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

Most of the New Labour scandals have been unsightly symptoms of that cancer of modern politics, fundraising. The Ecclestone affair, which occurred only months after Blair became Prime Minister, led him to say, "I would never do anything to harm the country, or anything improper. I think most people who have dealt with me think I'm a pretty straight sort of guy." This was after it had become known that Bernie Ecclestone, the maestro of Formula One motor racing, had made a large donation to Labour, and that the new government had then exempted Formula One from an intended ban on cigarette sponsorship. Most of the public thought that "straight" was not quite the word.

If asked to explain himself, Blair says that religion is the key to him; this could be even truer than he knows. He had no formal religious upbringing, but he became a believing and practicing Christian at Oxford. His piety distinguishes him not only from most of his compatriots but also from most British politicians: it's a curiosity of our history that only a minority of twentieth-century Prime Ministers originally belonged to the Church of England and that only a minority have grown up as Christians in any serious sense. "If you really want to understand what I'm all about, you have to take a look at a guy called John Macmurray," Blair once said. "It's all there." Macmurray was an academic theologian and philosopher who died in 1976, at eighty-five. From him Blair learned, he says, that individuals prosper in strong, supportive communities. Few now read Macmurray, but he is a more interesting writer than that somewhat unoriginal insight suggests. George Orwell was fascinated by Macmurray, and repelled. He called him a "decayed liberal" who "can accept Russian Communism almost without reservations," and elsewhere wrote, "Macmurray is saying that Hitler is right."

To associate Blair with that would be grossly unfair, although there is a strongly authoritarian strain in his emphasis on communal duty and the collective. Margaret Thatcher was much abused for saying that "there is no such thing as society," when all she meant, in her finger-wagging way, was that individual men and women and their families are a concrete reality, whereas "society" is an abstraction too often used to justify another reality, state power. Though scarcely more of a socialist than she, Blair lacks Mrs. T.'s healthy, homespun distrust of the state. He has a very low conception of individual freedom—a point he made all too clear in one speech during which he denounced the forces that stood in his way, among them "libertarian nonsense."

Maybe the truth is that Blair, though quick and lucid, is in no real sense an intellectual. That might not be a bad thing. The last British Prime Minister about whom that word could be used was Sir Anthony Eden, who was not a happy advertisement for high intellect in high places: he lasted less than two years as Prime Minister, his career foundering on the rock of the Suez adventure, in 1956, which left the canal in Egyptian hands.

Clearly Blair is a smart operator, but how intelligent is he? Plenty of people who know him more or less well wonder about that. Barbara Cassani, an American, is in charge of the British bid to stage the 2012 Olympics in London. She was reported as saying, after having dined with Blair, "To be frank, he wasn't that bright ... [He] has this ability to make it seem as if he cares, but he didn't seem particularly knowledgeable about anything." Although Cassani has angrily denied the words, she was only seconding what was earlier said by the novelist Doris Lessing: "He believes in magic. That if you say a thing, it is true. I think he's not very bright in some ways." In an odd fashion, Blair himself almost confirms this. He once said, "When I was young, I paid more regard to intellect than judgment. As I've got older, I pay more regard to judgment than to intellect," which sounds nice, in a cracker-barrel way, until you stop to wonder what the difference between judgment and intellect actually is. Maybe the best thing to say is that his disposition is intuitive rather than analytical.

All of this connects with another characteristic. Blair evinces strong morality in principle but a tendency toward notably amoral behavior in practice. "Far from lacking conviction, [Blair] has almost too much, particularly when dealing with the world beyond Britain," said Roy Jenkins, a co-founder of the Social Democrats, not long before he died, with a touch of genial patronization (and of self-parody). "He is a little too Manichaean for my perhaps now jaded taste, seeing matters in stark terms of good and evil, black and white." But Blair is not only Manichaean, he is Antinomian. The quaint sixteenth-century heretics who took that name believed that "to the pure all things are pure," so if you were of the elect, you could eat, drink, and merrily fornicate in the certainty of salvation.

Very often Blair is like that—not in the eating and so forth, but in his belief that his inner virtue justifies whatever means he chooses to employ. Few Prime Ministers have ever been more sincere in their piety, and few have been capable of greater deviousness or even unscrupulousness. Richard Desmond is an entrepreneur who owns the Daily Express, a once famous national newspaper, but whose fortune was made in what is sometimes called adult entertainment, which is to say pornography. The flavor of the television channels he operates may be judged from the titles of the magazines he has owned, which include The Very Best of Mega Boobs, Mothers-in-Law (yes, really), and Asian Babes. Blair is not only a doting father and a devout Christian; he used to keep a file of clippings labeled "Moral chaos." The fact that he has more than once entertained Desmond at Downing Street is an extreme illustration of "To the pure all things are pure."

That Antinomian tendency leads further toward Blair's current travails. His understandable if sometimes morbid concern with communication—and what politician does not want to communicate with the populace?—has turned into its own justification. The means become the ends, the medium the message; Blair's politics, as Wagner unkindly said of Meyerbeer's music, is all effects and no causes. And yet by an absurd paradox, even though the members of Blair's inner court are rightly associated with media manipulation, they have been very bad at it. For all Campbell's reputation as a master of the black arts of spinning and news management, his record was a long series of presentational disasters and news-management foul-ups.

In the matter of Hutton, the whole miserable business began when Andrew Gilligan, a BBC reporter, said on the radio (far too early in the morning for most people to have heard it) that the government had exaggerated the threat posed by Saddam Hussein's supposed weapons of mass destruction. Although clumsily expressed, this was in itself an elementary statement of fact, as nobody at all except Blair now denies. Campbell went ballistic (the phrase is more than usually apt). He began a vendetta against the BBC, and determined to "out" the official who had spoken to Gilligan. Although David Kelly, Gilligan's source, was subsequently smeared by Downing Street as a "Walter Mitty" figure, he was in truth an eminent government scientist working on WMD (and, in a bitter irony, a man who believed that the war on Iraq was justified). Unable to stand the pressure, Kelly killed himself. Hutton, a senior judge, heard from a multitude of witnesses in public before coming to what most people saw as the perverse conclusion that Downing Street was blameless.

And the consequence? What everyone now remembers isn't Lord Hutton's report, or the small inaccuracies in the charges against the government, but the fact that we were all misled over claims of WMD, and the brutal way Downing Street had outed Kelly in order, as Campbell so elegantly said, to "fuck Gilligan." Those words will be Campbell's epitaph, just as Jo Moore, another New Labour flack, has her own. She will be remembered ever after as the lady who, while the world was transfixed with horror by the images from New York on 9/11, sent an e-mail to a ministerial colleague suggesting that this would be a good day to get out any bad news "we want to bury."

Politicians are meant to be ruthless when necessary, and they are admired for it. Sometimes they are also "economical with the truth," or make use of what Kipling called "The truthful, well-weighed answer / That tells the blacker lie," or, in wartime, rightly employ the ruse de guerre, tactical deceit. But Blair gave new meaning to ruse de guerre with his elaborate campaign of disinformation about Iraq, designed not to mislead the enemy about the conduct of the war but to mislead his own people about its origins.

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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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