect (in England) for a leader that stands up for what he believes. … It seems (Blair) has staked his reputation on this war and his relationship with Bush. He views himself as a bridge between the United States and the European Union.”