Tony Blair v Desmond Tutu: who has more moral authority?

According to Tutu, Blair has forfeited his right to pose as an exemplar of leadership.

When Archbishop Desmond Tutu refuses to share a conference platform with Tony Blair, this is seen as very bad news for the former prime minister. When Tutu goes on, in an article for the Observer, to suggest that "in a consistent world" Mr Blair would be on trial at the International Criminal Court in the Hague for his role in the Iraq War, it's guaranteed to get headlines. Jon Snow tweeted that Blair might, in future, have (like Henry Kissinger) to be careful about his travel plans. At the very least, thought Snow, Tutu had "holed Blair's comeback desires below the waterline".

As the response posted on Blair's official website noted, with some weariness, it's "the same argument we have had many times with nothing new to say." Whatever his other achievements (winning three elections, peace in Northern Ireland, winning the Olympics) Blair will never shake off Iraq. These days, he can't even appear at the Leveson inquiry without without someone slipping past security to denounce him as a war criminal. Nevertheless, an attack from Desmond Tutu carries particular resonance.

The archbishop's moral authority stems, of course, for his work as an opponent of the Apartheid regime, which won him a Nobel Peace Prize in 1984. But in recent years he has ranged more widely. As a sort of freelance international statesman he has been outspoken in support of everything from gay rights to climate change. In old age, Tutu possesses a particular kind of international clout, shared with very few others - Nelson Mandela certainly, the Dalai Lama probably, at a pinch Bob Geldof, but probably not the Pope - that enables him to call out world leaders on their political or moral failures and in the process cause them major embarrassment. It's a peculiar sort of soft power that owes little to any formal position and everything to personality, an image of "saintliness" and a high media profile. Tutu has never been afraid to use it.

As for Blair - he would love to have that kind of authority. There's little doubt that he still sees himself as a moral force in world affairs, through his work with his eponymous Faith Foundation, his role as a Middle East peace envoy and in his speeches, which often return to the theme of an international community united by common values which he seems to feel he is in a unique position to articulate. He aspires to be part of an international club of the great and the good, not just a former leader but a player in the same game of moral leadership as Tutu himself. His enthusiasm for moralistic language remains undiminished. But Tutu's status will forever elude him, partly because people remember what he was like as a politician, party because (unlike Tutu) he has never suffered, but mainly because of Iraq. A war that he remains utterly convinced was right in principle - indeed, an exercise in international morality.

That's his tragedy.

Tutu wasn't directly calling for Blair to be hauled off to the Hague. Nor does he have the authority to issue an international arrest warrant. Rather, the archbishop was complaining about the double standards of an international community that condemns Robert Mugabe while inviting Tony Blair to pontificate about "leadership". "Leadership and morality are indivisible," claimed Tutu. "Good leaders are the custodians of morality." By pursuing war based on "fabricated" claims about Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons of mass destruction, and then offering no "acknowledgement or apology" when "found out", Blair had forfeited his right to pose as an exemplar of leadership. Tutu even asserted that "the question is not whether Saddam Hussein was good or bad or how many of his people he massacred", but rather the morality of Bush and Blair in prosecuting the war.

Blair calls this suggestion "bizarre", and indeed it does seem to draw a wholly false moral equivalence between a murderous dictator and a democratic, if flawed, politician. But then Tutu was not being asked to speak alongside Saddam Hussein. His most cutting point was a personal one: he felt, he wrote, "an increasingly profound sense of discomfort" about sharing a platform with a man who had taken his country to war "on the basis of a lie", a war that had had catastrophic consequences for Iraq and the wider Middle East. That's got to hurt. What it means, after all, is that Tony Blair does not belong in his club.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Photograph: Getty Images
Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide