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

These are foibles of personality, obliquely linked to Blair's instincts. Rather than the mere recognition of the end of ideology and the decay of class-based politics, his real political insight may have been something greater—something that, once again, he couldn't publicly explain or avow, but that he instinctively grasped more than almost any other contemporary leader. In 1851 a coup d'état by the Frenchman who would call himself Napoleon III inspired Karl Marx's brilliant pasquinade "The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte"; it also inspired a less well known reflection by another great writer. The coup "has physically depoliticised me," Charles Baudelaire wrote. "There are no more general ideas." And he added, ominously, "Si j'avais voté, je n'aurais pu voter que pour moi." ("If I had voted, I could only have voted for myself.") It turned out that there were plenty more general ideas around (and calamitous their consequences have often been), but those words have an amazingly prophetic ring in Tony Blair's England, though not there alone.

During the 2001 election campaign I read something truly eerie. The Prime Minister wins election while preaching the virtues of wealth creation, the free market, and a close alliance with the United States. Above all, this leader's gift is to have "understood the collapse of traditional ideology and its replacement by the populist values of the mass media." But this wasn't by an English writer, on Tony Blair; it was Umberto Eco's thoughts on the almost simultaneous election victory of Silvio Berlusconi.

But now consider the consequences of a depoliticized society in which traditional ideology has collapsed and voters more and more feel like Baudelaire. The British used to be among the most enthusiastic voters in any country. In the 1950 general election an astonishing 84 percent of adult British citizens cast votes. Turnout remained well above 70 percent until the end of the century, still 72 percent in 1997. Then it plummeted. Although I was sure it was going to drop sharply in 2001, I had no inkling that it would reach 59 percent. Blair was elected last time by 25 percent of the electorate: a fact that might have given even him pause before he took his country into a controversial war. An explanation for the drop is not far from hand. If a politician achieves dramatic electoral success by emptying politics of its content, then it's natural enough if the electorate takes the hint.

And then there was Iraq. The war remains absolutely crucial to Tony Blair. With Iraq everything about Blair came together, not least his energy and bravery. Blair had often been accused of pandering to polls and focus groups; this time his courage could not be denied, even by those who thought it could have been directed at a better cause. But his failings surfaced as well: Iraq was the culmination of his Antinomian tendencies toward self-deception, misrepresentation, and "constructive ambiguity" (that complacent phrase used of the Belfast Agreement), all of which drove him to mislead his country for what he believed was the greater good. His war was a spin too far.

There might have been good reasons for invading Iraq, but the reasons Blair gave could not have been good, because they weren't true. And he was tactically unable to tell the truth. By now some kind of consensus presumably exists about how and why the war began. Almost since the end of the inconclusive Gulf War of 1991 a politically and intellectually formidable group of Americans had wanted a war in order to destroy Saddam Hussein. They might have been right. Some of them had been publicly advocating it—to their credit; there are no dark secrets here—for seven years. When they came to power, with George W. Bush, the story heated up. Planning for the war was under way starting with Bush's inauguration, in January of 2001, and 9/11 provided a pretext, rather than a genuine casus belli.

All of which is acutely relevant to Blair's position. Whereas Bush and his colleagues would scarcely bother to deny that they had long wanted to destroy Saddam, and that the purpose of the war was to effect regime change, Blair's entire case has been that the purpose of the war was not unseating Saddam as such but dealing with his weapons of mass destruction and the "serious and current" threat Iraq posed to British as well as American national interests, which became clear in the course of 2002. That is what he told the House of Commons in a powerful and chilling speech in September of that year, reinforced by the first dossier of supposed intelligence freshly garnered and analyzed.

But this position was false. Blair signed on to the war certainly no later than April of 2002, when he visited Bush in Texas. Indeed, Sir Christopher Meyer, who was the British ambassador in Washington at the time, recently said in Vanity Fair that Blair was in effect told by Bush about the coming war—"when we have dealt with Afghanistan, we must come back to Iraq"—during a meeting only nine days after the attacks in September of 2001. Hence "the great over-arching fact about the war that Blair will never admit but cannot convincingly deny," as Hugo Young put it in one of his last, fierce, more-in-sorrow philippics, is that "he was committed to war months before he said he was." Not only was Blair's decision made long before he claims, but it was made by someone else, and for reasons other than those he has given. Jimmy Carter is scarcely an objective critic, but what he told the London Independent last March is hard to argue with: the decision for war was made in Washington, not London. Carter said, "It was that commitment of Bush that prevailed over, I think, the better judgment of Tony Blair," who probably knew that "many of the allegations were based on uncertain intelligence."

Strangely enough, Blair himself has come near to admitting this, if in a roundabout way. Shortly before the Iraq War began, he talked to the journalist Peter Stothard, who recorded the essential points of Blair's rationale. Saddam was a brutal tyrant who might yet be a danger to international peace (which is beyond argument), but the more pressing point was that the American people, "still angered by the 11 September attacks, still sensing unfinished business from the first Gulf war, would support a war on Iraq." Although Blair knew that the British people "would not even begin to support a war unless they had a say in it through the United Nations," it was clear from what he knew that President Bush would go to war in any case; and the clincher was that "it would be more damaging to long-term world peace and security if the Americans alone defeated Saddam Hussein than if they had international support to do so."

That is why British forces went to war, without the passage of a second Security Council resolution, which Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney regarded as a foolish distraction but which Blair had well-nigh promised Parliament; he was thus acting without the honest approval of most Labour MPs. Blair's logic may seem obscure (not "my country right or wrong" but "their country right or wrong"), and Americans will notice that its implications aren't very flattering: U.S. power untrammeled by allies is dangerous to long-term world peace. However it is dressed up, Blair was admitting that he no longer had an independent foreign policy at all.

Even now Blair defends his decision with the circular argument that the war "was the right thing to do," and he insists that Iraq is a better place today. Even if that is true, it is not why he told his country that it was going to war. He sometimes comes close to using the former Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin's line (as wittily paraphrased by the cartoonist Low): "If I hadn't told you I wouldn't bring you here, you wouldn't have come."

The liberal hawks who admire Blair give his game away. For the historian Michael Ignatieff, "The honest case for war was 'preventive'—to stop a tyrant with malignant intentions from acquiring lethal capabilities or transferring those capabilities to other enemies. The case we actually heard was 'pre-emptive'—to stop a tyrant who already possessed weapons and posed an imminent danger." Ignatieff added morosely, "The problem for my side is that if the honest case had been put—for a preventive as opposed to a pre-emptive war—the war would have been even more unpopular than it was." As the English like to say, quite so. And in Blair's case it's not just a matter of popularity: if he had made "the honest case for war," he would never have won his vote in the House of Commons and could not have taken his country to war at all.

From September of 2002, when he adumbrated the coming war, to March of 2003, when the invasion began, Tony Blair and his government said a number of fascinating things, notably in what has come to be called the "dodgy dossier," a simply grotesque document that was meant to represent fresh evidence of WMD but that Alastair Campbell and his gang had in fact largely patched together from sources found on the Internet, misprints and all. But two things in particular that Blair said were especially curious.

He claimed that he was doing everything he could to work for peace, at a time when it was perfectly obvious that he was doing everything he could to work for war. And, acutely conscious that he was being portrayed as an American stooge, he said that, if necessary, he himself would have urged the war on Washington. Leave aside the sheer implausibility of that claim. If it was true, why hadn't he? After all, Blair became Prime Minister only three months after Clinton's second inauguration, when Bush still had almost four more years in Austin. Why did he not advocate war—preventive or pre-emptive, as he chose—against Saddam then?

Whatever Iraq has done for Blair's international standing, it has been disastrous for his standing in his own country. A recent biography by Philip Stephens, of the Financial Times, written specifically for American readers, echoes Paul Berman's phrase in its title: Tony Blair: The Making of a World Leader. The weary British electorate might well respond, "It's all right for you Blair Democrats, but we didn't vote for a world leader. We voted for someone who'd make the bloody schools and hospitals and trains work." The British have had a long and fraught history as a great power at the heart of a vast empire; now they want a quiet life tending their own garden.

Not just tragic, Blair's domestic position is almost ludicrous. Ten years ago he won the leadership of his party by a characteristic maneuver, neutralizing Gordon Brown, his one serious rival, over dinner at Granita, a restaurant in Islington that as a result has entered the topographical dictionary of English politics. What was concluded in "the Deal" has been the subject of dispute, and rancor, ever since. Blair clearly said that he would make Brown Chancellor of the Exchequer if and when he became Prime Minister, and he may have made a vague promise that Brown would succeed him one day.

All this, the conventional wisdom holds, showed Blair at his most guileful, and the conventional wisdom is wrong, as usual. The novelist and political commentator Robert Harris has pointed out that the Deal was the worst mistake Blair ever made. "What he should have said was: 'Look, Gordon, you want to be leader of the party, and so do I, so why don't we both stand? Why doesn't each of us pledge to respect the outcome of the ballot and work loyally for whoever wins?' If he had done that, he would have called Brown's bluff and established himself as master in his own house once and for all." Blair didn't do that, and apart from encouraging a rivalry that has festered ever since, he completely surrendered to Brown all control of the management of the economy—including the crucial decision on when to adopt the euro, which Blair has always paraded as one of his great ambitions.

Talking on a BBC discussion program in March, Harriet Harman, the Solicitor General, inadvertently called Brown the "Prime Minister." While everyone guffawed, she blushingly corrected herself; from such slips Freud built a thesis. As far as domestic policy is concerned, her slip is true enough: weird though it is, Blair may be "the Prime Minister of the United States," but for the most important purposes Brown is the Prime Minister of Great Britain. Even before the Iraq War, Blair was close to being what Lord Beaverbrook called Lloyd George, a Prime Minister without a party. Today he may not be quite a lame duck, but at home he increasingly seems to be, as another cruel phrase has it, "in office but not in power."

How far Blair recognizes this is not easy to judge. Both in public and in private he seems sometimes to be retreating into denial. He must be one of the last British citizens who still think that the fabled WMD will yet turn up in Iraq, and he has refused to acknowledge the degree to which he misled Parliament and country. Talking to friends last year, he spoke of resurrecting the idea of a liaison with the Lib Dems, and of holding a referendum before the next election on adopting the euro—both ideas that were by then so purely fantasy as to cast doubt on his grip on reality.

Nor has he grasped the degree to which his policy of engagement in Europe is in complete disarray. This was emphasized by the Spanish election in the wake of the Madrid bombings, which deposed his friend and fellow Iraq warrior José María Aznar and replaced him with a Socialist, ostensibly a political soul mate of Blair's but in reality hostile to him, and not only over the war. There is no prospect at all of adopting the euro in the immediate future, and Blair's other boast, of acting as a bridge between Europe and America, does not look convincing either. The German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder once said sarcastically that the traffic on Blair's bridge goes in only one direction—and that was before last year, when it seemed that London's bridge had fallen down.

None of this means that Blair is finished politically. He was and remains in many ways as accomplished a politician and tactician as his friend Bill Clinton—and, for that matter, as his newer friend George W. Bush, to whom he so nimbly transferred his allegiance, though that switch has presented difficulties. Members of the government have been told to observe a Trappist silence on the subject of this November's election: if they want John Kerry to win, they must keep it to themselves. It's not at all clear that Blair would prefer the Democrat, such are the strange whirligigs of contemporary politics.

As to his own next election, next May or whenever it comes, Blair is still a clear favorite. He has outlasted three Tory leaders—John Major, William Hague, and Iain Duncan Smith—and does not seem too much troubled by the considerably more skillful Michael Howard, even though the opposition has been harrying the government to considerable effect over immigration and the planned constitution of the European Union, which Blair would like to ratify but very much does not want to put to a referendum, because he isn't confident of winning one.

If he does beat the Tories again, Blair will match Margaret Thatcher's feat, so far unique since the 1832 Reform Bill, of winning three consecutive parliamentary elections. But that could prove just another hollow victory. Most British people are discontented with the government, and yet they are mostly better off than they were seven years ago, and mostly contented with their own lives. They have been silently offered, in the famous phrase, private affluence and public squalor, and have silently accepted them. They are happy enough, but say that they neither trust nor admire the Prime Minister.

Lately Blair has taken to using several transatlantic phrases: just as his religion makes him far more at home in American politics, so he has borrowed from American jargon of the moment. The war was the right thing to do, and "history will be my judge"; we must draw a line, and move on. But in a democracy it's not history but voters who judge the leaders, and it is also voters who decide when to move on.

All that is the British side of the story; but, just as Blair's aura once wafted across the Atlantic, so his shadow, too, now falls over America—the shadow of failure, which affects those in every country who so much admired him. Maybe political careers do end in failure, or maybe, as Orwell still more bleakly said, every life is a defeat seen from the inside. But there are particular characteristics to some defeats which speak of deeper disappointment. Those most disillusioned by Blair's career are those who believed he really was something quite out of the ordinary: the dejection is the greater because he promised so much.

He had been right in so many ways. Much of the empty rhetoric of Blair's followers is easy to laugh at, but he was absolutely correct about the death of state socialism, and the larger end of ideology. He intuitively perceived the decline of political engagement, and even profited by it. But that has come back to haunt him. So dismayed is the Blair government now by the falling turnout that it is running fatuous ad campaigns to persuade people to vote. It seems not to occur to the Prime Minister that there might be a connection between his government's manipulative cynicism and the cynicism of the populace. Just possibly he has always, at some level of consciousness, believed everything he has said, about watching Jackie Milburn play soccer, about voting against hunting, about terrible Iraqi weapons ready for deployment in forty-five minutes. The result is that everything he says or does is now greeted with suspicion, so that even his visit to Tripoli was widely taken as a publicity stunt, to show that Libyan compliance was a result of the Iraq War.

And for all the flattery heaped on this "friend" when he visits the White House and Congress, Blair's loyalty to Washington has brought him few positive rewards there. The Bush Administration's response to Blair's Churchillian defiance following 9/11 was to impose a tariff likely to wreck what was left of the British steel industry. There is absolutely no sign of any serious American re-engagement with the Israeli-Palestinian peace process—something Blair had assured his supporters would follow from the overthrow of Saddam—and President Bush could not be persuaded even to look in on Northern Ireland during his lightning Irish visit. Blair bet his career on Iraq but has no chips to cash in. From an English perspective, it looks very much as if this time he is the one left with his arse out the window.

From an American perspective, it may be worth asking whether at this moment, in the extraordinary new unipolar world with the United States as an unrivaled military hyperpower, America needs an unquestioning and uncritical supporter. Mightn't something be said for a candid friend, brave and clear-eyed enough to tell the all-powerful one when it is in error? Not very long ago America took Blair to its heart. Now the Washington war party comes close to treating him as a "useful idiot," and Americans opposed to the war are bitterly disappointed in him. As for the liberal hawks, they must surely grasp the hideous paradox Blair embodies: in order that democracy hypothetically or in theory be brought to the Middle East, it has actually and in practice been very gravely damaged in Europe, above all in the country that used to be called the mother of parliaments.

At a time when representative government is not looking in good shape in America (or so many Americans evidently think), and when much of the world is dismayed by the path America is taking, Blair could have offered an alternative vision of political honesty, domestic accountability, and international humility. Instead the man who not so long ago seemed a new ideal in himself now stands alone, truly a great tragic figure.

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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