The Tragedy of Tony Blair

When he came to office, the Prime Minister seemed another JFK. Now his mystique is dissipated and his promise shattered. The chief cause of his failure is the war in Iraq—a war he led his people into against their will, for reasons that were not true

As the new year opened, Tony Blair faced the greatest crisis he had yet known in what were then the nearly seven years he had been Prime Minister, or as leader of the Labour Party: he marks (celebrates might not be quite the word) the tenth anniversary of his party leadership on July 21. Sorrows came not in single spies but in battalions, and there was serious talk as to whether he would survive to the end of January.

A double-barreled threat was posed by a critical vote in the House of Commons, on the seemingly esoteric but emblematic subject of university fees, and by the imminent publication of Lord Hutton's report on the events surrounding the death last summer of David Kelly, part of a ferocious quarrel between Downing Street (and particularly Blair's disreputable former press officer Alastair Campbell, who picked the quarrel and then adroitly resigned) and the BBC, all because of Iraq. If that critical vote had been lost, and if the government had been censured by the Hutton report, it is hard to see how Blair could have remained in office. In the event, he did survive, but after two Pyrrhic victories. He won in the Commons, but his usual majority of more than 150 fell to a cliffhanging five, with seventy-three Labour MPs voting against him. Although the rebels disliked the measure in itself, they were also paying Blair back more generally for what he had done to their party—for that, and for bringing Britain into the war with Iraq. The previous March he had won another crucial parliamentary vote, directly on the war, but enjoyed the support of the Conservative opposition, with 139 of his own MPs voting against. This was the largest such parliamentary rebellion since the Home Rule controversy of 1886—much larger than that which forced Neville Chamberlain's resignation, in May of 1940—and it was a decisive rupture between Blair and the party he technically leads, even if in spirit he has never really belonged to it.

Then Hutton's report cleared Blair, but it was greeted with general derision, in which—for once in a way—journalists were joined by the public. Campbell repellently sneered at the BBC after what he thought was a great victory over it; days later polls found that three times as many British people continued to believe the BBC as believed the government. The whole bitter episode seemed to encapsulate the worst characteristics of Blair's rule: the obsession with process rather than policy, the cynical media manipulation, the ruthless brutality—and, with all that, a notable lack of success in achieving his objectives. Blair's intimates admit, and bemoan the fact, that the priceless commodity of trust has gone. That was true as early as last summer, when in one poll 64 percent of voters said they didn't believe the Prime Minister.

By last fall Blair was looking tired and ill. He was very visibly changed from the fresh-faced forty-three-year-old who in May of 1997 became the youngest Prime Minister in nearly two centuries, and from the grinning, proud chap who in May of 2000 came out into Downing Street, holding a mug with his children's faces on it, to tell us that his wife, Cherie, had had a son. (He is also the first premier in 150 years, since Lord John Russell, to father a child while in office.) Now the burden seemed too much for him.

Before long he appeared to recover, and his response this spring to his latest difficulties has been a renewed bout of frenetic activity. He went on his travels again, and not for the first time seemed to be everywhere but in London. In the space of a few days in March, Blair hit Belfast, to try to reinvigorate the moribund "peace process"; Madrid, to mourn the dead; Libya, for a handshake with Colonel Muammar Qaddafi (a gesture that marked the most astonishing of all his pragmatic alliances); and Brussels, in the distant hope of repairing his grievously damaged relations with other European leaders.

And yet with all this hyperactivity, and although his health had picked up, Blair seemed bereft of the almost uncanny aura that surrounded him when he came to power—an aura that had powerfully communicated itself across the Atlantic. From one angle his career has been brilliantly successful. Apart from the fact that he has now been Prime Minister for a longer unbroken term than any twentieth-century predecessors save H. H. Asquith and Margaret Thatcher, Blair is, I think, the only British Prime Minister save Winston Churchill and Thatcher who could be considered genuinely famous in America, where he has excited something beyond mere affection or admiration. He has been lauded as "the Prime Minister of the United States," or, in the writer Paul Berman's less facetious phrase, "the leader of the free world." Nor was this just gratitude for his heartfelt response to the mass murder in New York: more than two years before the attacks, when Bill Clinton was still twenty months away from leaving the White House, the Washington journalist Dana Milbank was moved to say that at last the United States had "a leader who is acting presidential" on the international stage, before adding ruefully, "Unfortunately, this leader is Tony Blair."

After 9/11 Blair touched a deeper chord with Americans, employing an eloquence that did not come so naturally to President George W. Bush to express the moral case for fighting terrorism and, later, for invading Iraq. Even this spring Will Marshall, of the Progressive Policy Institute, in Washington, could say about the primaries that things augured well for "the Blair Democrats," by which I take it he means those liberal-to-centrist Americans who had persuaded themselves to back the war but were much more comfortable with Blair's language of humanitarian internationalism than with what they heard from their own President.

Still, the luster has faded. In the too-oft-quoted words of the Tory politician Enoch Powell, "All political careers end in failure." Although that may be an exaggeration, it's true that many—perhaps most—political leaders disappoint their followers. In Blair's case the disillusionment has been very bitter, and the most telling voices are not of those, left or right, who always disliked him but of those who once deeply admired him, among them Hugo Young, the liberal commentator and historian who died of cancer last fall at only sixty-four. He had once exulted in Blair's leadership; he had been exhilarated by his first election victory, and never ceased to believe that Blair had truly possessed the makings of greatness.

When Tony Blair became the leader of the Labour Party, at age forty-one, he seemed not just a breath of fresh air but a true break with the past, for British politics as a whole as well as for Labour—a voice of youthful energy, the nearest thing to John Kennedy we had ever known. Blair stepped forward as standard-bearer for a new candor and decency, a man who would move Labour away from dogmatic socialism while avoiding the Tories' meanspiritedness. He would cleave to the Atlantic alliance while re-engaging with Europe. He would reform public services while encouraging a vigorous competitive economy. Above all, he was a man the British could trust.

That was then. Shortly before his death, Young wrote that Tony Blair's mystique was quite dissipated and his promise shattered; upon the stage of national and international politics, discernible through its clouds and mists, there now stood not a great man but a "great tragic figure."

The proximate cause of those words was Blair's support for the American war in Iraq, which is the central moment in his story, seen from either side of the Atlantic or from any political perspective. It may also be what Goethe called the moment that, once lost, Eternity will never give back. Whatever view is taken of the war, and wherever it may yet lead, one thing is plain: Tony Blair bet his career on Iraq. He loyally followed Washington into a conflict that, as he well knew, was not wanted by most British people, by most Labour MPs, or, in their hearts, by many of his Cabinet colleagues.

And if the war is the defining moment of his career, that is not least because he is the one man on earth who could possibly have stopped it. His support for the Bush Administration wasn't strictly necessary in military terms (as Donald Rumsfeld was unkind enough to point out at the time), or even in diplomatic terms. But practically speaking, it would have been far more difficult for Washington to embark on the war if Blair had publicly voiced the misgivings of the country he leads.

All this is an astonishing turn of events. Writing in this magazine eight years ago, I described Blair's story at a moment when he was an immensely confident and masterful leader of the opposition, not to say "Prime Minister in waiting," needing only the formal acclamation that must come with the next election, which the demoralized and enfeebled Tories were bound to lose (as they duly did). Having been chosen as Labour leader almost by default, if not by accident, Blair had transformed his party, and he went on to win not one but two general elections with huge parliamentary majorities.

The first was intensely dramatic. Three times over the past century there have been landslide victories in British general elections, when the whole mood of the country seemed to change, and the air people breathed felt different. In 1906 the Liberals swept away the Tories, who had been in office for more than ten years; in 1945 the Tories were again swept away, this time by the Labour Party, after having had a huge parliamentary majority for fourteen years. And in May of 1997 a decisive victory by Blair's New Labour Party saw the Tories routed once more, after they had been in power for eighteen years, reducing them to a rump of 165 MPs out of a total of 659.

One thing we didn't quite notice at the time was how illusory that new dawn—and that landslide—had been. Did the vote really mark a sea change in British politics, as so many seemed to think? "New Labour" was politically amorphous, with a deliberately vague platform; the truth was that people were voting not for a positive change of direction, as they had in 1906 and 1945, but quite simply to throw the rascals out. The Tories had been in office far too long, squabbling, sleazy, and incompetent; the country was fed up with them, and they were fed up with themselves.

The size of Blair's landslide was due to technical factors, and it was less impressive the closer it was examined. As the Labour politician Herbert Morrison (the Home Secretary in Churchill's wartime coalition and a central player in Clement Attlee's postwar government) once put it, when the British people say something, they say it in italics. They did so in that 1997 election, when Blair's party won 63 percent of the seats in Parliament with 44 percent of the vote, something at which leaders in countries with proportional representation can only gape with envy. More ominous, if anyone had noticed, was that the number of those voting was substantially lower than five years earlier, and that the 13.5 million who had voted for Blair were actually fewer than those (14 million) who had voted in 1992 for John Major—a much-derided figure presiding over a fractious and divided party during an economic recession. How much of a triumph had Blair really enjoyed?

And who was he? For all the floodlight of publicity, we didn't really know Tony Blair. Maybe we still don't. People who have spent time in his company will say that they have an unclear impression of his innermost self, the public even more so. That's partly because of the corrosive effect of modern politics—the constant spinning and shaping and sound-biting that can hollow out authentic human personality; and this is truer of Blair than of most other politicians, partly because of a theatrical temperament that makes sincerity difficult to distinguish from insincerity. His contemporaries at Fettes, the Edinburgh public school he attended, recall that he was neither academically nor athletically out of the ordinary, but that he was a brilliant actor: a friend likewise says, "He's part lawyer, part parson, and part actor." By the time he became Prime Minister, he had crafted a public persona, and his appearances were largely calculated performances.

Although Blair turned himself into an impressive speaker—at party conferences, in Parliament, on television—he was never a natural orator. And the rhetorical style he developed has not worn well, whether in his formal speeches, delivered in the verbless sentences of adman's English, or in his seemingly impromptu remarks. On the day Princess Diana died, he solemnly said that "she was the People's Princess," a phrase that (whatever it may mean) Campbell is said to have borrowed from the overwrought columnist Julie Burchill. In this mode, Blair sometimes seems to have no sense at all of the ridiculous. Arriving in Ulster in March of 1998 for the critical meetings that led to the Belfast Agreement, he told the world, "This is no time for sound bites. I feel the hand of history upon our shoulders." There was barely a pause between the two sentences.

What with his party's amorphous platform, it wasn't easy to see where Blair would take domestic politics; but then, it was harder still to foresee how much of his time would be devoted to foreign affairs, to say nothing of making war. In six years British forces have been in action in Iraq (the air strikes of 1998), in Kosovo, in Sierra Leone, in Afghanistan, and again in Iraq by land, air, and sea—which five occasions are a record for any Prime Minister in modern times. War has overshadowed everything else Blair has done.

At home his government has a number of real and even profound achievements to its credit. It's unlucky—though both ironic and poetic justice for a government so obsessed with presentation and publicity—that the best of them have been hidden from view and will bear fruit only in years to come: a steady alleviation of child poverty and a marked improvement in teaching for young children (if not much as yet in secondary or university education).

More visibly, alas, the years of the Blair government have been punctuated by scandals. Unlike those of the preceding Tories, they haven't usually concerned individual financial corruption (as far as sex scandals go, honors are pretty much even between the parties). Even the house in London that Peter Mandelson—twice a Cabinet minister, twice forced to resign, still Blair's consigliere—bought with money whose source he had not declared, and the apartments that Tony and Cherie Blair bought in Bristol as an investment, did not betoken dishonesty in the sense of illegality (although Mandelson cast more light than he may have intended on these affairs when he once said that New Labour "is intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich").

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Geoffrey Wheatcroft's books include The Controversy of Zion (1996). He is currently working on The Strange Death of Tory England, to be published next year.

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