Tony Blair’s prime ministership began as a paradox and ended as a tragedy. Electorally, he has been the most successful leader in Labour’s history, and one of the two most successful party leaders since the Second World War. Labour’s 1997 majority was its biggest ever, and the big gest any party had won since 1935. Its extraordinary sociological and cultural scope mattered even more than the numbers. In the intoxicating months that followed Blair’s arrival at No 10, his vast coalition seemed to embrace virtually all sectors of opinion and to subsume almost all cultural and ethnic identities. Campaigners for gay rights rubbed shoulders with champions of family values; class-war mastodons marched alongside votaries of the free market; Diane Abbott’s Hackney constituents held hands with Gisela Stuart’s from leafy Edgbaston. Blair himself – classless, rootless and ideology-lite – seemed the summation of all the contradictions and ambiguities of the nation which had elected him.
Of course, there was a price. The Blair coalition was meant to be the vehicle of a Blair project, just as the preceding Thatcher coalition had been the vehicle of the Thatcher project. There was a profound difference between the two, however. Thatcher was a revolutionary. Her purpose was to extirpate the legacy, not just of the disastrous governments of the 1970s, but of all the governments of the preceding 60 years.
The Blair coalition was a very different animal. In domestic affairs, Blair was a consolidator, not a revolutionary. The last thing he wanted was to extirpate Thatcher’s legacy. He wanted to take it over, to assimilate it and to embed it in the nation’s psyche. To do that, he had to soften it at the edges; to humanise it; and, above all, to give it a less abrasive and intimidating aspect. But, unlike Thatcher, he could not openly explain what he was up to. For one thing, his coalition included most of the casualties of the Thatcher revolution as well as many of the beneficiaries, and he had to keep the casualties on board. He had to keep his party on board as well; and though it was willing to jump through an astonishing range of hoops to get back into power, an open avowal of his neo-Thatcherite intentions might have been too much for it. The coalition that had enabled him to command the political stage was, in fact, unfit for the purpose he had in mind.
That was the paradox. Blair resolved it with a dazzling mixture of chutzpah and ambiguity. “New, new, new,” he exclaimed with apparent rapture, soon after crossing the threshold of 10 Downing Street. “Everything is new.” Old beliefs, old conflicts and old contradictions would dissolve in the sunshine of global novelty. The new regime would be centralist and decentralist, egalitarian and inegalitarian, pro-Europe and pro-America, committed to human rights and committed to absolute parliamentary sovereignty all at the same time.
From somewhere – perhaps from Bill Clinton, certainly from Anthony Giddens and most of all from the zeitgeist – Blair picked up the musty notion of the Third Way, which the young Harold Macmillan had championed 60 years earlier, under the rubric of the Middle Way. Miraculously, it worked. Late-1990s Britain was tired of ideology, tired of hectoring and tired of clarity. It yearned for fudge; and the Third Way was classier fudge than anything seen since the days of Stanley Baldwin.
In some domains, fudge was helpful. Only a master fudger could have concluded the Good Friday Agreement – Blair’s greatest achievement, and one for which even his opponents should salute him. But, as time went on, fudge ceased to satisfy him. Towards the end of his first term he suddenly got religion. On one level he had always had it. Since his student days, his Christian faith had played a central part in his life. But for most of his time in politics, his faith had been largely a private matter. He emitted occasional, rather middle-aged harrumphs, to the effect that Christianity was a “judgemental” religion, but that was all.
At some point in the late 1990s, however, Blair acquired a new, superficially secular, but essentially religious Cause, with a capital “C”. The wispy fatuities of the Third Way were forgotten. He became an international crusader for democracy and justice: a global knight errant, succouring the distressed wherever he found them and punishing their oppressors. This knight-errantry began early on, but the Kosovo war put it centre-stage. Blair was the leading western hawk and earned an international reputation for his Messianic belligerence. In his 1999 Chicago lecture on the “doctrine of the international community”, delivered at the height of the war, he declared that “two dangerous and ruthless men – Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic” – were behind many of the world’s most pressing security problems, and announced that it was time to qualify the historic principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries. The key passage was garbled, but the thrust was clear. Blair the domestic conservative had become an international revolutionary.
In the new, post-cold-war world, he was saying, national frontiers were no longer sacrosanct. Vicious rulers like Saddam and Milosevic had to be punished – not for breaking international law, as they had not broken it, but for evil deeds at home. And there was no doubt about their guilt. Evil was evil, and those who failed to recognise it when they saw it were complicit.
The Chicago lecture set the scene for Blair’s ultimate tragedy, but it was a mere foretaste of what was to come. The tragedy did not get fully under way until after the horror of 11 September 2001. A warning sign was the astonishing mixture of hubris and hysteria that ran through his speech to the Labour party conference immediately after the atrocity. Al-Qaeda’s attack on the twin towers, he told his followers, marked “a turning point in history”. In the new world that it had brought into being, Labour’s mission extended far beyond the British isles. It was to “fight for freedom” right across the globe. And, in a passage echoing Winston Churchill, one whose full significance would not become clear for many months, he promised the American people: “We were with you at the first. We will stay with you to the last.”
Though few saw it at the time, those two sentences marked the end of the glory years that had begun when Blair crossed the threshold of No 10 in 1997. Rhetorically and emotionally, he had tied himself to the most reactionary US administration of modern times.
From then on, his doom was as inexorable as Macbeth’s after Duncan’s murder. Each downward step followed inevitably on the one before. The decision to wage war on Saddam alongside the Americans; the decision to present what was in fact a war for regime change as a war to eliminate Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction; the decision to lean on the security services to fit their findings into a politically convenient mould; the decision to defy the United Nations and betray the core principles of the European Union; and the monstrous final decision to commit British troops to battle against the manifest will of the British people formed a seamless web of delusion, illegality and self-immolation. The horror that is post-Saddam Iraq, with its spiral of sectarian violence and its mounting death toll, cannot be laid at Blair’s door alone. Britain’s contribution to the calamity is far smaller than America’s. But morally, even if not numerically, Blair is as guilty as George W Bush.
What went wrong? Why did Blair the laughing cavalier turn into Blair the hunted stag? Why did he risk his popularity, his integrity and his place in history in a cause that won vir tually no support from anyone of substance outside the range of Downing Street’s blandishments? One possible explanation should be jettisoned straightaway. There was nothing unprincipled about Blair’s Iraq folly. Over Iraq, as Roy Jenkins hinted on the eve of the war, Blair was much too principled for his own and his country’s good.
He was certainly devious, tricky and flagrantly economical with the truth, but these qualities were less in evidence over Iraq than in other, far less important episodes. Blair’s downfall owed more to his strengths – his resilience, his courage, his blazing self-belief and his near-magical persuasive powers – than to his weaknesses.
The true origin of his tragedy lies in an intellectual deformation that is becoming more and more prevalent in our increasingly paltry public culture. The best word for it is “presentism”. Blair sometimes bewailed his ignorance of history; and, in his early days at No 10, there were rumours that he was taking history lessons from Roy Jenkins. But his presentism was impervious to Jenkins’s tutorials.
Blair’s fatal flaw was not just that he knew no history. It was that he had no sense of history, that he was constitutionally incapable of thinking historically. He was a sucker for novelty, particularly when it was wrapped up in pompous sociologese. His fascination with fashionable glitz, his crass talk of a “New Britain” and a “Young Country” and his disdain for the wisdom of experts who had learned the lessons of the past better than he had were all part of the same deadly syndrome. No one with a sense of history could possibly have thought that 9/11 marked a historic turning point, that Saddam Hussein posed an unprecedented threat to the world, or that Iraq, of all places, could be transformed, at the point of a gun, into a beacon of western-style democracy. But, by a terrible irony, the presentism that brought Blair to his doom had been new Labour’s passport to power. Not for the first time in political history, the road to hell mimicked an earlier road to heaven.
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