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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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.