New Times,
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  1. Election 2024
14 September 2017

Being told to hate Tony Blair makes me feel like a useful idiot for the right

The eager Blair-bashers of the left are following a line encouraged by the right: that the sin of Iraq is all we should remember of the New Labour era.

By Helen Lewis

My name is Helen and I have a problem: I don’t hate Tony Blair the way I’m supposed to. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I was a student during the lead-up to the Iraq War, when we spent hour after hour railing against the failure to wait for a UN resolution and the shameless bullying meted out by the popular press to anyone who stood against it.

Yet my visceral anger has gone, and I think I know why. Last year, I noticed a feeling you rarely get as a left-wing commentator: the sense of being in tune with a wider consensus. Bash Jeremy Corbyn and you were bathed in support; your opinion was treated as sensible, moderate, obviously correct. Oh, my God, I thought. This is what it must be like to be right-wing.

That realisation has since tempered my criticisms of the current Labour leader. Yes, I might think that abolishing tuition fees is a worse use of money than rolling back benefit cuts, but that doesn’t mean I think Labour’s manifesto was a joke compared to the magnificence of Theresa May’s offering. My occasional disapproval of Corbyn is not an endorsement of the alternative.

Unfortunately, I think the eager Blair-bashers of the left are luxuriating in the same warm bath of consensus, following the line encouraged by the right for its own purposes: that the sin of Iraq is all we should remember of the New Labour era. Tony Blair? War criminal. Take your opinions about Sure Start elsewhere. No, I don’t want to hear about the minimum wage.

Perhaps I’ve been thinking about this because on 4 September the BBC Parliament channel broadcast the 1997 election in its entirety. The Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman often speaks about the difference between the “experiencing self” and the “remembering self”. “The psychological present is said to be about three seconds long,” he told a TED conference in 2010. “In a life, there are about 600 million of them.” But clearly we remember only a fraction of these moments. The remembering self discards most of them as it creates a story of our life. And the ending of an experience matters more than what happened during it. Kahneman adds: “We go on vacations, to a very large extent, in the service of our remembering self.”

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For that reason, the 1997 election broadcast is a mind-melt, because you are switching from the remembering self to the experiencing self – or, at least, David Dimbleby and his assorted guests are. At one point, the BBC programme wondered aloud if Labour would fulfil the promised radicalism of its manifesto and mentioned House of Lords reform. And I thought: bloody hell, House of Lords reform.

In the early years of New Labour, there were 1,330 benchwarmers clogging up the upper house, and because of the dominance of hereditary peers, the Conservatives had a guaranteed majority. The reform bill only passed after a compromise in which 92 kept their seats. As Robin Cook wrote in 2005, “Britain shares the unenviable distinction with Lesotho of being the only two countries with reserved seats in their parliament for hereditary chieftains.”

There are other achievements that now seem similarly unremarkable. Accusations of betrayal preceded the Countryside and Rights of Way Act in 2000, which established the “right to roam” – that is, it upset landowners by letting us plebs walk across their fields. In 1998, workers finally got the right to four weeks’ paid holiday; before that, six million Britons received less than four weeks, and two million got none at all.

Other victories are better known: the reduction in pensioner poverty, the creation of Sure Start centres, the introduction of the minimum wage (against fierce opposition from William Hague, back in the pre-Brexit days when the Tories could claim with a straight face that they were guided by the best interests of businesses).

The mood of the late 1990s and early 2000s was much less tolerant than our remembering selves might allow: I recently watched a TV clip in which Mel B from the Spice Girls had to explain why she didn’t find blacking up particularly funny. In 1999, a homophobic neo-Nazi set off a nail bomb in a Soho gay bar. We’ve kept the memories of Kula Shaker and platform trainers and forgotten that it took until 2001 for the gay age of consent to be lowered to 16; and until 2003 for Section 28 to be repealed. In 1995, 44 per cent of Britons said that same-sex relationships were “always wrong”. By 2010, that had fallen to 20 per cent. There’s a temptation to see social issues as “soft” – the art history of the political world – but the change in our attitudes to gay rights has improved the lives of thousands of people.

Unfortunately, the remembering self finds it hard to hold on to these facts, given the horrors of Iraq and Blair’s oligarch-tickling post-premiership career. Jeremy Corbyn won the Labour leadership by promising a break with the party’s compromised past. His supporters now use “Blairite” as their most deadly insult.

I don’t think Tony Blair should be “forgiven”. I have no interest in defending a war I didn’t support. But I do feel a bit like a useful idiot when Blair appears on television to defend internationalism, or call Brexit a disaster, and the right demands that the left joins it in furious condemnation of his very existence. Twenty years after he won a landslide victory, and with his name supposedly mud among all virtuous people, the right is still frightened of him. And if you listen to his words – his ability to analyse and his interest in understanding more – I can see why.

So if that’s the game, let’s see how the right reacts when we point out that David Cameron’s austerity caused untold misery, or that Kim Jong-un’s desire for nukes is influenced by our intervention in Libya. I suspect we will discover that there are limits to owning your mistakes. 

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