Thursday, 7 July 2016


The slang term "whatever", meaning "I don't care", is thought to originate in a minor 1965 US TV sitcom, My Mother the Car, though it carries an obvious echo of the song Que sera, sera, which was a hit for Doris Day in 1956. It achieved mass popularity (along with its "W" hand-gesture) in the 1995 film Clueless, which brings us neatly to Tony Blair. That's not an entirely cheap shot, for reasons that will become apparent. Clearly, il maestro did not use the word in this dismissive sense in his now notorious and abbreviated promise to George W Bush, but what then is implied by his statement, "I will be with you, whatever"? Did he mean whatever the views of others, whatever the consequences for Iraq, or whatever the personal cost to himself? All of these readings are possible considering the text of the memo, not to mention subsequent events.

It is also worth noting that at this time (July 2002, eight months before the invasion of Iraq) Blair appeared to believe that Saddam might have WMD, which reinforces the conclusion that while the British Prime Minister may have subsequently been economical with the truth, he started out credulous rather than cynical. He lied, but primarily to himself. In contrast, we know the neocons in the Bush Administration were looking towards regime change in Iraq before 9/11, considering it unfinished business from the first Iraq War. This takes me back to Clueless, not merely in the suggestion that Blair was played for a schmuck by the Americans, but in recognition that the film's plot was loosely based on Jane Austen's Emma, which as Wikipedia notes is a novel about "youthful hubris and the perils of misconstrued romance". It adds to the poignancy to learn that Austen's intent was to write a novel about "a heroine whom no one but myself will much like".

Blair has form with the easy employment of "whatever", though he usually manages to develop it into a subordinate clause. Celebrating third-way politics in 2014, he said: "In foreign policy, whatever you think of the controversies post-9/11 and particularly Iraq, we led in the world: strong alliances in Europe; closest ally of the USA; leaders in development with a tripled aid budget; and putting climate change at the top of the world’s agenda". Moments later he insisted that "Third way politics begins with an analysis of the world shaped by reality not ideology, not by delusionary thoughts based on how we want the world to be, but by hardheaded examination of the world as it actually is". Whenever anyone rejects ideology, they are usually in the grip of it. Chilcot shows that Blair was motivated by belief, not facts, but he also shows that this sprang from an eagerness to please the US rather than any specific conviction. In other words, Blair's ideology centred on national status. His reimagining of the UK as a "young country" was an attempt at restoration and thus part of the elite tradition that has long obsessed over "decline".

Though the initial reaction to the Chilcot Report has understandably focused on personal blame and institutional failure, the historical significance is what it tells us about the relationship of the UK and the US. Blair was hardly the first PM to harp on about the special relationship, and not even the first to sincerely believe in it (Margaret Thatcher was notoriously soft on this point as well, though she never underestimated US instrumentalism, as in Grenada), but his emotional investment, which predated al-Qaeda's attack on the World Trade Centre, was close to infatuation. For Blair, "punching above our weight" was synonymous with advancing US interests, which made him a more committed Atlanticist than even Thatcher. Indeed Blair appears to have been the more demanding partner over the intervention in Kosovo in 1999, when Bill Clinton was in the White House, and his unconcealed admiration for George W Bush clearly owed a lot to finding a kindred spirit.

The special relationship, by emphasising British delusions in respect of the "top table" and the power of personal charisma, has helped corrupt British governance ever since Suez. That earlier debacle was the moment when the UK was obliged to acknowledge its inferiority in the relationship and formally cede its historic role as the world's policeman to the US (a reality since 1941). Iraq has shown us to be incapable of even functioning as a "hobby bobby". The need to keep the US sweet has long been used in domestic politics to marginalise critics of UK policy, from trade to defence. This has reinforced the elite idea that there are strategic interests above democracy, which was further amplified by neoliberalism. Blair's "sofa government" was an extension to the cabinet of the instrumental attitude that the leadership took towards the party membership in the 1990s, excluding it from policy formation and insisting that it provide unqualified support.

The original expectation of the current government appears to have been that publication of the report at this time would exacerbate Labour's internal tensions and draw attention away from Tory squabbles following a narrow victory for remain in the EU referendum. In the event, Chilcot appears to have boosted respect for Corbyn (at least outside the PLP) and emphasised that his demand for a "new politics" can best be understood by what it stands against: Blairism. Iraq saw expertise abused and the idea of government probity undermined. A defence of one's actions based on the grounds of sincere "belief", which Tony Blair has once more made, looks less acceptable at a time when Leavers are bring criticised for having believed obvious lies. Saddam's WMD was no more credible than the £350 million claim, and there is a direct line from the "dodgy dossier" to "breaking point". If we are living in an era of "post-truth politics", that owes much to the Iraq War.

The ironic consequence of Brexit is that London's influence in Washington will decline. It was always more dependent on the indirect influence that the US could exert on the EU (and vice versa) than on any sentimental affection for Magna Carta or Scottish golf courses. The UK's influence on Commonwealth countries has long been a dead letter, and now its role as a bridge between the US and Europe will dwindle. This is the end of the special relationship. The warning by Obama that Britain would henceforth be "at the back of the queue" was not scaremongering. In Washington, the views of Berlin and New Delhi will now count for more than the views of London, and they will be sought directly. The historic irony is that the special relationship's greatest champion has, through his desire to cleave to the US and thus maintain the UK as a global "playa", helped undermine trust in government to such an extent that the people have voted to opt-out: "stop the world, I want to get off".

Some Brexiteers will still insist that the UK can play a leading role on the world's stage, but Blair and others in the establishment know that this was only possible if it remained within the political institutions of the EU and thus useful to the US as a sympathetic agent. Membership of NATO counts for little since that organisation's eastward expansion and the end of Britain's pre-eminent role as Airstrip One. With a limited military capability (all too obvious in Iraq), dwindling influence in Asia and Africa, and a semi-detached relationship with Europe, the UK will increasingly look like Canada with rockets. That's not a bad thing, particularly if we see sense and junk the rockets, but it does represent a fatal blow to the establishment's self-image. The judgement of history will not be written by the protesters who marched in 2003, let alone those who protested this week, but by that same political establishment. For them, Blair's legacy is increasingly looking like "Fool Britannia".

1 comment:

  1. I've no doubt that Brexit will lead to a continuation of our national decline since WW2. It seems doubly ironic that the Brexit campaign was dressed in much assertion about restoring our natural place in the world once the EU yoke was removed.