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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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times