Peter Wilby: No, he legitimised Thatcherism
Even Tony Blair’s most steadfast supporters now acknowledge that he was guilty of errors in taking Britain to war in Iraq in 2003, particularly in failing to plan – or perhaps failing to insist that the United States should plan – for the aftermath of a successful invasion. But, they plead, this was a leader who delivered three consecutive election victories for his party, all by substantial margins, and seemed for a time to have turned Labour into Britain’s natural governing party. His governments introduced a national minimum wage, hugely increased spending on health and education, devolved power to Scotland and Wales, brought peace to Northern Ireland, lifted 700,000 children out of poverty, introduced civil partnerships for gay people, more than doubled the overseas
aid budget and put Freedom of Information on the statute book.
Does Blair not, therefore, deserve forgiveness for his mistakes over Iraq, mistakes that derived from a dedication to justice and freedom and an anxiety to take no risks with Britain’s security? Should he not be celebrated for his extraordinary achievements as Labour leader?
My answer is an emphatic “no”. Blair wasted Labour’s best chance in a generation to change the national mood and forge a new consensus. Far from making the 21st century an era of progress, as was supposedly his ambition, he created the conditions for another conservative, even a reactionary, century. He hollowed out the Labour Party, stripping it of purpose and self-belief. Not least through his behaviour after leaving office, he also hollowed out British politics, creating distrust and negativity. The political and social climate following the vote for Brexit – Labour facing electoral oblivion, the political stage dominated by shameless populists, racism and xenophobia once more becoming commonplace, the national mood sour and cynical – is his legacy.
That Labour needed to change in order to win office is beyond dispute. The tribal loyalty of working-class voters and the backing of organised labour’s big battalions were no longer enough. Social and economic change had turned the working classes into a minority and undermined the unions’ old power base in manufacturing industry. “Mass politics is becoming middle-class politics,” Blair’s polling guru Philip Gould observed. Labour could always count on the support of what Michael Frayn once called “the Herbivores” among the middle classes: the schoolteachers, university lecturers, artists, musicians, writers, lawyers, librarians, BBC employees and so on. But it now needed the aspirant young residents of Barratt homes, the private-sector middle managers and technicians who read the Daily Mail and the Sunday Times, as well as “White Van Man”: the self-employed, self-reliant plumbers, small builders and electricians who were slowly detaching themselves from their working-class origins. These groups’ approach to politics was more instrumental. If they were to vote Labour, they wanted to know what was in it for them.
New Labour’s answer was that it would give them better public services, creating standards of provision and consumer choice comparable to those in the private sector. By some accounting miracle, it would do so without raising income tax and without raising state spending to levels that might frighten the markets. Labour was not just a party for workers organised in big unions, or for those reliant on welfare. It was “on the side” of the upwardly mobile.
This clearly involved a difficult balancing act, though one no more difficult than Labour’s past need to offer socially liberal policies to the Herbivores – for instance, the legalisation of homosexuality, or laws against racial discrimination – without alienating its more traditionalist, working-class supporters. Politics is about reconciling competing interests and winning the “floating voter” without losing your core support.
Here, Blair failed utterly. Indeed, he did not even seem to try. His governments did almost nothing to assist the industrial towns and cities of the north and Midlands that had been devastated under Margaret Thatcher. Rather, Blair made allies among the plutocrats in the City of London.
And so anxious was he to embrace globalisation and attract labour willing to work for “competitive rates” that, when eight east European states joined the EU in 2004, he agreed that their citizens could migrate freely to Britain without the “transitional controls” that were on offer. Ireland and Sweden were the only other EU countries to open their borders in this way. The catastrophic effects on Labour’s electoral prospects among the non-metropolitan working classes are now all too plain.
Instead of trying to achieve Labour ends in new ways, Blair offered a more inclusive Thatcherism. He did not strive to adapt Labour to changing times. Rather, he ruptured it from its past. Much of this was a matter of presentation and rhetoric rather than policy, causing maximum offence to long-standing Labour supporters. The “spin”, so much a feature of the Blair era, was always in a right-wing rather than left-wing direction. For example, the introduction of specialist schools was presented not as a means of strengthening the comprehensive system but as “the end of the bog-standard comprehensive”. Welfare reforms were packaged as “the end of the something-for-nothing days”. Ministers repeatedly promised new laws against crime and terrorism and new drives to lock people up. Projects such as Sure Start, on the other hand, received little fanfare. At times, Blair was frank: if the Labour Party was against him, he must be doing the right thing.
Labour policies on tax and redistribution were to be pursued, if at all, by stealth. In fact, Labour’s record on poverty and inequality under Blair was not at all bad. Just to stop them rising further was an achievement of sorts, given that the effect of globalisation was to increase inequalities – so that in America, hourly wages for the average worker had remained stagnant since the 1970s. But contrast New Labour’s record with that of the 1964-70 Labour government, which brought about a 29 per cent rise in real incomes for the poorest tenth of Britons, or even the much-reviled 1974-79 government, during which income inequality fell to its lowest level in history.
Under Blair, ministers were more or less forbidden to talk about either “inequality” or “redistribution”. The mere mention of either word, the prime minister thought, would send voters hurtling back to the Tories. Yet the British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey in 2000 found that only 5 per cent of voters agreed that the government should “reduce taxes and spend less on health, education and social benefits”, while 50 per cent wanted more taxation and more spending. New Labour came to power when the British were disillusioned with the harshness of Thatcherite individualism and, for the first time in half a century, possibly ready for more solidaristic policies.
Data from the BSA surveys showed that between 1986 and 1996 support for redistribution never fell below 43 per cent and was often above 50 per cent. But after reaching its peak just after Blair became Labour leader in 1994, the pro-redistribution proportion began to fall and stayed consistently below 40 per cent after 1997.
In other words, Blair legitimised Thatcherism and inequality. By refusing even to talk about redistribution, he banished the subject to the political fringes. Inequality was no longer contested. The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate: they were there by God’s design just as they had been in 1848 when Cecil Frances Alexander published her hymn “All Things Bright and Beautiful”. Only the discredited and defeated dinosaurs of “Old Labour” were silly enough to think that change was possible. Instead of leading the British into more progressive territory and building support for Labour’s core values, Blair led them in the opposite direction, conniving with rich newspaper owners, notably Rupert Murdoch, to marginalise the left.
The Iraq War was just another example of Blair’s determination to flaunt his defiance of the party. It was all part of showing that New Labour was truly new, of burying for good the perception that Labour was soft on defence just as it was supposedly soft on crime, soft on failing schools and soft on welfare scroungers. Most of his cabinet opposed the war, as did most Labour MPs and most party members. This was not a difficulty for Blair; defying the Labour Party was part of his mission. If it involved an alliance with a US Republican president, so much the better. “Anti-Americanism”, based on scepticism about the US model of capitalism and opposition to America’s bullying of weaker nations, was another Labour tradition to be rejected contemptuously.
It might still be possible to forgive Blair if his conduct after leaving office had not compounded his sins. Not only has he refused to express regret for the Iraq War, he has also persistently advocated more wars and more interventions in the Middle East. Unlike his predecessors among post-Second World War Labour premiers, who generally kept their counsel after they retired, he frequently offers the party advice on where it is going wrong, warning it not to steer even slightly to the left.
Perhaps most unforgivable of all is Blair’s continued intimacy with the rich and powerful. He won office in 1997 partly because he promised to end sleaze and dishonesty in politics. Within six months of being elected, his government exempted Formula 1 motor racing from a ban on tobacco advertising that had been promised in Labour’s manifesto. It later emerged that Bernie Ecclestone, the Formula 1 boss, had given £1m to the party’s campaign and then visited Downing Street to lobby Blair for the exemption. This was the first in a long line of dubious associations, also featuring the steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal and the billionaire Hinduja brothers. In the year before Blair left office, the police investigated allegations of attempts to award life peerages in return for loans or donations to party funds.
Since Blair left office, his willingness to sell his services to the highest bidder has become almost a national joke. His “consultancies” with financial services companies, his links to Middle Eastern sheikhs and the brutal, authoritarian regime in Kazakhstan, the $250,000 fees for speeches in the US, his acquisition of a property portfolio worth, according to one estimate, more than £25m – no previous former Labour PM amassed wealth on such a scale. Protestations that much of the money goes to charity are greeted with scepticism. His role as a peace envoy in the Middle East became another joke. Not only was the mission a total failure, his critics claimed he used it merely to make more business contacts.
Blair’s harsher critics compare him to Ramsay MacDonald, the Labour prime minister who went into coalition with the Conservatives in 1931 to impose benefit cuts. But MacDonald betrayed a party he had spent most of his life building up; Blair had no Labour roots to betray.
His betrayal was wider and deeper. He misled parliament and the people about the case for the Iraq War. He treated his party’s activists – people who cared enough about democracy to attend meetings and hand out leaflets – with utter disdain. He embraced Murdoch and his senior executives as intimates of the governing party. He used the prestige and contacts acquired through elected office to enrich himself and his family. Blair’s greatest legacy is the cynicism, apathy and distrust, laced with anger, that now characterise the British attitude to politics and politicians. He betrayed our democracy, and that is truly unforgivable.
Philip Collins: Yes, or Labour will not survive
In 1956 Britain experienced a foreign policy disaster in Suez that seemed to define its post-imperial malaise. Even at the time, Suez was written up as a sign of a nation in visible decline. The Conservative Party’s reputation for stolid competence took a knock and the prime minister, Anthony Eden, resigned in ignominy in 1957. But at the next election, Eden’s replacement, Harold Macmillan, extended the Tories’ overall majority over Labour to more than 100 seats. In the wake of the awful defeat of 1959, Mark Abrams and Richard Rose wrote a text that, sadly, bears rereading today. It was called Must Labour Lose?.
The point is that foreign policy hardly ever affects domestic elections. It matters in its own right – of course it does – but a party that becomes obsessed with a question of foreign policy is likely to part company with the electorate. Those commentators who opposed the Iraq War with great vehemence often forget that the electorate did not share their anger, even if it shared their conclusion. Tony Blair’s Labour Party won a majority of 66 seats in 2005, after the intervention in Iraq. The 2005 election was fought largely on the economy, crime and antisocial behaviour. Iraq barely featured. Yet, for Labour Party members, and especially so after the surge of Jeremy Corbyn supporters since May 2015, foreign policy is a central concern and opposition to Iraq is the irreducible core.
This past week, after an interminable wait, the Chilcot report into the conduct of the war has been published. Whatever it says, Chilcot is bound to be the least persuasive, excessively long book ever written. This is not to cast aspersions on Sir John or to prejudge his verdict. Rather, it is to observe that, even among the small group of citizens who read it, none will change their mind. Opinion is surely settled on the Iraq War. The time has come, though many will not want to hear it, for the Labour Party to learn to forgive Tony Blair.
I say this not for the sake of Tony Blair, who can look after himself. Though it has never been true to say he entertains no doubt, Blair still believes that his central judgement was correct. No, I say this for the sake of Labour, which cannot hope to become a party of government again until it learns to forgive. Or, if forgiveness is asking too much, at least to forget.
In making that request, I am very deliberately saying nothing about the war itself, about its rationale, its conduct or its aftermath. For the record, I was always sceptical that the stated aims of the conflict could ever be fulfilled. I would have been happier if the declared objective had been merely that as a known genocidal killer was vulnerable to an intervention, and because a political coalition to depose him was now possible, it made sense to do it. A war gone wrong based on deposing a tyrant is quite different from a war gone wrong that was linked to the 11 September 2001 attacks and based on finding a cache of weapons.
I also felt at the time, as I feel now, that the prime minister had been cavalier in following the precepts of his own 1999 Chicago speech, in which he made the best case in modern times for intervention in the affairs of another sovereign nation. In what was essentially an updated version of the just war theory of Thomas Aquinas, Blair set out the conditions under which such an intervention can be justified. There is a case that the Iraq War answers to most of the speech, but the third out of the five precepts presented by Blair is more troubling. This is the practical constraint. Is there a reasonable expectation of success? Even if the conflict can be justified for its purpose, can it work? The best critique of neoconservatism was always the claim that it simply wasn’t conservative enough.
I find I am all but alone in this moderate view, not very passionately held. I have no interest in trying to persuade anyone else of it. I do not disparage anyone else’s view. I am well aware, because I have been shouted at so many times in discussing the topic, that people take different views and that they do so with great passion. I do not wish to still such passion in the hope of making people take a different view. Neither do I think that the questions involved are unimportant. Of course they are important. They are a matter of life and death for people who, even when they lived, did so in circumstances far less comfortable than mine.
The best hope for the argument in Labour ranks is not that opponents should persuade advocates, or vice versa. That is impossible. The mature response now would be to talk about something else. The conversation is a circular loop. Even when people profess to be drawing lessons from recent history, the point is usually misleading. In foreign policy you never really step into the same river twice. Iraq was more unlike Libya than it was like Libya, which, in turn, was different again in most material ways from the turmoil in Syria. Each moment demands a specific response rather than a general aversion. The upshot of Iraq is that Britain has stepped away from other conflicts, as if every instance was a reiteration of the first. The vote on air strikes in Syria fell principally because so many MPs did not want another Iraq on their voting record.
This is the context into which Chilcot falls. It will cover much the same ground as the 2004 Butler report and it will be a major exercise in confirmation bias. Snippets of its million words will prove that absolutely everyone was right all along. Tony Blair will be the focus of most of the animus. As W H Auden wrote about Sigmund Freud, “he is no more a person/now but a whole climate of opinion”. The reaction to Blair clouds the Labour Party now. There is no sense at all of admiring his domestic legacy. Today, at a point when border patrols may return to Northern Ireland, nobody from the Labour leadership is out there commending the remarkable work Blair did in Northern Ireland. In Labour circles, “Blairite” is straightforwardly a term of abuse.
It is applied with scattergun recklessness. Anyone who opposes Jeremy Corbyn – even Tom Watson, the man who organised a stupid student-politics coup against Blair – is denounced as a “Blairite” by the online muppets of Momentum politics. Last week the Labour leader lost whatever moral authority in the party he ever commanded. An insipid performance in the EU referendum campaign triggered a move against him by Labour MPs, the shadow cabinet and councillors. Then, just when it could scarcely get any worse, Corbyn chose the launch of a report into anti-Semitism among his supporters to draw a moral equivalence between Israel and “various self-styled Islamic states and organisations”. A Jewish Labour MP, Ruth Smeeth, left the launch venue in tears.
And so, the last-ditch defenders of Corbyn rushed to their Twitter feeds to denounce this as the work of the Blairites and the mainstream media. As a newspaper columnist who once wrote speeches for Blair, I must say it makes me feel like the Wizard of Oz. And yet this is abject nonsense as political analysis. It describes, instead, a cast of mind, a psychological state of a strong faction in the Labour Party which just cannot throw off the past. The hatred is consuming for those who feel it, and the thing that it is consuming is the Labour Party.
A party of a century’s vintage is on the threshold of collapse. The publication of the Chilcot report will be an occasion to replay the old argument. The only effect now is moral indignation. Being angry lets nobody off the hook. The point has been made and now, surely, it is time to let it lie.
To which I can hear the instant response of the irritable wit: the only person who lied was Tony Blair. Blair can help himself. He has another cause to speak about now: Europe. He should limit his public interventions to speak about how we negotiate our way through the mess into which a generation of ideological Conservative politicians has dropped us. There is 48 per cent of the country keen to hear someone frame those arguments cleverly. Blair always does: but the omertà on Iraq extends to him, too.
It extends to all of us – not, I repeat, because it does not matter, but because we have exhausted what we have to say on Iraq. The argument is self-harming. It is corroding Labour from the inside. Somehow people have to find the courage to quieten their convictions. To forget, if not to forgive, not for Blair’s sake, but for your own sake. The Labour Party has said too much about this topic. A period of silence on its part would now be appreciated. The rest, otherwise, really will be silence.
Philip Collins is a columnist and chief leader writer for the Times, and a former speechwriter for Tony Blair