Iraq and the apocalypse

Why did a gifted prime minister embark on a course which people far stupider had consistently warned

New Labour being the project it was, we all have memories of special dismay. My own most lowering moment arrived one night in the winter of 2005 when I went to Chatham House in London to listen to a talk by Gordon Brown, given under the patronage of the Guardian in memory of the political journalist Hugo Young. I'd only once seen the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the flesh and I accepted the invitation because I wanted to take a citizen's look at our next prime minister. He raced into the room somewhat late, barely acknowledging the largely friendly audience, and began his speech, which was addressed throughout to the plain surface of the lectern. Repeatedly, in a nervous gesture, he fingered the corners of his apparently unfamiliar typescript, aligning the pages into hospital corners, while motor-mouthing through its words as though he were a solicitor forced to register a particularly arcane codicil. At the end, he refused questions and swept out of the room at the same pace at which he had entered. The subject of his speech had been how to restore public trust in politicians. Never once did he use the word "Iraq".

Next day I was surprised to see the speech reported in the newspapers as though it were a perfectly normal event. Sometimes, you think, the Westminster village is so fascinated with itself that it doesn't even notice when it's being insulted. To an outsider, an infrequent member of the audience at political events, it had been a performance of startling rudeness. But it made its more lasting impression for two quite different reasons.

First, it seemed to represent a sort of desolate milestone beyond which no real honesty was any longer possible in the Labour Party about anything. The speech was intellectually derelict. If you had wanted seriously to address the question of why a gulf had grown up between the electorate and the political establishment in Britain, then the chances are that you would have been obliged at least to mention, if not to address, the widespread impression that your government had altogether abandoned the notion of an independent foreign policy. You would have had to try seriously to speak to the deep divisions created in the country by a bruising Middle Eastern invasion. But beyond that, I left the meeting saddened because Brown's manner - at once neurotic and imperious, like a scratchy clip of Charles Laughton as Claudius - contrasted so sharply with my memory of a night ten years earlier when I had gone to another political lecture for exactly the same reason - to get my first proper look at the previous coming man.

Most gifted politician

The conventional wisdom is to say that Tony Blair "does" sincerity. Like an advocate, it is claimed, he always believes what he says when he's saying it. But this version of Blair as a gifted snake-oil salesman, who happens temporarily to believe in snake oil, sells him way short. On that night in the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, the young Blair gave an admittedly routine address, but in the question-and-answer session afterwards simply dazzled everyone present both by his command of subject matter and by the politeness and directness with which he considered everything that was put to him. Again, the common view is to insist that this degree of eloquence and plausibility is somehow suspect, that fluency must be the mark of someone who is up to no good.

But anyone whose profession is words is committed to believing that thinking and speaking are intimately connected. Writers believe that deftness of expression expresses deftness of mind. In Blair's case, at least in 1995, you were left in no doubt that you were listening to the most gifted politician of the period, someone who, unlike Margaret Thatcher, did not need to resort to childish boasting and bullying in order to make his points.

All administrations become fractious with age. In their hearts, like most of us, they know the case against themselves better than anyone. Again, like most of us, they live with it daily. Margaret Beckett's impatient advice to Ed Stourton to "pack it in", when asked about Britain's complicity in countless unnecessary deaths in the Lebanon and Israel last summer, clearly served, in her mind at least, as a yet more succinct version of her previous injunction on the same subject to Sky News - "Oh for goodness' sake, Adam, leave it alone." But it also offered the most memorable epitaph to carve on the gravestone of this government: "Oh, pack it in." So much has been written, so much speculated in the past 20 years about the contempt the public feels towards politicians, but we hear far less of the reverse - the creeping hatred politicians so plainly nurse for us, the stupid and unseeing voters who seem unable to appreciate the complexity and importance of the paramount issues in a dangerous world.

Lethal miscalculation

For, yes, if we are to say along what fault-line it was that new Labour was destroyed - be it in Iraq, be it in the NHS, be it in the PFIs, be it in the sardine packing of the prisons - then surely all its most egregious mistakes flowed from Tony Blair's conviction that he did not need to take any notice of his own natural supporters - that he was somehow living his life in some far higher atmosphere, at some more mature level of reality where tough judgements had to be made on the basis of largely confidential evidence to which only he, the neo-cons, a couple of dodgy foreign newspaper proprietors and some spies had access. Blair, clearly, had never much liked the Labour Party. He had never thought very highly of those who gave him power. But as time went by, he began to see the popular hostility to his "higher view" as a mark of his virility, a sign that he must be facing up to the "difficult" decisions that we, the lazy and the feckless, spend our lives shirking.

It turned out, of course, to be a delusive analysis, most disastrously in the matter of the Middle East, but it was a strangely alluring one - and a brilliant answer to those of his stupider critics who had set up a straw man by claiming, quite wrongly, that Blair was nothing more profound than a smooth operator obsessed with popularity. How clever of him, then, to prove the opposite - that he gave not a fig for public opinion! Yet in detaching himself from the wisdom of the crowd - the common wisdom, the correct wisdom which could not understand why a mission against al-Qaeda had to be taken into a country where was no trace of al-Qaeda - Blair turned himself into an ungovernable Coriolanus. Here, suddenly, was a man who could not forgive the rest of us for failing so completely to see what he alone sees so clearly. A religious element juiced up the volatile mix of resentment and high stakes. "If I am persecuted I must be right."

This then is the paradox: a man who pronounced at the outset that his only ideology would be "what works" set off on a course which people far stupider and far less gifted than he consistently warned him could not possibly work. They were right. He was wrong. Every day we see the lethal evidence of miscalculation, and while mourning for the innumerable victims, for the Iraqis who today say they cannot walk their children to school without passing dead bodies uncollected in the street, we also mourn a man whose tragedy is far deeper than lazy satirists or commentators allow.

At a moment when the west needed great secular leadership, it was given instead demented religious leadership. A man who arrived in politics as the voice of modernity and reason became, at his own wish, that most ancient and mystic of figures: the prophet unloved in his own country.

There is, in George Bush, his American ally, a shamelessly apocalyptic willingness to admit that judgement on earth means little to him. Bush is happy to tell us he is waiting for judgement in heaven from someone he refers to as his other father. Like many such people in his position, he shows enviably few signs of nerves. The decision of the third umpire does not bother him. In Blair, however, there is still, to his credit, a Catholic nervousness, a haunted quality, a knowledge that the road taken was at least a choice. "I have listened and I have learned," he announced, after a sobering election in 2005, before proceeding wholly to ignore any such lessons in the weeks of the Lebanon war. For us, the spectators, it's been an extraordinary passage of history. Someone of exceptional strengths became caught up in a situation that brought out every one of his exceptional weaknesses. Because it could happen to any of us, the facile dismissiveness of his untested critics seems shallow. But at this time of all others, the west needs democrats as leaders, not martyrs. Pack it in, indeed.

This article first appeared in the 07 May 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: The reckoning

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View from Paisley: How the Conservatives are wooing Labour's Scottish heartlands

Not so long ago, Conservative activists in Paisley could expect doors slammed in their faces. A referendum has changed that.

Tony Lawler, a Labour activist, was recently knocking on doors in the Scottish town of Paisley, when he came across a disgruntled resident. “I’m really disappointed in Douglas Alexander,” the potential voter complained. “I haven’t seen him. He used to be in Morrisons.”

Douglas Alexander, of course, has gone. He was the longstanding Labour MP and onetime International Development secretary who lost his seat in 2015 to a 20-year-old rival, the Scottish National Party’s Mhairi Black. He does not plan to stand again. But when I visit Paisley, a short train ride from Glasgow, I find that memories of him linger on. 

Two years after Alexander’s defeat, I meet Lawler and other local Labour activists in Morrisons, where Alexander used to hold his surgeries. As checkouts beep and trolley wheels roll over linoleum, they point to an empty table in the corner of this hallowed ground: “He used to sit just there.”

In 2015, the SNP’s victory in this former manufacturing town seemed to epitomise the earthquake in Scottish politics. But as the Labour activists know too well, no political fortress is undefeatable. And in Paisley, the home of one of the oldest workers’ festivals in the world, the party with the most to gain is one that previously never dared to canvass in the high street – the Conservative party. 

The town the Brexiteers forgot

In 1988, the historian Sylvia Clarke reflected on Paisley’s lost industries, wondering what was next for the former weaving towns. “Paisley as a tourist centre?” she wondered, in Paisley: A History. “Paisley as a place for visitors to come to, rather than a send-out of goods and emigrants?” 

For all Paisley’s industrial decline, it’s a pretty place. The town is in the running for the 2021 City of Culture, and has the second biggest number of listed buildings after Edinburgh. When I visit in the middle of April, blossom floats on the trees, and a river meanders through a neighbourhood of old, stone houses. It takes a moment to notice weeds tightening their grasp on the window frames. When I try the door of the ancient Paisley Abbey, it’s locked.

Perhaps if Paisley had been located the other side of the border, in Sunderland or Northumbria, it would be voting Leave and flirting with Ukip. But in the most deprived areas here, Labour activists tell me the EU referendum tally was still almost 50-50, and overall the town voted Remain.

There is a view that Brexit is an English concern. “We haven’t picked up anything about the EU referendum,” says Lawler of his doorstep conversations. “What people are talking about is the independence referendum, Jeremy Corbyn and the kids’ ward.” Scotland’s health secretary, Shona Robison, is due to make a decision on whether the specialist ward should be moved to a large hospital in the First Minister’s Glasgow constituency, against the wishes of many Paisley residents. The hospital in question is nicknamed “the Death Star”.  

Another concern, reminiscent of small towns across the UK, is the decline of the high street. When I walk down the historical shopping area Causeyside Street, I find mother and daughter Kate and Linda Hancy packing up what remains of The Pattern Café and Gift Shop. The wallpaper is a glorious Paisley print, but the scented candles are in boxes and a spray soap bottle hangs from a chair. After two years of trying, they are closing down.  

“People just don’t have money to spend,” Kate says. “A lot of people have been on the same wage for more than five years.”

Linda chimes in: “The cost of living going up but wages aren’t the same. I work in a supermarket, and people come in and say ‘How did I spend this much money?’ A lot of people are paying by credit cards.”

The Hancys voted to remain in the UK, and the EU. Although they knew Alexander, they have never met Mhairi Black, and feel devolution, if anything, has made politicians less accountable. “Why are we picking 1,2,3,4,” demands Kate, referring to Holyrood's voting system, which rejected first past the post. “Why can’t we pick one like we used to?”

Without the EU to blame, the most obvious culprits for Paisley town centre’s decline are the out-of-town shopping centres, where cinemas are opening just as historical ones in town close their doors.

Gavin Simpson, owner of Feel the Groove, a new record shop, remembers the 1980s, when a new release would have shoppers queuing round the block. However, he believes the town is over the worst. (As we speak, a customer comes in to reserve such a record and cheerfully warns Gavin that “even if I ask for my money back, don’t give it to me.”)

One thriving business is the longstanding butchers, Wm Phelps. Manager James Peacock tells me it is down to the trustworthy Scottish produce, which is carefully tracked and labelled. But the business has also embraced globalisation.  After noticing a large number of South African customers, Peacock began selling boerewors and biltong.

The other referendum campaign

If Paisley has been spared the divisions of the EU referendum campaign, its “buddies” – as residents are known – are still reeling with the repercussions of an earlier referendum, that on Scotland in the UK. In 2014, the town voted for independence, although the county overall opted to stay in the UK. 

The town is home to a particularly brash strain of indyreffers, including the “Smith Commission burners”, three SNP councillors who gathered in front of the council headquarters to burn a copy of the report setting out new powers for Scotland. One of them, Mags MacLaren, went on to manage Black’s constituency office.

But if the Paisley independence movement has been well covered, less is known about its opposite - the rise of pro-unionism. 

Of the three mainstream parties opposed to independence, it is the Scottish Conservatives, with their unconventional leader Ruth Davidson, who have most effectively capitalised on the pro-union message. In the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections, the Tory Jackson Carlaw captured the West of Scotland constituency of Eastwood, which had been held by Labour since its creation. 

In Holyrood, the Scottish Tories benefit from proportional representation, which allows voters to choose a constituency MSP but also rank parties. 

According to Paul Masterton, the Tory candidate for East Renfrewshire, and the secretary of the Renfrewshire and Inverclyde Scottish Conservative Association, the Conservatives are now getting huge numbers of first preference votes, including in neighbourhoods like the suburb of Ralston, where both Black and Masterton are from. So who are these voters? Masterton describes them as “New Labour voters who were happy with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown but didn’t like Jeremy Corbyn and get tied up into knots by [Scottish Labour leader] Kezia Dugdale flipflopping on the union stance".

The 2016 election saw the Scottish Conservatives surge to second place in Scotland – a superb comeback for a party once ridiculed as being rarer than pandas. The next electoral test is the local council elections. In Paisley, even Labour activists acknowledged the Conservatives were likely to be the most notable winners.

“For a long time we simply didn’t go out in Paisley," says Masterton. "We were written off and we allowed ourselves to be written off.”

But the referendum has changed this. “What I found was that last May, people weren’t shutting the door in your face," he adds. "Once you started the conversation they were far more receptive to that.” 

Like the Labour activists, Masterton argues that the constitutional question matters more than Brexit. “When Theresa May said ‘now is not the time’, I think a lot of people across Paisley did a small quiet fist pump,” he says of a second independence referendum.  

Ironically, after the early election is called, the Scottish Conservatives do everything they can to mention the prospect. “Don't mention the 'i' word,” crows a recent press release about the “SNP indyref ban”. Davidson tweets: “Nicola doesn't want to stand on her record. She knows the country doesn't want her #indyref2.” A Panelbase survey commissioned by The Sunday Times Scotland published shortly after the early election was announced finds support for the Conservatives at Scotland at 33 per cent, 18 percentage points higher than in 2015. 

What you stand for

For now, Paisley remains a Scottish National Party stronghold. George Adams, the MSP with an office off the high street, proves elusive – Labour activists confirm his reputation as a hardworking local. Black’s aide turns down my request for an interview for similar reasons, but I bump into her that evening at a protest against cutting child tax credits in Glasgow’s George Square.

Black, an admirer of the left-wing Labour figure Tony Benn, once said she feels "it is the Labour party that left me". I ask her if she, like her Labour predecessor, holds surgeries in supermarkets. Black says she’d considered it, but given the sensitivity of some of the issues, such as benefit problems, she thought her constituents might appreciate a more private space. “The main thing that crosses the door in my offices is Universal Credit changes,” she explains. She says she has raised her concerns about the children’s ward.

As for the independence debate, she argues that the Scottish government have been “incredibly compromising” since Brexit, but adds: “A lot of folk want another chance at the question.”

Black is standing for re-election. With a majority of more than 5,000, and neither of her previous challengers in the running, she’s likely to keep her seat, even if buddies' discontent over local issues rumbles on. 

Still, as I have discovered, the 2014 referendum continues to reverberate in towns like Paisley. It has divided friends and neighbours on constitutional lines, galvanised new strains of politics, and brought a Labour heavyweight crashing down, with no appetite to return. 

The Tories believe their unionist message is enough to flip seats like East Renfrewshire, once Conservative, then Labour, and now an SNP marginal. As the SNP's shine wears off, could Paisley, with its long tradition of the left, one day follow? It no longer feels implausible. “The one thing about the Scottish Conservatives - and this is true whatever you like us or not,” says Masterton. “You know what we stand for.”

 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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