In all the political obits this week to Tony Blair, the one theme that nobody seems to have touched is what, in his personal makeup, allowed him to move from a paid up member of the Chile Solidarity Campaign in the 1970s to an eloquent pitch-man and apologist for the imperial misadventures of the Bush Administration. To answer that question, I had to turn to my old friend Gavin Evans, in London. Gavin arrived in London in 1993, and immediately got behind Tony Blair as the man to lead the left into the new millennium. Needless to say, the honeymoon didn’t last long. As Blair bows out, Gavin looks back with schadenfreude and a teeny-weeny bit of grudging admiration, but concludes – via an interesting mea culpa from his own political career — that Blair’s disgraceful legacy is a result of deep-seated character flaws. It’s always a pleasure to welcome Gavin back onto Rootless Cosmopolitan, but you should check out more of his work on his own web site, www.gavinevans.net
When Tony Blair stood for the leadership of the Labour Party 13 years ago, I backed him in a spirit of enthusiastic delight. Having joined the party on arriving from South Africa 18 months earlier, I was relieved to see it led by a sunny optimist with the vision to keep Britain in tune with a changing world – characterised by a free-flowing, outsourced capitalism of the post-industrial information age. Not that I relished the prospect of private greed encroaching on the public space – far from it – but having witnessed the early signs of retreat from socialism during my ‘struggle’ years in South Africa, I doubted the feasibility of resistance to capitalism’s global march, and Blair seemed to grasp the implications more than anyone else on the left.
So my support wasn’t glazed by illusions of turning the corner on Thatcherism – sadly, that option seemed closed (although now, as a result of the implications of global warming, it has re-opened) – and I appreciated the compromises essential for staying in power. New Labour needed to neutralise opposition from the alliance that had kept it out for 18 years: the City, big business, middle England, Rupert Murdoch. I liked Blair’s stand on law and order (‘tough on crime; tough on the causes of crime); I liked the way he picked a tactical fight with the antediluvians of his party (by scrapping the anti-democratic Clause Four in the party’s constitution); I even liked his personal style: more steely than his slightly effeminate exterior suggested. So I was delighted be among drunken English and Irish friends in 1997, cheering along. This Cool Britannia thing suggested if not quite a new era then certainly a fresh ethos.
Blair’s early policy probes- not least in raising spending on health and education (initially cautious, but increasingly bold) – were consistent with these imperatives, and it was a bonus to have a leader prepared to use his limited global power in a way no Tory would contemplate: his interest in debt relief, his commitment to peace in the north of Ireland, the interventionism seen in his strong stand against Serb ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, and his commendable decision to tackle barbarism in Sierra Leone (incidentally, in both of those cases there would have been no concerted international action without Blair).
One of his major domestic thrusts was crime, and here his record was more ambiguous. Crime figures eventually declined, yet violent crime continued to increase, as did fear of youth lawlessness. The reasons surely relate, in part, to the neglect of the Thatcher years – the children of those left behind then are today’s delinquents – but there is also a sense that despite huge increases in social spending, a steady reduction in unemployment and higher growth rates than the rest of Europe, Blair’s government was not tough enough on the causes of crime (the gap between rich and poor continued to grow, with the bottom 15 percent beginning to resemble the American underclass); nor were they tough enough on crime itself. Blair admired the ‘zero-tolerance’ approach taken in American cities but was reluctant about the follow: more prisons, more prisoners; longer sentences, less remission, more police on the beat; more armed officers.
Some more marginal domestic policy initiatives, like the ban on fox hunting and the halting reform of the Lords, were Labour projects that happened despite rather than because of Blair. Others clearly had his stamp, and were unambiguous successes, ranging from civil unions for gay people to the introduction of the minimum wage to the Scottish parliament, Welsh Assembly and London Mayor’s office. And yet, like so many other early New Labour enthusiasts, I soon became so profoundly disgusted by the man that I not only allowed my Labour membership to lapse but could not bring myself to vote for the party until he bowed out (which will finally happen on June 27). I don’t expect substantial policy changes from Gordon Brown but it will be a relief to see the back of a man who, despite his ‘hand on heart, I did what I thought was right’ plea, consistently misled his people on issues of life and death.
It is hard to escape the suspicion that Blair’s character defects played their part in dragging his country into the myopic mess of its current foreign policy. These emerged in three areas: First, an attitude to power and money that is, frankly, craven; Second, a profound cynicism about those who had made him their leader; Third, an inability to reflect on his own motives. Early hints came in the tone of his dealings with the moneymen, extending way beyond cautious admiration, and ending in his government’s determination to make the entire public sector a giant feeding trough for its benefactors, prompting the current cash for peerages scandal. That he needed to get along with men of money and power was obvious; problem was, he seemed desperate to prove he was one of them. Just one example: a suck-up remark to the British venture capital conference in 1999. “I bear the scars on my back after two years in government,” he gushed, in reference to their shared antipathy to the public sector.
One quid pro quo should have been an unbending fervour about the keeping the dinosaurs of Old Labour at boot tip length, but instead, when it came to getting his way with the party he despised, he was only too happy to use these beasts from the past to keep order – like when he turned to the union bosses to secure the ascendancy of his hopelessly irascible lapdog, Alun Michael, for the Labour leadership in Wales in preference to the slightly less compliant Rhodri Morgan. When that cynical scheme collapsed I assumed it was a lesson learnt, but not a bit of it. London’s Labour members overwhelmingly backed Ken Livingston for mayor but Blair and Brown dug in, fearing the immensely popular ‘Red Ken’ was too much the maverick. Their insistence on reviving the Old Labour voting formula and of allowing union bosses to bypass their own members, ended in the public disembowelling of their sad candidate, Frank Dobson. On a matter of principle I campaigned for Livingston, and never regretted it, but I still lived in hope that Blair would learn from his mistakes.
Worse was to come, however. When it came to his dealings with Europe, Blair always dressed right (Aznar in Spain, Merkel in Germany, Sarkozy in France, and, most disreputably, Berlusconi in Italy). But the implications were far more serious in the United States. Ever since the Suez Crisis, conventional wisdom in British foreign policy was to stay close to America, but there was still room to manoeuvre. Harold Wilson avoided sending troops to Vietnam; Margaret Thatcher went against Washington’s will on the invasion of Granada or the 1980 Moscow Olympic boycott. Blair had no alternative but to get on with the new American president, but this need was taken to extremes never seen before. The craven attitude shown to the moneymen at home – to the kinds of men his wealthy Tory dad would have admired – was magnified in his approach to the ‘Special Relationship’.
Blair seemed driven by an overwhelming urge to be respected by the big beasts of the American right; a craving seen in all its pathetic servitude in the transcript of the open-mic “Bush-Blair recording on the Middle East last year (which saw Tony sucking up to W, and getting brushed off with something approaching contempt). Blair had been comfortable with Clinton’s like-minded charm but with Bush, and the hard men around the president, he had to try harder to please. There have been many fictional attempts to capture the tone of this relationship but for me one of Alison Jackson’s lookey-likey television sketches came closest. It showed a tennis game between Tony and W, where Bush’s ball is clearly out, but the fawning Blair insists it’s in. Watch them together and the body language is unmistakable – the no-doubt unconscious attempt to mimic Bush’s casual machismo coming across stiff and slightly awkward.
A note of mea culpa here: In the mid-to-late 1980s the ANC in South Africa was engaged in an attempt to prize loose powerful elements within the white community, including business leaders, opposition politicians and Afrikaner notables. I became deeply engaged in it at every level, while remaining an active member of the underground. I thought I understood the fears, concerns and motivations of the business leaders, and became embarrassed by those within my tribe who didn’t fully appreciate the implications of our strategy (who still talked of insurrection and nationalisation) and I developed a measure of disdain for some of them, while along the way I became over-eager to please those I had been sent to woo – hinting that we weren’t all that-way inclined, letting them appreciate that there were realists among us. It was almost as if I was trying to say: trust me, I’m one of you. In retrospect, I cringe.
I think Blair was doing the same thing, on a far grander scale – sucking up without realising it (because, like most top politicians, sportsmen and business leaders I’ve met, he’s devoid of a capacity for introspection) while at the same time feeling brave and original about putting down his own tribe. The most tragic result of this misguided sycophancy was Iraq.
I’m not inherently opposed to using troops abroad. It was certainly the best option in Sierra Leone, the Balkans and, initially, in Afghanistan (at least before the bulk of the troops and money were withdrawn to concentrate on the Iraqi misadventure), so the idea of removing a torture regime like Saddam’s might have seemed worthy enough if taken in isolation. But aside from the fraught question of whether the invasion would make the world a better place (and, sadly, the verdict is now in on that one), there was a pressing, home-based reason for caution. The one absolute principle every national leader should respect if sending troops to possible death, is to tell them the truth why they are going. Instead, Blair lied.
I have no doubt that after 9/11 Blair thought ‘regime change’ was a fine idea – it was certainly consistent with the tenor of his internationalist streak. I believe him when he insists, ‘hand-on-heart’ that he felt he was doing the right thing and I can’t even say he consciously fibbed when getting it wrong on weapons of mass destruction (although he and his bully of a press officer, Alastair Campbell, had no qualms about misleading the public on the evidence). But all this is irrelevant because his initial decision to support the invasion had nothing to do with WMDs or regime change. We now know he made a promise to Bush that he’d back him four-square in Iraq – a promise that long preceded the UN process and WMD inspections. Had he told this truth – rising to the despatch box and pleading, ‘Hey, look, I gave my word to George and I like to be thought of as a man of my word and I believe this is vital to the Special Relationship and I think I can influence the way the war is conducted and what happens next and that’s why I want you to vote for war’ – parliament would have laughed him out of office, America would have entered Iraq alone, and, quite possibly, John Kerry would be president today. But, instead, Blair pretended his real motivation was the WMD thing, misled parliament about the nature of the intelligence, and got his way.
This man wants his legacy to rest on other factors. He hopes to finish with a flourish, with the reasons for his decision on Iraq forgotten. But this will never happen. Like Lyndon B Johnson with Vietnam, like Anthony Eden with the Suez, he will forever be associated with a catastrophic military adventure. His thirst for the approval from rich men and men of the right, his hubristic disdain for those who chose him, and his lack of capacity for self-reflection, all came to together and he sent (so far) 150 British men and women to their deaths while at home 55 were killed and hundreds injured in bombings prompted, in part, by his policy. The blood of these men and women – and of many more Iraqis – is on his hands.
Blair should be torn apart by guilt, but I can’t quite see it. I suspect that like most of his calling he’s a man incapable of serious regret, let alone remorse. He will leave office wounded and, increasingly despised at home, and head off across the Atlantic to wallow in the warm glow of approval on the US lecture circuit. And when that finally happens, I will give Labour another try.