Thursday, 24 July 2014

L'Etat C'est Moi

Tony Blair's speech this week, twenty years to the day after he was elected Labour Party leader, prompted a number of retrospectives by his supporters in the press, which in turn prompted the usual venom beneath the fold about duplicitous war-mongering. Both sides largely ignored the speech itself, which was delivered in memory of focus group impressario Philip Gould and was eerily anachronistic in its promotion of a supra-ideological "third way", the false dichotomy of the individual and the collective, and the notion that the "zeitgeist" is some sort of constructed reality amenable to policy. It's as if Blair has barely been in the country of late.

Most of his defenders feel that his progressive record has been unfairly tarnished by the fallout from Iraq, which the former PM mentions precisely once in his speech, in a clause starting with "whatever". John Rentoul in The Independent was typical: "The country has changed, mostly for the better, in 20 years and much of it is because of Tony Blair. Unexpectedly, the change was best summed up by David Cameron in his words on entering No 10 four years ago, when he said that the country he inherited was 'more open at home and more compassionate abroad' than it had been". This is Great Man history, which marginalises the contribution of others (the snub to Gordon Brown is deliberate), wallows in nostalgia ("the sun shone more under the old king"), and equates the national mood with a personal style.

Janan Ganesh in The FT suggests that Blair was more pragmatic than he is given credit for: "He governed with the grain of history, nudging it along from time to time, but never upending a country that was functioning well enough". This is vapid insofar as almost all heads of government do exactly the same. It would serve just as well as a testament to John Major. It might appear paradoxical that a self-styled progressive like Rentoul would laud the impact of the individual on history, while a conservative like Ganesh emphasises structural forces, but the former is merely the neoliberal valorisation of "talent" as a proxy for class, while the latter believes that the exceptional Thatcher changed the course of history, tearing up the postwar settlement and embarking on a social and economic revolution that Blair merely continued (the reality was that she rode the wave of global structural change as much as she vigorously turned the tiller).

Much of Blair's achievement is simply down to longevity. If you cling to office long enough, you will get the credit for all sorts of secular changes and social shifts that simply coincided with your watch, while observers will marvel that you haven't stayed exactly the same ("from Bambi to Bliar"). In The Telegraph, Stephen Bush credits Blair with installing a security door on his childhood block of flats, much as good harvests were once attributed to the beneficence of the distant monarch. Similarly, Rentoul reckons Blair "achieved the near-impossible in Northern Ireland" with the signing of The Good Friday Agreement, ignoring the patient build up since the Downing Street Declaration in 1993, not to mention the obvious readiness of the paramilitaries for a face-saving peace deal long before Blair's accession in 1997.

Ganesh claims that Blair "did not come from anywhere in particular", despite the public school and Oxford background, though his classlessness and cosmopolitan ease were more apparent to journalists than to the average voter. Cameron's belief that he could model himself on Blair sprang from a realisation that he was not a million miles away from the upper middle class lawyer in style and experience. Chris Dillow identifies Blair's "managerialist ideology" as his weakness, leading to over-confidence and poor decision-making. This ideology was part of a wider commitment to neoliberalism at home and abroad, which included the privileging of The City, his mugging by US neocons over Iraq, and his subsequent ascension to the global 0.01%. (In The Guardian, Michael White said: "Someone told me recently he'd brokered an oligarch's yacht sale". The point is not that this tale is true, but that it is credible).

Once they got beyond the noise about the horrors of the Saddam regime (i.e. "he had it coming"), Blair's supporters initially defended the decision to go to war in Iraq on the grounds that it was made in good faith, the absence of WMD notwithstanding. As the cost of failure mounted, that tactical error was subsumed beneath the massive strategic blowback, suggesting that either the plan all along was to trash the region or else the architects of intervention were drunk on their own power. Blair seems oblivious to the irony of his contemporary words: "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".

A feature of Blair's delusion, which is being eagerly advanced by his supporters in the press, is that all the structural failings that he ignored or even encouraged, such as the growth of in-work benefits and the indulgence of The City, were the fault of Gordon Brown. This is a monarchical defence, in which the good king is undermined by his bad ministers. For Blairists among the Tories, this allows Ed Miliband to be tainted by association with Brown, though they struggle to square the idea of him as Cardinal Richelieu's Eminence Grise with the Wallace meme. For Labour Blairists, it holds out the prospect that the king over the water (in Jerusalem, mostly) may one day return, like De Gaulle recalled from Colombey. What odds a Blair-Sarkozy entente by 2020?


  1. Good stuff.
    A minor point not related to your post - over Iraq, Blair argued like a lawyer - trying to win, not trying to find the answer. Not too bad if you're an advocate, more damaging if you're the judge.

  2. I don’t believe that Blair’s personal decisions have made much difference to the UK. Any of the likely candidates as an alternative PM may have made very similar decisions. There are times when a single decision can have very large effects. Margaret Thatcher’s decision to retake the Falkland Islands by force could have been one of those occasions. If the UK had lost that conflict, entirely possible, the UK could be a very different (better?) place today. If that conflict had been lost would it be possible for the UK Prime Minister today to talk about the UK performing above its weight in the world. Would any of the other likely candidates as PM in place of Thatcher have made the same decisions? The majority (all?) would have had personal military experience that Thatcher did not have.

  3. I agree that Blair's decision to support the US invasion of Iraq was not particularly unusual or brave, in the sense of going against the received wisdom of the time, nor is it likely that any other British politician would have acted differently in his position (though we obviously cannot know). I also suspect he was willingly misled over the prospects for Iraq post-Saddam and the risks of blowback. The better description of his decision would be craven rather than duplicitous.

    The claim that as Wilson resisted US overtures over Vietnam so Blair should have resisted over Iraq strikes me as specious, given that the two situations are not similar: an incremental escalation vs a sudden (albeit confected) decision-point; the prior commitment to invade Afghanistan vs UK disengagement in SE Asia; the emotional overhang of 9/11 etc.

    If Thatcher had not gone to war over the Falklands then she would have lost the next election, which would have had a dramatic effect as most of her domestic "legacy" (financial deregulation, privatisation, the miners' strike etc) originated in her 2nd term. Similarly, if she had lost the conflict, or been forced into a compromise peace, she would have been turfed out (remember that Michael Foot was strongly pro-intervention and had berated the Tories for their prior indulgence of South American juntas). In that sense, she had much less latitude than Blair. Again, I doubt another British politician would have had the courage to act differently. The "fault" of the war remains primarily the misjudgement of Galtieri & co.