Mad or bad? Ex-PM Tony Blair in Hong Kong, 2012. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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?

You are invited to read this free preview of the upcoming New Statesman, out on 19 June. To purchase the full magazine - with our signature mix of opinion, longreads and arts coverage, plus columns by Laurie Penny on gender, Will Self on pulled pork, and a special in-depth piece on Iraq by John Bew and Shiraz Maher - please visit our subscription page

 

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

Getty
Show Hide image

Richmond is a wake-up call for Labour's Brexit strategy

No one made Labour stand in Richmond Park. 

Oh, Labour Party. There was a way through.

No one made you stand in Richmond Park. You could have "struck a blow against the government", you could have shared the Lib Dem success. Instead, you lost both your dignity and your deposit. And to cap it all (Christian Wolmar, take a bow) you self-nominated for a Nobel Prize for Mansplaining.

It’s like the party strategist is locked in the bowels of HQ, endlessly looping in reverse Olivia Newton John’s "Making a Good Thing Better".

And no one can think that today marks the end of the party’s problems on Brexit.

But the thing is: there’s no need to Labour on. You can fix it.

Set the government some tests. Table some amendments: “The government shall negotiate having regard to…”

  • What would be good for our economy (boost investment, trade and jobs).
  • What would enhance fairness (help individuals and communities who have missed out over the last decades).
  • What would deliver sovereignty (magnify our democratic control over our destiny).
  • What would improve finances (what Brexit makes us better off, individually and collectively). 

And say that, if the government does not meet those tests, the Labour party will not support the Article 50 deal. You’ll take some pain today – but no matter, the general election is not for years. And if the tests are well crafted they will be easy to defend.

Then wait for the negotiations to conclude. If in 2019, Boris Johnson returns bearing cake for all, if the tests are achieved, Labour will, and rightly, support the government’s Brexit deal. There will be no second referendum. And MPs in Leave voting constituencies will bear no Brexit penalty at the polls.

But if he returns with thin gruel? If the economy has tanked, if inflation is rising and living standards have slumped, and the deficit has ballooned – what then? The only winners will be door manufacturers. Across the country they will be hard at work replacing those kicked down at constituency offices by voters demanding a fix. Labour will be joined in rejecting the deal from all across the floor: Labour will have shown the way.

Because the party reads the electorate today as wanting Brexit, it concludes it must deliver it. But, even for those who think a politician’s job is to channel the electorate, this thinking discloses an error in logic. The task is not to read the political dynamic of today. It is to position itself for the dynamic when it matters - at the next general election

And by setting some economic tests for a good Brexit, Labour can buy an option on that for free.

An earlier version of this argument appeared on Jolyon Maugham's blog Waiting For Tax.

Jolyon Maugham is a barrister who advised Ed Miliband on tax policy. He blogs at Waiting for Tax, and writes for the NS on tax and legal issues.