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Wednesday, 21 March 2007

The Loving and Leaving of Tony Blair

“I remember Bill Clinton explaining this to me and saying… you may do 100 different things in a day but the 30 seconds that people see of you on the evening news is what you have done that day so far as they are concerned.”

Tony Blair, Podcast Interview with Stephen Fry, 6 February 2007

Anthony Charles Lynton Blair, the longest serving Labour Prime Minister in British history, has reached the twilight of his career. In the course of the coming year he will hand over the Premiership after a decade in power; a period that – fairly or unfairly - will be remembered less for its record-breaking longevity than for the impact of his deeply controversial foreign policy. At 54, he’s incredibly young to have concluded his time in office; when he entered Downing St at the age of 43, he was the youngest Prime Minister for 185 years. Blair’s final months do not hold out the promise of a gentle farewell; in many ways the battles he is currently fighting are the toughest of his career. The situation in Iraq has plumbed new depths; with the long-avoided term “civil war” now the default phrase in both news reports and policy documents, even American opinion has finally begun to turn, and as the Neo-Con star expires, past condemnation of Blair’s steadfast support of Bush echoes ever louder. At home, aggressive criticism over the NHS, the beleaguered prison service, military budgets and Labour’s unpopular education reform, stalks the government, while the unresolved cash-for-peerages scandal continues to cast a shadow over Labour’s collective integrity, with party chairman Hazel Blears admitting it has had “a corrosive effect”. Within his own party, Blair’s authority wanes. Many ministers admitted his refusal to state a leaving date created a limbo of inaction and confused loyalties.

The Prime Minister does not outwardly seem to rage against the dying of the light. Almost two-thirds of Britons polled in January by ICM said their opinion of Blair had worsened over the last year, and yet he seems to carry his unpopularity lightly; arguably he looked more haggard during the David Kelly affair of 2003. Interviewers note his current mood is surprisingly serene; despite being the only British PM ever to be called for interview in a criminal enquiry, he met the frantic questioning of journalists baying for blood in late January with calm detachment, appearing “the pattern of all patience”; no blush nor bead of sweat suggesting discomfort or shame.

In September, when asked which were the best and worst times of all his years in power, Blair said they had come within the space of twenty-four hours, in July 2006: “We won the Olympics one day and then we had the bombs the next day which was an extraordinary high to a low… that's probably the time I remember most vividly.” The many horrors of the war in Iraq are not mentioned. Over 34,000 Iraqi civilians are thought to have died in 2006 alone. The total death toll for the July bombings in London was 52. Blair’s afterthought – “that’s probably the time I remember most vividly” – is telling. He has yet to admit to himself his guilt over the chaos that currently engulfs the Middle East, that has killed tens of thousands of Iraqis and that, most alarmingly, shows no signs of reprieve. In March 2004, Desmond Tutu publicly criticised Blair for his part in an “immoral war”. For the deeply religious Prime Minister, this must have hit hard. The irony is that Blair is probably one of the most morally motivated leaders Britain has elected since Gladstone.

'Let us say one thing. If we are wrong, we will have destroyed a threat that, at its least, is responsible for inhuman carnage and suffering. That is something I am confident history will forgive'

Tony Blair addressing US Congress, 2003

Blair may not feel he has compromised on his own morals, but by adhering to them so stubbornly, he has compromised much that his party held dear. On the 28 January edition of the Politics Show, Jon Sopel pointed out that criticism of Blair had increasingly emerged from within his own party: “You get Peter Hain coming out saying the problem for us as a government, is actually to maintain a working relationship with what is the most right wing American administration, if not ever, then in living memory.” Blair tried to laugh off the remark: “I don’t think it’s very surprising that people in the Labour Party aren’t Neo-Cons.” Which is of course true: the Labour party by nature is at odds with Neo-Con philosophy. But this makes it all the more surprising that their leader has been acting like a Neo-Con so convincingly and for so long. Already preparing his next question, Sopel did not pick up on Blair’s unwitting admission that his foreign policy decisions had intrinsically contradicted the principles of his own party.

Our Tony has brought Labour a long way. He comprehensively revamped a tired political movement that had for a long time seemed amateur in its economic ideology and feeble in its reach, enabling the party to achieve two landslide victories in 1997 and 2001, and an unprecedented three terms in power. The closest any other Labour leader has come is Harold Wilson, who won no less than four elections, but two were in the same year, and the other two were only 18 months apart. Blair has overseen a period of incredible economic stability and can count many historic reforms among his achievements: the Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland; the introduction of a national minimum wage; the banning of fox hunting and fur farming; the writing off of up to 100% of debt owed by the poorest countries in the world; devolution in Scotland and Wales; the creation of paternity leave. All of which represent the enactment of traditional Labour values. He has also used his famous charisma and diplomacy to inspire other international leaders on what will be the key global issue of the century: climate change. One American foreign policy source confessed: “On the environment, I don’t know if Bush would have gotten to where he is now... Blair has always urged him to move in the direction he’s now taken”.

So does his foreign policy betrayal of Labour matter? It is instructive to look back to the party’s roots in the early twentieth century. Ramsay Macdonald proclaimed “Labour’s vision of an ordered world embraces the nations now torn with enmity and strife. It stands, therefore, for a policy of International Co-operation through a strengthened and enlarged League of Nations; the settlement of disputes by conciliation and judicial arbitration” (1923 Labour Party General Election Manifesto). For better or worse, no-one could claim that Blair has adhered to such a policy of “concilation and judicial arbitration”. In 1931, the Labour manifesto even included ‘International disarmament’ in its list of goals: “The Labour Party has always been in the van of the Movement for International Peace; and it is universally recognised that its record, as a Government, above all in solving disarmament by Arbitration, gave to Great Britain the moral leadership of the World. Labour will seek to make that record even more distinguished.” Has Blair made Great Britain’s record “even more distinguished”?

Yet Blair’s defenders would argue such comparisons are odious. The PM’s pragmatic approach to the traditions of his party brought necessary reform in every aspect of domestic and economic policy; why not also in foreign policy? It is worth remembering that in the wake of WWII, Labour’s Manifesto in some respects pre-empted the realpolitik of Blair’s current justification of war as a necessary evil: “If peace is to be protected we must plan and act. Peace must not be regarded as a thing of passive inactivity: it must be a thing of life and action and work.”

The aftermath of Blair’s Iraq strategy may define not only his reputation in the years to come, but also the future shape of global democracy. With such high stakes, his legacy is almost impossible to predict until the fog of war currently surrounding Iraq has at least partially dispersed; what is already clear is that the optimism he once inspired, and the Messiah-like quality with which he led Labour into the new millennium, have long-since dispersed. But as his surprisingly impeccable comic timing on last week's Comic Relief clip with Catherine Tate showed, ( his charm has never left him, and there's a very good chance that in his post-PM role, it will make a statesman of him yet.

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