Where Did He Go Wrong?
Geoffrey Wheatcroft, the author of The Tragedy of Tony Blair, examines the British Prime Minister's dramatic downward spiral.
Closely examining the face of a high-ranking politician near the end of his or her reign can be a haunting task. Often a face that was once boyish and cheerful has sagged, wrinkled, and become hollowed out with worry. An expression that was once eager and honest has become grim, resigned, and evasive. And eyes that once beheld a grand new vision for the future now look tired and empty.
The evocative picture of Tony Blair staring out from the cover of the June Atlantic shows just such a man—a man upon whom the last seven years as the Prime Minister of Great Britain have weighed heavily. When he won the 1997 election in Britain, his energy, charm, and youth radiated from Labour campaign posters promising "New Labour. New life for Britain." Blair promised to offer something bracingly different from the preceding eighteen years of Tory leadership under Margaret Thatcher and John Major.
In his piercing essay, "The Tragedy of Tony Blair," Geoffrey Wheatcroft captures the essence of the British people's view of their new Prime Minister.
He seemed not just a breath of fresh air but a true break with the past, for British politics as well as for Labour—a voice of youthful energy, the nearest thing to a 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.
But Blair has not lived up to that promise. Wheatcroft offers a devastating indictment of Tony Blair's failures, the most serious of which was his support for the war in Iraq. It was a war that most of the British did not want—certainly not most of those in Blair's party. As in America, public outcry has focused on the failure to find weapons of mass destruction. And revelations about the so-called "dodgy dossier" (on which much of Blair's case against Iraq was based), along with what happened to David Kelly, the scientist who was allegedly the source for the BBC's first report that the threat may have been exaggerated, have only contributed to the British feeling of having been betrayed by their government. Trust—the supposed bedrock of Blair's government—has been squandered.
And yet Wheatcroft expects that Blair will triumph again in the next general election. (Triumph in this case, however, might mean much less than one would expect: turnout in Britain has declined precipitously since Blair was first elected Prime Minister, and in 2001 Blair won with the votes of only a quarter of his people.) Even with a win next year, Tony Blair will still be that "great tragic figure," a politician who has run out of steam, bereft of the legacy he had worked toward for so long.
Geoffrey Wheatcroft has written numerous articles for The Atlantic, and is the author of The Controversy of Zion (1996). He is currently at work on a new book, The Strange Death of Tory England, to be published next year.
We spoke on April 26.
In the piece you suggest that Blair's "youthful energy" played a very important role in his political success. Why did he seem like such a breath of fresh air for Britain when he became Prime Minister?
Well, he was the youngest Prime Minister in 200 years. There had been a long period of not exactly political failure for the Labour Party but a series of pretty incompetent leaders. And the Tories had Mrs. Thatcher, who certainly could not be ignored, but who at the same time divided opinion and who many people had come to dislike, and then they had John Major, who was not especially beloved either. Blair was this seemingly vibrant, energetic, and eloquent young leader of the Labour Party who had got the job almost by accident because of the death of John Smith in 1994. He looked as though he was going to revolutionize politics in England.
Did he propose revolutionary policies?
He recognized that the Labour Party had been unelectable in the 1980s because it had moved so far to the left. In 1983 the Labour Party had been completely taken over by the far left of the party and they went into the election that year on a platform that someone described as "the longest suicide note in history." It involved the nationalization of all industries, leaving NATO, leaving the European community, getting rid of nuclear weapons, and so on. That was the year Blair became an MP, and he did, in fact, subscribe to that platform as one had to at that time. But he very quickly disassociated himself from it. By 1992 he had moved away from the traditional policies of the Labour Party. The party thought they would win the 1992 election. But Blair correctly predicted to his friends that Labour was going to lose. He thought they would lose on the question of taxation. John Smith, who later became leader of the party but was then its economic spokesman, said before the election that they would have to raise the income tax. It's a general shibboleth, or touchstone, that you don't say that before an election.
Between his election as party leader in 1994 and winning the election in May, 1997, Blair insisted on making a number of emblematic reforms to the party. The most important of these was getting rid of what was called Clause 4—the basic socialist plank in the Labour Party's platform since 1918. This clause basically said that Labour would nationalize the commanding heights of the economy. By the 1990s, of course, everybody knew that wasn't going to happen. Blair insisted on having a showdown and getting rid of the clause completely. Following this, he very publicly flirted with Rupert Murdoch, which was grievously insulting to many people in his party. He went off to Australia to speak at one of Mr. Murdoch's conferences and made a heavy play for the right-wing press and The Sun, the Murdoch tabloid. It was clear that he was going to move the party away from its traditional roots, but nobody quite realized how far he was going to do that. He was a lot like Clinton in this way.
The truism that "the story of the past generation is that the right has won politically while the left has won culturally" applies to both Clinton and Blair. Clinton was pretty much conservative in the sort of terms that Democrats of the 1940s would have understood, especially in his economic policies and his lack of enthusiasm for the labor movement. But in all sorts of ways Clinton was culturally a Boomer and a post-war guy. In the same way, Blair, who's really a conservative in economic policy, likes to strum his guitar and say that he's a great fan of Led Zeppelin.
The changes that he made to Labour were clearly in some ways successful for the party because he continued to win. Does Labour now feel that the end result of those changes is a success?
If you judge politics simply in terms of elections, then Blair, like Clinton, is a success. The cynical side of things, which applies to Blair as well, is revealed in a story about one of Clinton's aides. After the first election this aide was asked, "Now that we're elected, what's the plan?" He answered, "To get re-elected." This was true of Blair, who was elected in 1997 and re-elected in 2001. But in many ways his electoral triumphs were slightly illusory: he actually won fewer popular votes in 1997 than John Major won in 1992. Major won 14 million votes, which is enormous. He's regarded as a complete failure in some quarters, but he's the only political party leader in this country ever to have won more than 14 million popular votes.
If Blair's persona played very well in Britain it seems to have played doubly well here in the States. Why did Americans take to Tony Blair the way they did?
He befriended Bill Clinton and learned a lot of political techniques from him. Just as today he is seen as George Bush without the ultra-conservatism, then he was Bill Clinton without the scandals. He appeared to have Clinton's political virtues minus the disagreeable baggage that came with them. But he really struck a chord with a particular group of Americans in 1998 when he was stiffening Clinton's resolve for military intervention. Clinton, as we all know, did not like the idea of military intervention. Especially after the Black Hawk Down episode, it's said that he resolved to keep American troops away from any danger spots. He didn't want to get America into the Balkans. And here was Blair preaching this new species of liberal internationalism and interventionism. In 1998 he was in America and he roused those we've come to know nowadays as "liberal hawks." In the piece, I quoted Dana Milbank of The Washington Post saying something like, "America has at last found a leader who acts presidential. Unfortunately, this leader is Tony Blair." In 1998, acting presidential meant being somebody who would do what the liberal hawks considered the right thing. Blair waved the flag of liberal interventionism—we will go sort out the evils of the world. Americans who had recognized, to their horror, what had happened in a place like Rwanda, when everyone stood aside, liked the idea of this guy who didn't just say, "Genocide is a very bad thing, boo hoo," but was actually prepared to do something about it. Blair also appealed to those Americans who broadly supported Clinton in many ways but found him increasingly difficult to stomach. Clearly, today he appeals to Americans who find him more eloquent and impressive than President Bush.
He seems to make a nice foil for the American President.
He certainly does. When Bush and Blair are side by side at a press conference there is a slightly embarrassing contrast in eloquence. That is partly due to a difference in political culture. Blair is by trade a barrister—a trial lawyer—who has to argue on his feet in court. Since 1983 he's been a member of Parliament. Instead of coming up through the ranks of being governor of Arkansas or Texas, as American Presidents do, he has come up through the ranks of the House of Commons. The one thing you've got to learn in the Commons is how to think and speak quickly. It's not just something in the London water that makes Blair smarter on his feet.
However, Mr. Bush had previously held an executive office, whereas Blair had never held an executive office of any kind until 1997—when he became Prime Minister—because Labour had been out of power for eighteen years. Also, barristers are courtroom advocates and never do any administrative work at all. Their only work, in theory, is to master the law, understand the law, and plead in court. Blair has really shown that he has no executive experience at all. That's the flip side of his oratorical eloquence.
So he's great at arguing, not so great at administrating?
Right. There's a universal feeling here that his lack of administrative experience has been a real problem. In many ways, he's shown himself incompetent at being head of government just on the day-to-day administrative side.
You argue that when Blair became leader of the Labour Party, he was really considered a man the British could trust. Now, of course, the British people are more likely to believe the BBC than the government. How does one manage to squander so much political capital?
Trust, with a capital T, was Blair's selling point. It was going to be his great thing—he was going to cut through the cynicism and the incompetence of previous politicians. He was going to be the man that the people looked up to. That's completely gone.
One of the ironies of Blair's career is that even before he became Prime Minister people started looking rather suspiciously at this obsession with "spinning," news management, and media manipulation. For example, before the 1997 election all the Labour MPs were trained like dogs to respond to their pagers or their cell phones. The phrase they actually used was "the line to take," which means, Don't forget what we say as a party. Blair had this hit man, Alistair Campbell, who was a byword for ruthlessness and brutality and foul-mouthed vulgarity. The conventional wisdom was that Blair's people might not be very lovable but they were very good at all this media manipulation.
But, actually, it's been the reverse of that. Anthony Howard, who is a veteran political commentator and a lifelong Labour supporter, has said that whatever the positive achievements of the Blair government, its story has been one long line of news-management foul-ups and media-manipulation disasters. It culminated, of course, in this wretched Kelly business, where a man took his own life. There was an appalling confrontation between the government and the BBC, at the end of which, as I mention in the piece, Campbell crowed over the BBC as though he had won a complete victory. In the immediate aftermath, three times as many people believed the BBC as believed the government. No government has ever been trusted less.
In the last few weeks, Blair has had a whole series of further disasters. Things are not going well in Iraq, and we don't know how many more troops the British are going to have to send since our Spanish colleagues are pulling out. Then he went off to Washington for a humiliation at the hands of President Bush. He followed Sharon who Sharon got everything he wanted. Everything that Sharon wanted was not at all what Tony Blair wanted. The fact is that Blair may get all the fine words in Washington, but it is others who get the candy.
Last of all, there's been this completely ludicrous business in the last week of his complete reversal over a referendum on whether or not Britain should adopt the new European constitution. As I said in the piece, he was desperate to avoid this referendum because he thought he would lose it. Well, now he's going to have it anyway, even though he still thinks he's going to lose it. He's having it because Rupert Murdoch told him to.
How can Rupert Murdoch dictate what Blair should do on the referendum?
Blair has always been desperate to keep on good terms with Murdoch. He believed, wrongly, I think, that he had to have The Sun on his side to win an election. Murdoch plays hardball, Murdoch doesn't want the European constitution ratified—and he wants there to be a referendum. He said so to Blair. And Blair jumped.
But you say in the piece that Blair does want the constitution ratified, correct?
Yes. He does want the constitution ratified, but it is not necessary to have a referendum on it. There's no constitutional necessity in this country to have a popular referendum on that or anything else. The last thing any Prime Minister wants is to have a referendum that he thinks he is going to lose. At the moment, the polls are overwhelmingly. They're not going to have it until next year, so who knows what can happen between now and then. But very few people think he will win.
He's trying to dress it up as a win-win bet. Assuming he wins the next general election, which everyone thinks will be in May of next year, they will have the referendum in the fall. If he can win the referendum, then it will be his great triumph. If he loses, he can just depart and leave Gordon Brown, Chancellor of the Exchequer, to pick up the pieces.
Do you think that might happen?
Well, I've learned the folly of making predictions in politics, but I think that if Blair were to hold the referendum and lose it, it would be very difficult for him to remain Prime Minister. I don't think he'd want to. He's been Prime Minister for an awfully long time already—longer than any but two people in the last century.
You say that Blair was the one man on earth who could possibly have stopped the war in Iraq. What could he have done to stop it?
He could at least have said to Bush, "Look, this war is not a good idea at this time and in this place." If he had done so, the war would have been much less likely. I don't think he could necessarily really have stopped it, but it would have been very difficult for President Bush if his one solid ally had expressed reservations about it. Blair took Great Britain into the war against the wishes of most British people, most Labour MPs, and, I think, most members of his own cabinet. This was not true in America. In some ways Bush's position has been more honest than Blair's, because most Americans had come to support the war. Blair's own Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, didn't want British troops committed. He argued, "Let's cheer the Americans from the bleachers, but let's not send our own troops." But Blair has this messianic side to him; he thought that we had to commit troops. Bush even told him he didn't have to send troops if he didn't want to. But Blair said, We were with you at the beginning, we'll be with you at the end. So the British troops arrived, even though Donald Rumsfeld rather unkindly said they weren't necessary in the first place.
Blair has this slightly frightening sense of destiny and of his own role in history. Blair had absolutely persuaded himself that it was his moral duty to support the Americans, come what may. As I explained in the piece, his logic is fairly bizarre. His view was, The Americans are going to war anyway. Which might have been true, but you never know.
It's amazing that Blair had this opportunity. It seems like it would have done a lot to preserve his position if he had said, "Yes, we support you, but no, we're not going to send troops." It seems absurd that he was offered this chance and didn't take it.
Well, it is. Of course, it may have impressed Bush. There was that irritating business about Bush saying of Blair, "Your man has got cojones," as if they were characters in a Hemingway novel. Even that story hasn't done Blair any good. It makes him seem all the more like an American poodle with or without cojones. Everything that's happened in the last two months on the American side has played badly for Tony Blair. The more praise he receives from Bush the less good it does him with his own party, or even with a large part of the British public. Mr. Bush isn'tat all popular in England, except among our own quite small group of neoconservatives. You will search hard and long to find a George Bush fan club over here.
You wonder toward the end of the piece whether what America really needs is "a candid friend, brave and clear-eyed and powerful enough to tell the all-powerful one when it is in error" rather than an unquestioning and uncritical supporter. Is it too late for Blair to assume that role? Do you think he would break with America?
He can't break with America. There's nothing he can really do. He would look completely absurd if he said, "Oh, I think this is turning into a bit of a snafu in Iraq, we'd better get out." There's a strong argument that while it may have been a mistake, it would be even more of a mistake if we cut and run. Although I keep thinking of the first rule of battle the British army teaches to officer cadets: "Never reinforce defeat." If things are going badly, get out of the way. It's not yet a defeat in Iraq, but it's scarcely a victory. Still, I think Blair is very much hoist on his own petard with this one. He's stuck with his commitment to President Bush.
You quote a friend of Blair's as saying of him, "he's part lawyer, part parson, and part actor." Is Blair any more an actor than other politicians?
I think so. He does have a theatrical quality to him, sometimes good, sometimes bad. Americans are not as conscious as the English are of the way Blair changes his voice at different times. Sometimes in Parliament he does a slightly "upmarket" voice, like somebody who went to an expensive school and Oxford. Then, on a television chat show he speaks with a kind of "just folks" voice. He has a ventriloquist's gift for altering the way he speaks.
You mention something called "the Blair project," the nature of which you say has never been spelled out. As best you could tell, what was that?
Well, the first part of it was to some extent to incorporate the Liberal Democrats, the centrist third party, into Labour. It's a long, complicated business that goes back to when the Labour Party grew up and supplanted the Liberals, who had been one of the two big parties in the nineteenth century. Anyway, Blair definitely wanted to try to make some kind of alliance of the Liberal Democrats and Labour. Beyond that, his great project was to end class divisions in politics, which had been there since the end of the nineteenth century. He was basically trying to get rid of the name "Labour." He didn't say he wanted to get rid of the name, and maybe he wouldn't have. But the Labour Party began life as exactly what its name says—the political wing of the Labour movement. That's what he was trying to get rid of. His project was to move away from that and have a completely classless political culture.
You talk a lot about how Blair has made a mess of foreign policy, but you also say that he let down the British people who wanted someone to "make the bloody schools and hospitals run."
He came to office in 1997, when everybody was dissatisfied with the conservatives, thinking that he would bring in great reforms for public services, such as education and health. But he hasn't done so. Indeed, his most recent attempt to do so, by trying to partially privatize health care and raise university fees, has been defeated by his own party. He's gone ahead with the policies in both cases but in a much watered-down form. It's fair to say that even Blair's acolytes have thought: Let's face it, we have failed on the great reform of public services that we hoped for.
Why did his party vote against him in these cases?
Well, partly because they remain a left-wing egalitarian party. They're dogmatically wedded to the idea of national health services in which everything is free at the point of use and funded from general taxation. Many people think that in order to have better health services, you've got to get rid of that. Most of the European countries, for example, have a degree of national health services but have introduced some sort of market principle. Blair's own party has blocked him from introducing this. But, as I said, there is this huge resentment within his own party because of Iraq and his general pro-American policy.
Do you think those two things are good illustrations of Blair's being in the party but not really of the party?
Yes, that's right. Although he never really belonged to the party. He doesn't belong to the Labour Party and doesn't really belong to British politics. In some ways he's more of an American political figure. The fact that he is religious—unlike most British politicians, including most British Prime Ministers—is much easier for Americans to handle. Or he's been called a Christian Democrat, like the French or German Christian Democrats. He belongs to that tradition more than the British Labour tradition.
Gordon Brown is Blair's former rival for the Labour leadership and the Chancellor of the Exchequer. He almost seems to occupy a "shadow" Prime Minister position. What kind of decisions does he control?
Blair has really ceded control over the economy to him, for better or for worse. At the moment the economy is looking very good. Inflation is incredibly low, unemployment is incredibly low, and growth is good. But Blair has very little control over that, less than any Prime Minister ever before. He has silently cut a deal with Brown—they get on very badly, in spite of the fact they're the two most important people in the government. Brown really controls many of the domestic decisions, which is why you have people in government making Freudian slips about Gordon Brown being the real Prime Minister.
What effect does the duel between 10 Downing Street and 11 Downing Street have on the government?
Well, it hasn't strengthened it. It does not look good when the two most important men in the government are barely on speaking terms. Although, of course, that sort of thing is not unheard of. I don't imagine Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld play much golf together. It's more unusual to have a cabinet of people who love each other, human nature being what it is. But it's unusual to have this degree of friction between the two.
One of the things you talk about is a precipitous decline in voter turnout, from 72 percent in 1997 to 59 percent in 2001. How much of this decline has to do with Blair?
Most societies are becoming more and more depoliticized. Since Blair has moved Labour to the right, there's less room between Labour and the conservatives, so there's less room for people to vote. There's simply less at stake—no European country has a party of the left any longer that says it's going to go in for full-blooded socialism, nor does any European country have a hard right-wing nationalist party with any serious chance of political power. Blair has really emptied politics of its content, and therefore people are disenchanted with politics in general.
Do you think there is a candidate out there or a party out there who could revitalize politics?
Four years ago or so, I was talking to somebody who knows Blair and the government quite well. We were talking about William Hague, who was then the leader of the conservatives—the opposition—and was doing disastrously badly. My friend said, "Well, you can see poor Hague's problem. There's only room for one conservative party in this country." A bit of a cheap shot, but there's some truth in it.
To the extent that the whole metaphor of left and right still applies, which I'm not sure that it does, the Liberal Democrats—the third party—are in many ways to the left of Blair and the government. They may do very well in the local elections this summer. The Liberal Democrats are the one party who were opposed to Iraq from the beginning. Not least for that reason they'll pick up a lot of votes. But when you have that two-party culture, it's very difficult for a third party to make its way in. In America, you've had the same two parties since before the Civil War, and no third party has ever made any headway. That's why I had some sympathy four years ago—not so much today—for Ralph Nader, because if somebody doesn't try, you'll never get a third party, you'll never get rid of a sclerotic political system.
Is the trust that the British people have for the government at a historic low?
Yes, I think it is historic, but I don't think that it should all be blamed entirely on Blair. I think it would have happened under almost any Prime Minister. But the particular course of Blair's prime ministership has encouraged this increasing disenchantment with politics, which has shown up in one poll after another. People don't trust politicians; they don't trust the government. They don't see any reason for voting. Traditional politics are decaying everywhere, there's no question about that.
Blair's handling of things has unquestionably accelerated that process here. He's made a long line of statements that are simply not the case, but which he believes at the time he says them. He's a strange customer. He certainly believed at some level of consciousness about the weapons of mass destruction. The defenders of the Iraq war say, "Oh, well, all the intelligence services believed there were these WMD in Iraq." But of course, the crucial question is what came first chronologically? Did the intelligence services—either the CIA or the British services—provide disinterested intelligence on which a political decision was taken, or was a political decision taken and then the intelligence services were enlisted for the purposes of advertising?
Despite all of Blair's failings, you still think he'll win the election in 2005. Why?
The Tories will do much better in the elections than last time. No question about it. I suspect the turnout will fall again, but at the moment it looks as though Blair will still win. I mean, the Tories have had so many attempts and so many opportunities to catch up with Labour. But they're still behind Labour in the polls, even today, when the usual mid-term blues normally puts the opposition party ahead, whether it's eventually going to win or not.
The Tories have been deeply unpopular—even in 1992 when they managed to win the election. But because the British people just didn't want a left-wing government they went on voting for the Tories. And it was only when Tony Blair followed the logic of this and moved Labour away from what it had been previously, that the Tories got ousted. The Tories are just not loved by anyone, even under Michael Howard, their new leader, who's much more effective and much smarter than the previous one. The Tories would like to say, "Vote for us and against the high-tax party of Labour," but Labour is not a high-tax party. The Tories are also stuck because they supported the Iraq war even more enthusiastically than Blair did. They just really haven't got enough issues at the moment, except for those that have a nasty flavor to them, such as immigration.
If Blair does win again, how will the public's disenchantment with the government affect his ability and his party's ability to govern?
It's going to be a rather hollow victory if he does win again, because there's nothing new for him to do. It'll just be the same as before and more so. There's this overwhelming sense that he's run out of steam. The country will potter along despite the government. Many politicians, in fact most politicians, have a tendency to move from planned failure to unplanned success, and there hasn't been an exception in that respect. What he will not be able to look back on, whenever he does retire, is the series of great, historic achievements that he had once hoped for and boasted of. These will mostly have been years of peace and prosperity. But the things he claimed to have set his heart on will not have been achieved.