The tragedy of Tony Blair

This PM was the first in 23 years who wanted to put Britain at the heart of Europe. By joining those

Personally, as well as politically, Tony Blair's headlong rush to an unjust, unpopular and unnecessary war has a tragic quality about it. It has inflicted terrible damage on the delicate fabric of global multilateralism and international law, of which his government was once a champion. It has made nonsense of the vision of liberal internationalism with which he thrilled the Labour Party conference in 2001. It has split his party and divided the country, jeopardising the whole new Labour project in the process. It has displayed a lack of judgement reminiscent of Anthony Eden during the 1956 Suez crisis, which has called into question his fitness to lead. And it has imperilled the greatest single achievement of his prime ministership - the normalisation of Britain's relationship with the rest of the European Union.

When Blair took office in 1997, Britain had been a member of the European Union and, before that, of the European Community for 24 years. During all that time, only one prime minister - Edward Heath - had been a committed European, and his term of office came to a tragic end a year after Britain's accession. For the remaining 23 years, Britain's heads of government had been at best lukewarm about the European project, and at worst virulently hostile to it. In the later stages of Conservative rule, the governing party was consumed by a savage civil war over Britain's role in Europe, in which the xenophobic Europhobes steadily gained ground. Ministers depicted every Brussels negotiation as a heroic battle between a lone John Bull and a gang of Continental muggers out to steal his wallet. Each successive Conservative Party conference lurched further to outright withdrawal. Not the least of the reasons why Blair was able to construct a new social coalition that gave the Labour Party two crushing electoral victories is that serious, internationally competitive capital viewed the prospect of a Europhobic Tory victory with horror.

Once safely installed in Downing Street, Blair set himself to lance the anti-European boil. His policy was far from faultless. His approach to the central issues of European governance was too nationalistic and insufficiently integrationist. He funked calling a referendum on the euro immediately after his election victory, when he would have won it easily. He was afraid to face down Gordon Brown, and played along with the Treasury's self-interested pretence that euro membership was an economic rather than a geopolitical issue. He failed to give a lead to the growing army of pro-Europeans outside formal politics who yearned for a summons to battle.

But in the long sweep of half a century of British vacillation and self-deception over our relationship with the European mainland, these faults were venial. As a lifelong pro-European, I happily forgave Blair his mistakes and rejoiced at his larger success. For the first time since the fall of Heath, the British prime minister seemed an instinctive European - a European of the heart, and not merely of the head. Under his leadership, Britain became - for the first time since the Second World War - a normal European country, no longer obsessed with the semantics of an illusory sovereignty and no longer unable to join in the give-and-take of EU politics as a partner rather than an adversary. Ministers and ministerial spinners no longer fed the British public a diet of insular Europhobia. Television news bulletins no longer depicted the Continent as a nest of anti-British vipers. The sting was drawn from the European question. Europhobia did not disappear, but it was patently in retreat. Slowly, but unmistakably, the British people were beginning to feel at ease with their European destiny.

Blair has now put all this at risk. His stated objective during the past few months - to make Britain the "bridge" between Europe and the United States - has always been hopelessly flawed. Bridges fall down if the banks on either side them draw apart. Before trying to build bridges between the eastern and western shores of the Atlantic, Blair should have examined the dynamics of US politics on the one hand, and of the EU's inner core on the other. He failed to do so.

He did not reckon with the long-overdue revival of German national pride following the fall of the Berlin wall and the arrival in power of a new generation with no guilt complex about the past and no psychic need to cling to the apron strings of a protective superpower. He did not appreciate that Jacques Chirac's crushing victory in the French presidential election, and the end of "cohabitation" with the Socialists which followed the equally decisive victory of the right in the elections to the National Assembly, would give new force and confidence to French diplomacy. Above all, he did not grasp the true nature of the Bush administration in Washington, or realise how different it was, not just from its immediate predecessor, but from all preceding 20th-century US administrations, not excluding the administration of Bush pere.

The third mistake was the most fatal. The last thing Bush and his hard-right associates want is a bridge between America and Europe. They don't want bridges of any kind, to anywhere. Their object is to perpetuate, and if possible to fortify, US hegemony in the post-cold war world order. That is why Bush and his associates have treated the Franco-Russian alternative to immediate war with a mixture of contempt and alarm. If the object of the exercise were merely to disarm Iraq, a prolonged and enhanced inspection regime would be preferable to immediate war, with all its terrible accompanying risks. But prolonged and enhanced inspections would leave Saddam Hussein in place, and put the United Nations Security Council, rather than the White House and the Pentagon, in the driving seat.

For the Bushites, that would be doubly intolerable. Saddam's survival - however weakened he might be - would show the world that US power is not limitless after all. Putting the Security Council in the driving seat would strengthen the emerging multilateral global system that American unilateralists rightly see as a constraint on US freedom of action, and wish to undermine. For them, the object of the exercise is not just Iraq's disarmament; it is a crushing and total Iraqi defeat. American troops must enter Baghdad in unmistakable triumph. That and that alone will rub the world's noses in the awesome realities of US power.

For the same reason, the Bushites' approach to Europe and the European project differs fundamentally from that of previous American administrations. During the cold war, the US needed European allies, politically even if not militarily. Europe was, after all, both a crucial theatre of the cold war and the first line of America's own defences. Hence the Marshall Plan, still one of the most spectacular examples of enlightened self-interest in modern history; and hence virtually uninterrupted US support for European integration.

Today, however, the Bush administration sees the European project as a potential threat to US hegemony, albeit a faint and distant one. It does not want allies; it wants toadies. It wants to lever Turkey into the EU, not just because it wants to use Turkish soil as a launching pad for the conquest of Iraq, but because Turkish accession would dilute the Union, and, above all, because it assumes that the Turks can be relied upon to toady to Washington. (The discovery that they can't must be causing apoplexy in the White House.)

The splenetic attempt by the US defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, to drive a wedge between the bad guys of "old Europe" and the good guys of "new Europe" sprang from the same mindset. The new Europeans are toadies, whether by choice, as in Blair's case, or out of necessity, as in the cases of the mendicant ex-communist countries in central and eastern Europe. The old Europeans have had the temerity to reject toadyism.

In its own terms, Rumsfeld's manoeuvre made a kind of sense. True, it strengthened the Franco-German axis, and made both countries even more hostile to Bush's America than they were before. Almost certainly, it also contributed to the Russians' remarkable decision to throw in their lot with Paris and Bonn, rather than with Washington. These, however, were tactical defeats. They masked a greater strategic victory. From the point of view of the US unilateralists, a divided Europe is infinitely preferable to a united one, led (as any united Europe is bound to be) by a newly independent-minded Germany and a perennially independent-minded France. Rumsfeld did not create the split between toadies and non-toadies, but he focused attention on it. In doing so, he made it harder to heal. And the longer it lasts, the happier Washington will be.

None of this is true of Blair. There is not much point in putting Britain at the heart of a divided and debilitated Europe. By playing Rumsfeld's game - and playing it, moreover, in an unbelievably juvenile and clumsy way - he has thrown his own European policy into disarray. He has also stored up immense ill will in the two capitals that count for most in European politics, and made no worthwhile compensating gains. For a prime minister who once wanted (and, in part of his mind, probably still wants) Britain to fulfil a European destiny, the notorious letter from eight European leaders in support of the US (Britain, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Poland, Hungary, and so on) was a disastrous own-goal. It revealed a diplomatically recidivist Britain at its old game of mobilising the periphery against the centre - the game that Harold Macmillan played and humiliatingly lost when he set up the European Free Trade Association (mostly with Scandinavian countries) as a counterweight to the European Economic Community more than 40 years ago. De Gaulle must be laughing in his grave.

For Britain and for Europe, the implications of the whole story could hardly be bleaker. Blair is now more grievously out of touch with the nation he aspires to lead than any British prime minister since Neville Chamberlain in 1940. With every speech he makes (and with every endorsement from Bush), the gap between him and the people for whom he presumes to speak becomes wider. If he fails to get a second UN resolution authorising war, it is hard to see how his prime ministership can last. But even if he succeeds - and even if the ensuing war is short, sharp and victorious - it is still hard to believe that his troubles will be over. His popularity and credibility have been so badly dented in recent weeks that even a Security Council majority and a quick victory, complete with cheering crowds in Baghdad, are unlikely to restore them. The magic has gone - and when magic goes, it goes for ever.

The chances of an early referendum on the euro - and of a "yes" majority if it took place - were dwindling even before the Iraq crisis broke. Now they must be close to zero. It is hard to see Blair risking his leadership a second time; it is even harder to see him convincing a country that has lost faith in his judgement. It hurts to say it, but the bitter truth is that the most pro-European prime minister for 30 years has become a liability to the cause.

A still more bitter truth has to be faced as well. Blair's actions in the past few weeks have struck at the heart of the European project and the European ideal. The European Union is not primarily about economics, or even politics in the ordinary sense. It embodies a vision of transnational governance that springs from experience of conquest, reconquest, slaughter, genocide, dictatorship and torture during the first half of the 20th century. The Union's founders - Monnet, Schuman, Adenauer, de Gasperi, Spaak and the rest - had lived through that experience, and with imagination and pertinacity they developed a new approach to the relations between states and peoples, designed to make another relapse into barbarism impossible. They did not expect to end conflicts of interest and culture; but they hoped to contain them within a structure of law, negotiation, power-sharing and consensus-building. Miraculously, they succeeded.

They did so because they turned their backs on the past, not least through the much-maligned Franco-German axis, which ended three centuries of conflict between the Continent's two leading nations. The Union they built has nothing in common with previous attempts to unite Europe by force. It is based on law, and it is quintessentially multilateralist. It is also based on the tacit premise that its members give a higher priority to their common enterprise than to their relations with any non-European power.

Bush's unilateralism, and the hegemonial ambitions it reflects, are bound to stink in the nostrils of any self-respecting European. He is trying to do to the world what a long line of absolute monarchs and dictators tried to do to Europe: to force his will on weaker nations. In siding with a unilateralist United States against the multilateralists of old Europe, Blair shows that he does not understand - and, still worse, that he does not care - what the European Union is for. No matter what happens in Iraq, the European heartland will not forgive him in a hurry. If he stays in office, Britain will once again be seen, quite rightly, as a disloyal splitter. He will pay a heavy price. So will the British people.

David Marquand is a former principal of Mansfield College, Oxford, and author of The Progressive Dilemma (Phoenix, 2nd edition, 1999)