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
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To the Commonwealth, "Global Britain" sounds like nostalgia for something else

And the former colonial subjects have a less rose-tinted view of the past. 

Earlier this month, Boris Johnson became the first British foreign secretary to visit the Gambia since independence. His visit came a few days before the inauguration of the Gambia's new President, Adama Barrow, who has signalled his intention to re-join the Commonwealth - an institution that his dictatorial predecessor had left in protest at its apparent "neo-colonialism".

Accusations of neo-colonialism, regrettably, seem to be of little concern to the foreign secretary. After Johnson committed himself to facilitating the Gambia's Commonwealth re-entry, he declared that "the strength of our partnerships show that Global Britain is growing in influence and activity around the world". 

His comments are the latest example of the government's Brexit mission-creep in its foreign engagements. Theresa May mentioned "Global Britain" no fewer than ten times in her Lancaster House speech last month, reminding us that Britain "has always looked beyond Europe to the wider world" and emphasising the UK's post-referendum desire to "get out into the world". Ministers' repeated subsequent referencing of Global Britain has almost come to the point of re-branding Great Britain itself. But now the government seems to be directly equating Global Britain with the Commonwealth, the organisation comprising most of the former territories of the British Empire. If the Commonwealth is wooing back former members and seemingly growing in stature, that must mean Global Britain is doing the same. The Gambia's proposed re-admission to the Commonwealth is reconfigured as a victory for British clout and prestige in the face of the Brexit naysayers.

But the Commonwealth cannot be a vehicle or front for Global Britain, on either a technical or political level. The Commonwealth emphasises that it is an organisation of 52 equal member states, without any preference in decision-making. India (population 1.26bn) and Tuvalu (10,000) are treated the same. The organisation is headquartered in London, receives the most money from Britain, and its members share elements of history, culture and political systems; but it is not a British organisation and will not take orders from the British government. Commonwealth states, particularly poorer ones, may welcome UK political, financial and developmental support, but will reject the spectre of neo-imperialism. Diplomats remark that their countries did not leave the British Empire only to re-join it through the back door. 

And yet, shorn of influence following the decision to leave the EU, and the single market so instrumental to British jobs and prosperity, the government is desperate to find an alternative source of both power and profit. The members of the Commonwealth, with their links of heritage and administration, have always been touted as the first choice. Leading Brexiter Dan Hannan has long advocated a "union with the other English-speaking democracies", and Liam Fox has been actively pursuing Commonwealth countries for trade deals. But the Commonwealth cannot replace the EU in any respect. While exports to the EU account for just under a half of Britain's total, the Commonwealth receives less than 10 percent of our goods. The decline of UK trade with the Commonwealth was taking place long before Britain joined the EU, and it has in fact revived in recent years while being a member. The notion that Britain is restricted from trading with the Commonwealth on account of its EU membership is demonstrably false.  

The EU, the beloved scapegoat for so many ills, cannot fulfil the role for much longer. Indeed, when it comes to the Commonwealth, 48 of the 52 members have already completed trade deals with the UK, or are in the process of negotiating them, as part of their engagement with the EU. Britain could now be forced to abandon and re-negotiate those agreements, to the great detriment of both itself and the Commonwealth. Brexiters must moreover explain why Germany, with a population just 25 percent larger than ours, exports 133 percent more to India and 250 percent more to South Africa than we do. Even New Zealand, one of Britain's closest allies and a forthcoming trade-deal partner, imports 44 percent more goods and services from Germany, despite enjoying far looser cultural and historical ties with that country. The depth of Britain's traditional bonds with the Commonwealth cannot, in itself, boost the British economy. The empire may fill the imagination, but not a spreadsheet.

The British imperial imagination, however, is the one asset guaranteed to keep growing as Brexit approaches. It is, indeed, one of the root causes of Brexit. Long after the empire fell into history, the British exceptionalism it fostered led us to resent our membership of a European bloc, and resist even limited integration with it. The doctrine of "taking back control" for an "independent Britain" speaks to profound (and unfounded) anxieties about being led by others, when in our minds we should be the ones explicitly leading. The fictional, if enduringly potent victim narrative that we became a colony of someone else's empire, has now taken hold in government. The loss of our own empire remains an unacknowledged national trauma, which we both grieve and fail to accept. The concept of being equal partners with like-minded countries, in a position to exert real, horizontal influence through dialogue, cooperation and shared membership of institutions, is deemed an offence to Britain's history and imperial birthright.

The relentless push for Global Britain is thus both a symptom and cause of our immense global predicament. Through an attempt to increase our power beyond Europe, Brexit has instead deflated it. Britain has, in truth, always been global, and the globe has not always been grateful for it; but now the government preaches internationalism while erecting trade barriers and curbing migration. After empire, Britain found a new role in Europe, but with that now gone, Global Britain risks producing global isolation. Despite the foreign secretary's rhetoric, the Commonwealth, geopolitically and economically, has moved on from its imperial past. It is not waiting to be re-taken.

Jonathan Lis is the deputy director at British Influence.