The Long Goodbye, Part 1


The stern hangs high, screws idly revolving. The SS Blair is ready to slide under as the sea is dotted with ex-crewmembers swimming off in various directions. The skipper remains ebullient, explaining that none will escape his ‘heritage,’ paddle as they will. And this seems true, though not everyone’s take is similar.

Tony Blair considers his works in education, social services and the justice system. ‘Reforms,’ he says. (‘Wrecking amendments,’ say others.) Also, he sticks up for the War on Terror and the Bush Alliance though, with a hard-done-by air, as if to say: ‘You’ll be sorry when I’m gone, when the jihadis seize St Paul’s and Her Majesty’s inside a burka.’

But there are other views, like those of Frank Luntz, a cynically realistic US pollster who likes working for the BBC. He says his current focus groups of Labour ex-sympathisers see the Prime Minister as generating, not just common-or-garden distrust, but a distrust so malign as to envelope his opponents, and electoral politics generally ‘ cliché,’ ‘deceit’ and ‘talent without integrity’ are, apparently, ‘at the forefront of electors’ minds when they think of the Prime Minister.’ Luntz writes:

The spin machine that is Blair has fundamentally changed politics, but not in the way he intended. Every statement, soundbite and staged setting in the run-up to the next election will be seen through the prism of the Blair years. The next Premier will need to remember that if Blair could have said it, voters will oppose it .

Other polling looks similar: there’s an uneasy sense that somewhere inside Britain’s political clockwork a spring has snapped. Not quite the expected legacy of a man some hoped would be remembered alongside reformers like UK Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli or US President Franklin Roosevelt. And who touch wood leaves with a Northern Ireland peace deal behind him.

Not that voters disregard that achievement. ‘Great,’ they seem to say. ‘But why did he trick us up the rest of the time?’

Blair is taken for a consistent Machiavellian: it mis-describes him and Niccolò . But it means he gets nothing off for incompetence.

Though the voters just want Blair gone, the politicking classes still gnaw at the Belfast/Baghdad paradox. They hope to ascribe it to personal turpitude: for conservatives, that of Blair; for the liberal-Left, that of mediafolk. Many of the liberal-Left, of course, are mediafolk themselves, but their theory is that the trade is riddled with thuggish counter-democrats. Absolutely but the Power Commission’s survey shows people don’t rely intensely on the brain pages of The Sun or Daily Mail.

There are other, less-trumpeted puzzles: for instance, Blair’s UK economy has been a world-class success, but it pumps out figures for social inequality and dysfunction uncomfortably like the USA’s. Social democracies are supposed to prosper without that kind of downside, and several classic ones still do. (Australia has some disturbing stats, but Howard never did social democracy.)

In general, Blair scholarship forms two main schools. There are true Tories, who usually loathe the Iraqi War and think the crucial syllable in ‘neo-con’ is the second. People like Michael Heseltine, Sir Max Hastings or Geoffrey Wheatcroft take patriotism seriously, and think Blair traduced it to get his WMD farrago briefly passed as ‘intelligence.’ His sole technique being turbocharged lying (spin), they believe he therefore he lied his way to success in Ulster. It’s an awkward position because few people dislike the sight of Ireland at peace.

Thanks to Sharyn Raggett

In the centre-Left school are Blair apologists apostles even. Labour Ministers belong ex officio, with commentariat aid from such as Steve Richards and John Rentoul of The (UK) Independent group, The Guardian’s Martin Kettle, and Philip Stephens of the Financial Times. They dislike the Iraqi War gung-ho warrior-pundits chiefly inhabit Washington but they can’t bring themselves to think of it as a vile fraud. If they did, of course, it would have been their duty to expose it (while excusing a noble Irish fraud). Anyone who sees heaps of reeking evidence for an offence in Blair’s conduct, they rebuke for naivety and/or malice. ‘Grown-up politics has its grubby side,’ they seem to say, ‘but it came out right in Ulster. Better luck next time, Iraq.’

Both these schools depend on the idea that the same Blair played both (Irish and Iraqi) theatres. And that, once this extraordinary figure vanishes, everyone can restart political business as usual.

But, like Luntz, I suspect things have gone rather too far for that.

The Irish issue was a piece of traditional conservative statecraft a métier familiar to Edmund Burke, Wellington or Winston Churchill. Blair encountered the same Anglo-Irish stresses they did: still recognisably products of the Reformation and English nationalism’s ruthless survival-drive.

This didn’t make it easy. But the territory was familiar. The Anglo-Irish relationship is intimate, and the populations are deeply interwoven. At the late-1960s rebirth of The Troubles, spouters expounded the ancient bloodlust of the Irish, and/or Cromwell, and/or Brian Boru. But people knew it had sunk to rent-a-posture and that it was time for the Ulster communities to attempt approximate equality. It would be tough for both, and worse for the long-dominant Unionists.

What Blair provided after John Major’s opening was address. Harold Wilson and his London successors couldn’t take Ireland seriously. Loftily, they aspired to a ‘settlement.’ But it went to the back of the stove as soon as anything really gripping popped up in Europe, Africa, or a derelict Midlands car-plant set amid marginals. By contrast, Blair seems to have told his office early on that nothing outranked Ireland, and he has mostly stuck to it. Issues of order and legitimacy matter to conservatives, and many now recognise Blair as one. (It may even have struck the man himself.)

The Coalition of the Willing provides gruesome contrast. His bushy-tailed response to Bush’s tinhorn battle-cry suggests Blair knew nothing of the US far-Right’s loopy past. And if he’d known nothing about the Middle East he would have been far better-informed.

A chief executive can’t be pre-briefed everywhere, but Blair showed no urge to learn. Meeting before the war, South Africa’s President Thabo Mbeki asked anxiously whether Blair thought guerrilla battles might occur in Iraqi cities. No, the Americans had worked all that out.

Given Britain’s long record in dubious battle Mideast engagements especially the nation’s academia, officialdom and commentariat is rich in background. Spottiness of the record reinforces what the psychologist Philip Tetlock says in his masterwork Expert Political Judgment something like ‘Runyon’s Rule’ that ‘nothing between human beings is three to one,’ and ‘all life is six to five against.’ But nei
ther Tetlock nor Runyon suggest ignoring experience.

By autumn 2002, ex-warriors and Arabists were wondering about the Prime Minister’s information, and during November a formidable delegation elbowed its way into Number 10. This group included Professor George Joffe (Centre of International Studies), Sir Lawrence Freedman (Professor of War Studies) and Professor Michael Clarke (Director of the International Policy Institute) both of King’s College, London, Dr Charles Tripp (School of Oriental and African Studies), Steven Simon (International Institute for Strategic Studies), and Dr Toby Dodge (Queen Mary College, London) just back from Baghdad. Their message was that felling Saddam would not restore Iraq’s crumbling State quickly if at all.

They found a Prime Minister barely interested. One said: ‘I was staggered at Blair’s inability to engage with the complexities.’ They tried to explain that Saddam was an enfeebled dictator, facing few viable choices. Blair, however, only wanted to be assured of Saddam’s vicious character ‘But he is evil, isn’t he?’ which of course was not denied. And then: ‘He’s got choices [over being good or evil], hasn’t he?’

Could war have been averted by Saddam’s choosing to be ‘born again’?

Surely Blair never discussed Ireland in such terms. Machiavelli would have been sick.

It’s long seemed that the Coalition of the Willing didn’t invade Iraq but rather a crazy mock-up with which the real Iraq chanced unluckily to share premises. This is now confirmed in chilling detail by Ali A Allawi’s great book The Occupation of Iraq: Winning the War, Losing the Peace. But it leaves us asking whether people in their right minds could do so, and whether the Coalition were collectively out of their minds?

It can be asked about Blair, since Ireland provides a control: the record of a right mind engaging with reality. (Bush provides no such contrast to go on: his Presidency seems to consist purely of rhetoric, bombinating irrespective of contingency.)

But on one point, both friends and the enemies of Blair are wrong.

In the Irish context, Blair wasn’t peddling systematic untruth: he dissimulated rather as Roosevelt did when bringing America by stages into World War II. The plain people of Britain surely weren’t deceived about the Prime Minister’s purpose: emphasising upsides, minimising downsides, and keeping the show going while people rehearsed new, uncomfortable roles.

Yet, during some of this time, Blair also promoted a systematic, War-on-Terror fantasy, which his friends assure us was sincere. (Was Neville Chamberlain’s fantasy about Adolf Hitler, ‘man of peace,’ more sincere than Blair’s fantasy about Saddam, ‘evil kingpin of a global conspiracy’? Does it matter?)

Consciously or not, Blair did follow Machiavelli in Ulster: lies may be profitable politically, if used in moderation and under strictest personal control. But Machiavelli never encountered mass society and spinmeister Alastair Campbell’s use of its communications systems to sustain the War on Terror’s alternative realities would have appalled him. Excesses of that kind must, if effective, corrupt the rationality and constancy of the people: for him, the foundation virtues of society.

It’s uncomfortable to think political leaders can be effective and crazy more or less simultaneously. But there are plenty of precedents, which I will explore next week.

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