Mad or bad? Ex-PM Tony Blair in Hong Kong, 2012. Photo: Getty
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Blair’s supporters should stage a humanitarian intervention – and make him shut up about Iraq

How many Sure Start centres cancel out the depleted uranium used in Fallujah? Why does record investment in the NHS absolve the torture and abuse in Abu Ghraib?

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Those lucky Americans. On 20 January 2009, George W Bush boarded a helicopter and flew out of Washington, DC, never to be heard from again. Well, apart from that unreadable memoir in 2010. And, er, those rather odd self-portraits.

For Britons, however, Tony Blair never really went away. Month after month, year after year, he pops up on television, or appears in the newspapers, to promote an alliance with Putin’s Russia, or to defend Egypt’s military junta, or to push for military action against Iran/Syria/Iraq/fill-in-the-gap. He is the peace envoy who always wants war, the faith foundation boss who doesn’t understand the Islamic faith. Yet Blair, invader of Iraq, occupier of Afghanistan, defender of Israel’s 2006 blitz on Lebanon, is regularly and inexplicably invited by the British press to comment on all matters Middle Eastern. Why not ask Bernie Madoff to comment on financial regulation?

In an era of dreary politicians, the silver-tongued Blair continues to beguile us. He is the Cristiano Ronaldo of politics: slick, skilful, über-confident and astonishingly arrogant. He may have converted to Catholicism but our former PM isn’t interested in confession. Blair doesn’t do remorse. As for an apology – you’re kidding, right?

Seven years after quitting Downing Street, “the Master” still retains an army of apologists, in the commentariat and inside the Labour Party. Rather than stage a humanitarian intervention of their own and persuade their hero to keep shtum, his supporters constantly rally around him, always ready to defend the indefensible.

When I interviewed the former culture secretary Tessa Jowell in February, for example, she called Blair’s backing of Egypt’s brutal generals “brave” and “counter-intuitive”. Meanwhile, in a recent BBC interview, the former home secretary Charles Clarke said that poor ol’ Tony was “in quite a tragic position” because he couldn’t return to British politics.

Even senior Labour figures who opposed the Iraq war, such as the shadow justice secretary, Sadiq Khan, can’t bring themselves to disown their former leader. I asked Khan how Blair could conceivably be in the running for the job of EU president, given his bloodstained past. “He won three elections,” he replied, urging me to look at the ex-PM’s wider, domestic record. What’s the metric? How many Sure Start centres cancel out the depleted uranium used in Fallujah? Which increase in the minimum wage excuses the kids killed by cluster bombs in Hilla? Why does record investment in the NHS absolve the torture and abuse in Abu Ghraib?

It cannot be said often enough: Blair’s misadventure in Mesopotamia was a moral, political and financial catastrophe, which led to hundreds of thousands of Iraqi deaths, millions of Iraqi refugees and billions of pounds squandered. Blair and Bush became recruiting sergeants for al-Qaeda: according to a 2007 study, the Iraq war “generated a stunning sevenfold increase in the yearly rate of fatal jihadist attacks”.

Our former PM now claims he “underestimated” the “depth and the complexity of the problem”. He can’t say he wasn’t warned. His holiday pal Hosni Mubarak of Egypt predicted that the invasion of Iraq would produce “100 Bin Ladens”, while his own joint intelligence committee told him the threat from al-Qaeda “would be heightened by military action against Iraq”.

In November 2002, four months before the invasion, three experts on Iraq were invited to brief the then PM in Downing Street. One of the three, George Joffe of Cambridge University, tells me how he outlined Iraq’s sectarian and tribal divisions and warned of the danger of postwar insurgency and civil conflict. Blair’s only response: “But the man’s evil, isn’t he?” Joffe was “staggered” to discover the prime minister was “completely uninterested in the complexities” of Iraqi society and displayed a “shallow mind”. In Blair’s head, says the Cambridge academic, the whole Iraq issue was “personalised” in the form of Saddam Hussein and: “It was clear that the decision had already been made . . . to invade.”

What’s going on inside Blair’s head today? Opinion is divided. Our former prime minister has “finally gone mad”, claimed Boris Johnson in the Telegraph on 16 June, and “needs professional psychiatric help”. The neuropsychologist Paul Broks has called Blair a “plausible psychopath . . . charming, intelligent, emotionally manipulative”.

Then there is the “Bliar” brigade, which sees the ex-PM as a knowing and serial untruth-teller. “We were misled,” the former Labour cabinet minister Clare Short told the Iraq inquiry in February 2010. “On the one thing that he’s taken a stand . . . which was taking us to war, he didn’t even tell the truth about that,” the then Tory leader, Michael Howard, argued in April 2005.

Is he mad or bad? Deluded or dishonest? It no longer matters. Blair’s reputation lies in tatters. More than half of Brits believe their former prime minister was wrong to invade Iraq; one in five tell YouGov they think he should be tried as a war criminal. Blair can try to pretend he lives a normal life but when he goes to a book signing, people pelt him with eggs; when he goes out for dinner with his family, people try to arrest him. He doesn’t want our forgiveness – and nor will we give it to him.

“We have to liberate ourselves from the notion that ‘we’ have caused this,” wrote Blair on his website on 14 June, responding to the recent rise of the al-Qaeda offshoot Isis inside Iraq. “We haven’t.” For once, he’s right. “We” didn’t cause it. He did. 

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the political director of the Huffington Post UK, where this article is crossposted

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Islam tears itself apart

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Britain has built a national myth on winning the Second World War, but it’s distorting our politics

The impending humiliation of Brexit is going to have a lot more in common with Suez.

The Crown, Peter Morgan’s epic drama covering the reign of Elizabeth II, ended its first series with a nemesis waiting just off-stage to shake up its court politics. In the final episode, Egyptian president Gamal Nasser gives a rip-roaringly anti-imperialist – and anti-British – speech. The scene is set for the Suez Crisis to be a big plot point in Season 2.

Suez has gone down in history as the great foreign policy debacle of postwar Britain. The 1956 crisis – which saw Israel, France and Britain jointly invade Egypt to take control of the Suez Canal, only to slink off again, nine days later, once it became clear the US wasn’t having any of it – is seen as the point at which it became clear that even the bigger states of Europe were no longer great powers in the world. “President Eisenhower’s humiliation of Britain,” Jack Straw wrote in his 2012 memoir, “had been total.”

This was, though, a fairly limited sort of humiliation. Britain was not invaded or occupied; there was no sudden collapse in living standards, let alone a significant body count. Our greatest national debacle is nothing more than the realisation that Britain could no longer do whatever it wanted without fear of reprisal. As humiliations go, this one’s up there with the loss of status men have faced from the rise of feminism: suddenly, Britain could do what it wanted a mere 80 per cent of the time.

The Crown begins in 1947, when Prince Philip gives up his Greek and Danish royal titles and becomes a British subject, so that he can marry Princess Elizabeth. That year saw another British foreign policy debacle, one on which the show remains oddly silent. In the partition which followed India’s independence from the British Empire, 70 years ago this week, upwards of a million people died; in the decades since, the borders drawn up at that time have been the site of numerous wars, and Kashmir remains a flashpoint.

All this, one might think, might count as a far bigger regret than Suez – yet it doesn’t feature in the national narrative in the same way. Perhaps because partition was about the withdrawal of British forces, rather than their deployment; perhaps it’s simply that it all happened a very long way away. Or perhaps we just care less about a body count than we do about looking bad in front of the Americans.

I think, though, there’s another reason we don’t talk about this stuff: the end of empire is hidden behind a much bigger part of our national myth. In the Second World War, Britain is undeniably one of the good guys; for 12 months, indeed, Britain was the only good guy. Never mind that it still had the largest empire the world had ever seen to fall back on: Britain stood alone.

The centrality of the Second World War to the national myth warps our view of history and our place in the world in all sorts of ways. For starters, it means we’ve never had to take an honest account of the consequences of empire. In a tale about British heroes defeating Nazi villains, British mistakes or British atrocities just don’t fit. (Winston Churchill’s role in the 1943 Bengal famine – death toll: three million – by ordering the export of Indian grain to Britain rarely comes up in biopics.) In this dominant version of the national story, the end of empire is just the price we pay to defeat fascism.

More than that, our obsession with the Second World War creates the bizarre impression that failure is not just heroic, but a necessary precursor to success. Two of the most discussed elements of Britain’s war – the evacuation of Dunkirk, and the Blitz – are not about victory at all, but about survival against the odds. The lesson we take is that, with a touch of British grit and an ability to improvise, we can accomplish anything. It’s hard not to see this reflected in Brexit secretary David Davis’s lack of notes, but it’s nonsense: had the Russians and Americans not arrived to bail us out, Britain would have been stuffed.

Most obviously, being one of the winners of the Second World War infects our attitude to Europe. It’s probably not a coincidence that Britain has always been both one of the most eurosceptic EU countries, and one of the tiny number not to have been trampled by a foreign army at some point in recent history: we don’t instinctively grasp why European unity matters.

Once again, Suez is instructive. The lesson postwar France took from the discovery that the imperial age was over was that it should lead a strong and unified Europe. The lesson Britain took was that, so long as we cosied up to the US – Athens to their Rome, to quote Harold Macmillan – we could still bask in reflected superpower.

Until recently, Britain’s Second World War obsession and national ignorance about empire didn’t really seem to affect contemporary politics. They were embarrassing; but they were also irrelevant, so we could cope. Brexit, though, means that hubris is about to run headlong into nemesis, and the widespread assumption that Britain is a rich, powerful and much-loved country is unlikely to survive contact with reality. India will not offer a trade deal for sentimental reasons; Ireland is not a junior partner that will meekly follow us out of the door or police its borders on our behalf. The discovery that Britain is now a mid-ranking power that – excepting the over-heated south-east of England – isn’t even that rich is likely to mean a loss of status to rival Suez.

Morgan says he has planned six seasons of The Crown. (This looks entertainingly like a bet the Queen will be dead by 2021; if not, like Game of Thrones before it, he might well run out of text to adapt.) It’ll be interesting to see how the show handles Brexit. It began with the royal family facing up to a vertiginous decline in British power. As things stand, it may have to end the same way. 

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

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear