We will wait for ever for Blair to face a reckoning

It is Blair's judgement not whether he told the truth that should be called into question.

When I finally got into the additional viewing facility, which holds around 700 people, the day's work had already started. I felt like I'd walked into a church mid-way through a service -- a hushed quiet over the room, Tony Blair's face dominating a large projection screen at the front of the auditorium, a surprisingly emotional experience.

Everyone was watching the screen intently, listening to his words, scrutinising, looking for something. There was a palpable sense of people wanting to bear witness to this, almost as if they were there just so Blair knew that people were watching him, keeping him honest. Part-way through the first session, someone stood up on a chair and started shouting that he couldn't take any more of this -- perhaps hoping to start a riot, perhaps just emotion boiling over -- but he was quickly shouted down by the people there and escorted out by security guards. The audience was intent on auditing.

Well before today it was quite clear that what many people were searching for -- a catharsis, the emotional satisfaction of a proper reckoning for the continuing disaster of the war's aftermath -- wasn't going to happen. This wasn't a courtroom. This inquiry hadn't been convened to judge anyone, despite many people there professing the ludicrous hope that Tony Blair could somehow be prosecuted as a war criminal.

And so as the session wore on, Blair projecting complete confidence in his previous judgements and a smirk constantly lurking around his lips, it started to dawn on people that he wasn't going to reveal anything particularly new. As time went on there was more fidgeting, people started to leave as lunch got closer, and a sense of futility descended.

We'd heard all this before, and it's a pretty coherent narrative, easy to defend -- he did the best he could with the intelligence given to him, flawed as that has turned out to be, and he'd do the same again given the same circumstances. People winced as he talked about his work as the Middle East peace envoy, as he constantly harked back to his experience in Bosnia, as he quoted from his previous speeches like they were part of a prestigious canon.

The hullaballoo about Blair lying, sexing up and dissembling misses the point that what should really be called into question is not whether he's being truthful -- I think he is in the main, despite his abhorrent vanity and unshakeable self-belief -- but his judgement. It's enough that our prime minister had bad enough judgement to drag us into a war with an aggressive ally (not forgetting Spain and Italy), seemingly without proper planning for what to do once the war had been won.

You don't need anything more for this to be a tragedy, and I would suggest that the wilder accusations don't derive from a sober analysis of the facts, but the profound and intense distress that comes from feeling ignored (the largest-ever peacetime demonstration in the UK didn't stop the war) and hoodwinked (those who reluctantly trusted Blair's assessment that war was the only way to solve the problem). We, the electorate, also voted him back into office after it became clear that there were no WMDs in Iraq, and perhaps hate ourselves because of that.

So still we wait -- and we will wait for ever. Unless something unforeseeable happens the only reckoning Blair will face is the one after death, but only if his religious beliefs turn out to be correct, which isn't much comfort for an atheist like me -- I'll have to burn in hell before Tony Blair faces a real reckoning.

Today was simply justification, when what people really needed was absolution through his confession.


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Autumn Statement 2015: will women bear the brunt again?

Time and time again, the Chancellor has chosen to balance the books on the backs of women. There's still hope for a better way. 

Today, the Chancellor, George Osborne, presents his Autumn Statement to parliament. Attention will be focused on how he tries to dig himself out of the tax credits hole that he got himself into with his hubristic summer budget.

He’s got options, both in terms of the sweeteners he can offer, and in how he finds the funds to pay for them. But what we will be looking for is a wholesale rethink from the chancellor that acknowledges something he’s shown total indifference to so far: the gender impact of his policy choices, which have hurt not helped women.

In every single budget and autumn statement under this Chancellor, it has been women that have lost out. From his very first so-called “emergency  budget” in 2010, when Yvette Cooper pointed out that women had been hit twice as hard as men, to his post-election budget this summer, the cumulative effects of his policy announcements are that women have borne a staggering 85 per cent of cuts to tax credits and benefits. Working mums in particular have taken much of the pain.

We don’t think this is an accident. It reflects the old-fashioned Tory world view, where dad goes out to work to provide for the family, and mum looks after the kids, while supplementing the family income with some modest part-time work of her own. The fact that most families don’t live like that is overlooked: it doesn’t fit the narrative. But it’s led to a set of policies that are exceptionally damaging for gender equality.

Take the married couple’s tax break – 80 per cent of the benefit of that goes to men. The universal credit, designed in such a way that it actively disincentivises second earners – usually the woman in the family. Cuts and freezes to benefits for children - the child tax credit two-child policy, cuts to child benefit – are cuts in benefits mostly paid to women. Cuts to working tax credit have hit lone parents particularly hard, the vast majority of whom are women.

None of these cuts has been adequately compensated by the increase in the personal tax threshold (many low paid women are below the threshold already), the extension of free childcare (coming in long after the cuts take effect) or the introduction of the so-called national living wage. Indeed, the IFS has said it’s ‘arithmetically impossible’ that they can do so. And at the same time, women’s work remains poorly remunerated, concentrated in low-pay sectors, more often part time, and increasingly unstable.

This is putting terrible pressure on women and families now, but it will also have long-term impact. We are proud that Labour lifted one million children out of poverty between 1997 and 2010. But under the Tories, child poverty has flat-lined in relative terms since 2011/12, while, shockingly, absolute child poverty has risen by 500,000, reflecting the damage that has been by the tax and benefits changes, especially to working families. Today, two thirds of children growing up poor do so in a working family. The cost to those children, the long-term scarring effect on them of growing up poor, and the long-term damage to our society, will be laid at the door of this chancellor.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the age spectrum, low-earning women who are financially stretched won’t have anything left over to save for their pension. More are falling out of auto-enrolment and face a bleak old age in poverty.

Now that the Chancellor has put his calculator away, we will discover when he has considered both about the impact and the consequences of his policies for women. But we have no great hopes he’ll do so. After all, this is the government that scrapped the equality impact assessments, saying they were simply a matter of ‘common sense’ – common sense that appears to elude the chancellor. In their place, we have a flaky ‘family test’ – but with women, mothers and children the big losers so far, there’s no sign he’s going to pass that one either.

That’s why we are putting the Chancellor on notice: we, like women across the country, will be listening very carefully to what you announce today, and will judge it by whether you are hurting not helping Britain’s families. The Prime Minister’s claims that he cares about equality are going to sound very hollow if it’s women who take the pain yet again.