Will Self on Tony Blair: "It’s no joke being unable to pop out for a pack of fags". Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Will Self: I was an early adopter of Blair-hating. But now something has changed

As I stared at the image of Blair’s shopworn grin and straining-still-to-be-boyish features, I felt like Winston Smith, staring up from his table in the Chestnut Tree Café at the poster of Big Brother, his eyes brimming with tears of love.

There was a piece by John McTernan in the Guardian the other day inveighing against the “knee-jerk Blair backlash”. The casus belli was Blair’s “global legacy award” from Save the Children for his work combating poverty; 200 staff at the charity signed a letter protesting against this bauble being handed to the former premier, but McTernan argues that Blair’s work in the field has been substantive and effective, and that his detractors should not confuse their long-standing ire over the Iraq war with the admiration he should properly occasion.

Well . . . maybe, but actually it wasn’t the matter in hand that preoccupied me as I stared at the image of Blair’s shopworn grin and straining-still-to-be-boyish features; no, rather, I felt like Winston Smith, staring up from his table in the Chestnut Tree Café at the poster of Big Brother, his eyes brimming with tears of love. True, I haven’t exactly had my face gnawed by rats, and nor do I feel anything like love for Tony Blair. Nonetheless I still find this emotional shift momentous: I no longer hate him. It’s possible the moderation in my antipathy is purely a matter of snobbery; after all, when it comes to Blair-hating, I was a distinctly early adopter, penning an anti-Blair piece as early as 1994, when he was still only (only!) shadow home secretary. Since 2003, with the exception of diehard Blairites, it’s been pretty much de rigueur for anyone left-liberal to fashion a voodoo doll of the man and stick pins often in it, so it could be that I’ve resiled from all of this because, although I still feel plenty of antipathy to this individual, it’s my fellow masses I really can’t abide.

Yet isn’t Blair hatred something fine and true and just? Doesn’t hating Blair make you feel righteous and pure of heart? Moreover, the tradition of loathing former prime ministers (and sitting ones as well) is so well established in our great nation that it could be seen as constitutive of our democracy; after all, though our votes may count for bugger all, our hatred is honoured – sanctified, even. Not least by the presence in London of anything up to eight priestly policemen (I pass by often and count them), armed with Heckler & Koch 9mm semi-automatic machine-guns, guarding his palatial residence in Connaught Square. Recall, the Iron Duke was so called because he had to have iron shutters on his carriage to shield him from the stone-throwing mob, but Blair’s protection goes way further. Not that it can ever be 100 per cent effective, which was why the promotional tour for his last magister opus, A Journey, was cancelled in 2010: the police and security services didn’t believe they could prevent the most popular British politician of the past 30 years from being assassinated by his own former electorate during this particular leg of his . . . journey.

So why have I stopped hating him? In part because of some of the arguments McTernan makes – or rather, because of their outline, not their substance. Yes, yes, Blair has indeed beaten his sword into a ploughshare, as McTernan observes: 70 per cent of his work is done pro bono – he may be making shitloads of money by “consulting” for dodgy central Asian dictators and by bullshitting rapacious global corporates, yet it’s easy to see that it isn’t making him in the least bit happy. Indeed, my suspicion is that Blair piles up dosh simply as a by-product of his frantic dashing around the world, while that dashing is itself a symptom of his deep-seated unease. He can’t sit still, because to do so would be to confront the reality – and the enormity – of what he has been responsible for: the deaths of untold numbers, deaths that may – or may not – be offset by the lives his actions have saved.

I expect you already get what I’m driving at here: I believe he has a conscience, no psychopath, he. And anyone with a conscience, no matter how vestigial, would be pretty worried given such a moral inventory. No wonder poor old Tone scampered into the arms of the Catholic Church as soon as he left office – he’s always “done” God, and now he’s probably praying fervently that someone can intercede to God before He does for him. You can see what all the agonising has done to Blair merely by scrutinising his appearance: the smile has become a rictus, the hair is electrified by anxiety, the flesh is deeply scourged with worry. It’s no joke being unable to pop out for a pack of fags without getting surrounded by a baying mob, hungry for your blood.

And if we accord Blair a conscience, we have come close to apprehending him not as a totemic figure, or some sort of metonym for ill-judged western military intervention in the Middle East, but as a living, breathing person. To wish ill of anyone, no matter how culpable, is quite obviously wrong – to do so is to ally yourself with the maddened crowd, rather than the judicious individual. At the same time, even maintaining resentment against Blair is a futile activity – rather like drinking a cup of poison and expecting your hate-figure to die. Poor Tone’s cup of poison runneth over, but I see no sign of him taking a sip; for him, there is definitely a distinction to be drawn between the Roman way and the way to Rome. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 04 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Deep trouble

BBC screengrab
Show Hide image

Owen Smith is naïve if he thinks misogynist abuse in Labour started with Jeremy Corbyn

“We didn’t have this sort of abuse before Jeremy Corbyn became the leader.”

Owen Smith, the MP challenging Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour leadership contest, has told BBC News that the party’s nastier side is a result of its leader.

He said:

“I think Jeremy should take a little more responsibility for what’s going on in the Labour party. After all, we didn’t have this sort of abuse and intolerance, misogyny, antisemitism in the Labour party before Jeremy Corbyn became the leader.

“It’s now become something that is being talked about on television, on radio, and in newspapers. And Angela is right, it has been effectively licenced within the last nine months.

“We’re the Labour party. We’ve got to be about fairness, and tolerance, and equality. It’s in our DNA. So for us to be reduced to this infighting is awful. Now, I understand why people feel passionately about the future of our party – I feel passionately about that. I feel we’re in danger of splitting and being destroyed.

“But we can’t tolerate it. And it isn’t good enough for Jeremy simply to say he has threats too. Well, I’ve had death threats, I’ve had threats too, but I’m telling him, it’s got to be stamped out. We’ve got to have zero tolerance of this in the Labour party.”

While Smith’s conclusion is correct, his analysis is worryingly wrong.

Whether it is out of incompetence or an unwillingness to see the extent of the situation, Corbyn has done very little to stamp out abuse in his party, which has thus been allowed to escalate. It is fair enough of Smith to criticise him for his failure to stem the flow and punish the perpetrators.

It is also reasonable to condemn Corbyn's inability to stop allies like Chancellor John McDonnell and Unite leader Len McCluskey using violent language (“lynch mob”, “fucking useless”, etc) about their opponents, which feeds into the aggressive atmosphere. Though, as I’ve written before, Labour politicians on all sides have a duty to watch their words.

But it’s when we see how Smith came to the point of urging Corbyn to take more responsibility that we should worry. Smith confidently argues that there wasn’t “this sort of abuse and intolerance, misogyny, antisemitism” in the party before Corbyn was voted in. (I assume when he says “this sort”, he means online, death threats, letters, and abuse at protests. The sort that has been high-profile recently).

This is naïve. Anyone involved in Labour politics – or anything close to it – for longer than Corbyn’s leadership could tell Smith that misogyny and antisemitism have been around for a pretty long time. Perhaps because Smith isn’t the prime target, he hasn’t been paying close enough attention. Sexism wasn’t just invented nine months ago, and we shouldn’t let the belief set in that it did – then it simply becomes a useful tool for Corbyn’s detractors to bash him with, rather than a longstanding, structural problem to solve.

Smith's lament that “it’s now become something that is being talked about” is also jarring. Isnt it a good thing that such abuse is now being called out so publicly, and closely scrutinised by the media?

In my eyes, this is a bit like the argument that Corbyn has lost Labour’s heartlands. No, he hasn’t. They have been slowly slipping away for years – and we all noticed when Labour took a beating in the last general election (way before Corbyn had anything to do with the Labour leadership). As with the abuse, Corbyn hasn’t done much to address this, and his inaction has therefore exacerbated it. But if we tell ourselves that it started with him, then we’re grasping for a very, very simple solution (remove Corbyn = automatic win in the North, and immediate erasure of misogyny and antisemitism) to a problem we have catastrophically failed to analyse.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.