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

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Not since the Thatcher years have so many Tory MPs been so motivated by self-interest

Assured of an election win, backbenchers are thinking either advancing up the greasy pole, or mounting it for the first time. 

One hears despair from Labour not just about probable defeat, but from MPs who felt they had three years to improve the party’s fortunes, or to prepare for personal oblivion. In the Conservative Party, matters seem quite the opposite. Veterans of the 1983 election recall something similar: a campaign fought in the absolute certainty of winning. Theresa May talked of putting the interests of the country first when she engineered the poll, and one must believe she was sincere. However, for those expecting to be Tory MPs after 8 June there are other priorities. Theirs is not a fight for the national interest, because that for them is a foregone conclusion. It is about their self-interest: either advancing up the greasy pole, or mounting it for the first time. They contemplate years ahead in which to consolidate their position and, eventually, to shape the tone and direction of the party.

The luxury of such thoughts during a campaign comes only when victory is assured. In 1983 I worked for a cabinet minister and toured marginal seats with him. Several candidates we met – most of whom won – made it clear privately that however important it was to serve their constituents, and however urgent to save the country from the threats within what the late Gerald Kaufman later called “the longest suicide note in history”, there was another issue: securing their place in the Thatcher revolution. Certain they and their party would be elected in the aftermath of the Falklands War, they wanted their snout in the trough.

These are early days, but some conver­sations with those heading for the next House of Commons echo the sentiments of 1983. The contemporary suicide note has not appeared, but is keenly awaited. Tories profess to take less notice of opinion polls than they once did – and with good reason, given the events of 2015 and 2016 – but ­imagine their party governing with a huge majority, giving them a golden opportunity to advance themselves.

Labour promises to change the country; the Liberal Democrats promise to force a reconsideration of Brexit; Ukip ­promises to ban the burqa; but the Tories believe power is theirs without the need for elaborate promises, or putting any case other than that they are none of the above. Thus each man and woman can think more about what the probability of four or five further years in the Commons means to them. This may seem in poor taste, but that is human nature for you, and it was last seen in the Labour Party in about 2001.

Even though this cabinet has been in place only since last July, some Tory MPs feel it was never more than an interim arrangement, and that some of its incumbents have underperformed. They expect vacancies and chances for ministers of state to move up. Theresa May strove to make her team more diverse, so it is unfortunate that the two ministers most frequently named by fellow Tories as underachievers represent that diversity – Liz Truss, the Lord Chancellor, who colleagues increasingly claim has lost the confidence of the judiciary and of the legal profession along with their own; and Sajid Javid, the Communities Secretary, whom a formerly sympathetic backbencher recently described to me as having been “a non-event” in his present job.

Chris Grayling, the Transport Secretary, was lucky to survive his own stint as lord chancellor – a post that must surely revert to a qualified lawyer, with Dominic Grieve spoken of in that context, even though, like all ardent Remainers in the government, he would be expected to follow the Brexit line – and the knives are out for him again, mainly over Southern Rail but also HS2. David Gauke, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, and the little-known Ben Gummer, a Cabinet Office minister, are tipped for promotion with Grieve if vacancies arise: that all three are white men may, or may not, be a consideration.

Two other white men are also not held in high regard by colleagues but may be harder to move: Boris Johnson, whose conduct of the Foreign Office is living down to expectations, and Michael Fallon, whose imitation of the Vicar of Bray over Brexit – first he was for it, then he was against it, and now he is for it again – has not impressed his peers, though Mrs May considers him useful as a media performer. There is also the minor point that Fallon, the Defence Secretary, is viewed as a poor advocate for the armed forces and their needs at a time when the world can hardly be called a safe place.

The critical indicator of how far personal ambition now shapes the parliamentary Tory party is how many have “done a Fallon” – ministers, or aspirant ministers, who fervently followed David Cameron in advising of the apocalyptic results of Brexit, but who now support Theresa May (who is also, of course, a reformed Remainer). Yet, paradoxically, the trouble Daniel Hannan, an arch-Brexiteer and MEP, has had in trying to win selection to stand in Aldershot – thanks to a Central Office intervention – is said to be because the party wants no one with a “profile” on Europe to be added to the mix, in an apparent attempt to prevent adding fuel to the fire of intra-party dissent. This may appease a small hard core of pro-Remain MPs – such as Anna Soubry, who has sufficient talent to sit in the cabinet – who stick to their principles; but others are all Brexiteers now.

So if you seek an early flavour of the next Conservative administration, it is right before you: one powering on to Brexit, not only because that is what the country voted for, but because that is the orthodoxy those who wish to be ministers must devotedly follow. And though dissent will grow, few of talent wish to emulate Soubry, sitting out the years ahead as backbenchers while their intellectual and moral inferiors prosper.

Simon Heffer is a columnist for the Daily and Sunday Telegraphs

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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