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
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.