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

With all his burning conviction of righteousness, Blair has repeatedly found it difficult to avow what he was really doing and why. Even during the period from July of 1994 to May of 1997, when he was the leader of the opposition, he couldn't quite tell Labour just how far away he had moved from everything that the party had stood for over the best part of a hundred years, as the political voice of the organized working class, and as the proponent of managerial socialism.

Most of all, he never publicly admitted what he had learned from the 1992 election. That was an election that Labour had plausibly expected to win. The Tories looked tired and fractious after thirteen years in office, having gotten rid of Margaret Thatcher in a panic in November of 1990. Since then the Prime Minister had been John Major, of whom Enoch Powell once said to me, "I simply find myself asking, Does he really exist?" And yet the Tories won the 1992 election, taking sixty-five more seats than Labour. Labour had no excuses, either. The party had shed its left-wing thrall of the 1980s; it was led by the affable Neil Kinnock; and the third-party vote, which had previously been blamed for harming the Labour Party, had dropped. What had gone wrong?

For Blair there was no question. He was unique, I think, as the one Labour MP who recognized before the election that his party was going to lose and said so: naturally not in public but to trusted friends. In his view, the culprit was not Neil Kinnock but John Smith, Labour's economic spokesman, who had cheerfully proposed higher income taxes before the election. From that moment Blair resolved that no party he led would ever be associated with high direct taxes. What Smith also taught Blair, more broadly, was a political version of the Yiddish proverb "If you tell the truth, you get hit on the head." And so, however tough he seemed to be, Blair never quite leveled with his party and said, "Look, we live at the end of ideology; all the isms are wasms, and in particular socialism is stone dead. I want to make this a better and fairer country, but in a purely pragmatic way. My job is to make sure that government goes on, and to make small incremental improvements." This inability to be completely honest became a habit.

Even the "Blair Project" of which his acolytes used to boast was never quite spelled out, and one had to interrogate those acolytes to find out what it meant. Blair is oppressed by a sense that the progressive side in British politics was disastrously weakened in the past century by the rift between Liberals and Socialists, a rift he wanted to heal. The Social Democrats were founded by a group (including Jenkins) who bolted from Labour in the early 1980s when it was veering to the far left, and were eventually amalgamated with the Liberals as Liberal Democrats, and Blair's personal hope was to incorporate the Lib Dems into New Labour. More than that (although this, too, is something he expounded on more fully in private than in public), he wanted to make Labour a completely classless party, despite its name, and to end the class division in party politics, which predated the arrival of Labour. His philosophy was hilariously summed up on election night in 2001 by Shaun Woodward, a former Tory MP who had defected in 1999 and wandered into Blair's Big Tent, as they like to call it, when he said that "New Labour is not a party for people of any particular class or any particular view."

Whatever ruses Blair has adopted have come all too naturally to him. At one point when the WMD issue was blowing up in the Prime Minister's face (if nonexistent weapons can be said to blow up), John Prescott, the deputy prime minister, confronted the unruly MPs from his party, telling them vehemently, "The Prime Minister does not lie."

But he does. Or, at least, he has repeatedly said things that were not the case, often enough to suggest that he has genuine difficulty with the concept of objective truth. Some of his lies are trivial. Politicians like to add color and glamour to their résumés, and Blair was simply doing that when he claimed that as a boy he had been a stowaway on a plane bound for the Bahamas (for which there was no independent evidence), and had watched Jackie Milburn playing soccer for Newcastle (he would have been too young). It was much more alarming when Blair told a television interviewer that he had voted to ban fox hunting. The point was not the rights and wrongs of that highly contentious and emotive issue; it was that at the time the Prime Minister—or rather, the Member for Sedgefield—had never voted in the Commons on the matter one way or another.

This tendency to embroider, to persuade, and then to forget has repeatedly misled others and placed them in false positions. Blair claims to have learned from Bill Clinton, and in this regard he is a true pupil. When a politician takes a particular line, let's say by insisting that he did not have sexual relations with "that woman"; when he expects his colleagues to toe the same line and aver publicly that they believe him; when he then abruptly changes his story and admits that he did after all have an "inappropriate" relationship—then those colleagues are, in the hallowed phrase of Irish politics, left with their arses hanging out the window (not a posture Madeleine Albright can have found very dignified in the summer of 1998).

From the archives:

"The Most Eminent Victorian" (January 1997)
Adored as "the People's William" and execrated by "the upper ten thousand," Gladstone was the great statesman of his age. By Geoffrey Wheatcroft

In Blair's case there is a long line of exposed posteriors. Roy Jenkins was the Grand Old Man of British politics—the sobriquet once applied to Gladstone, whose biography Jenkins wrote. He had befriended and admired Blair, and the feeling was apparently mutual: last year, after Jenkins died, at eighty-two, the Blairs went to his funeral, attending the family obsequies at a small village church rather than the huge memorial services held later in London and Oxford (among the mourners in the little church was Tina Brown, who sat through the service assiduously taking notes for her gossip column).

Might there have been a flicker of penitence on the Prime Minister's part that day at the way he had treated Jenkins? Before the 1997 election Blair had led Jenkins to believe that he would view sympathetically schemes for electoral reform, or proportional representation, which is for obvious reasons the Lib Dems' great goal. But Jenkins was fobbed off with the chairmanship of a commission, which predictably favored reform and was as predictably ignored by Blair. And one more backside dangling from the window was that of David Trimble, the leader of the Ulster Unionists. When Trimble subscribed to the Belfast Agreement, he thought he understood that if IRA violence continued, Blair would support him by punishing Sinn Fein, the IRA's political front. The violence did continue—and Blair forgot any understanding.

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