Arts/Literature

Tony Blair tries to explain himself, and gets some help

Tony Blair’s political autobiography, A Journey, went on sale in the UK and the US today, and has prompted, if not a firestorm, a huge amount of media and political shouting over a number of points raised in the book—particularly Blair’s ongoing feud with Gordon Brown, and Blair’s continuing justification for the invasion of Iraq. (For the record, and to get it out of the way, Blair calls Brown “a disaster” and claims Brown tried to blackmail him, among other charges.) This is all great fun, and will be going on for weeks. Both The Guardian and The Independent (and the rest of the British press) have extensive articles summarizing the current state of play. This will of course evolve as people get around to actually reading the book, in which, among other things, he apparently has kind words not only for George Bush, but also Dick Cheney. Andrew Sparrow over at The Guardian is live-blogging both his reading of the book and what people are saying about it. Read the book if you want. I’m not bothering. Nor am I buying a copy, even though Waterstone’s is selling it for half price, and Amazon has marked it down further than that, and even though Blair made a big thing of donating the advance for the book (and profits, if any) to the Royal British Legion (for which Blair will receive a substantial tax break).

Well, this will roll merrily along for some time, I imagine. What’s of more interest here is the fact that much of the British media still appear to not understand why Blair is held in such contempt by most of the British public, even though a majority (52%, actually) of the public believe Blair lied them into a war. So yesterday, for example, we had Gideon Rachman over at The Financial Times doing his best David Broder imitation. In a very bad column called The hatred of Blair is over the top, Rachman tries to say that those of us who hate Blair are, well, over the top. Predictably, it’s an extraordinarily weak case. Here’s Rachman:

And yet, for all the horrors that flowed from the 2003 invasion, the hatred and contempt that is directed at Mr Blair is way over the top. He probably made the wrong call in backing the American-led campaign. Even by the most cautious estimates, about 100,000 civilians have died in Iraq since the invasion. Millions have been turned into refugees. And as American troops withdraw, there is a significant chance that the country will slide back into civil war.

But Mr Blair made his fateful decision on Iraq for reasons that were both honourable and understandable. Most of the leading figures in British politics – in both main parties – agreed with him. Robin Cook, the former Labour foreign secretary, was unusual in speaking out against the plans for war. So the decision to back the invasion was not an isolated act of Blair-inspired lunacy. It reflected the conventional wisdom of the British political establishment.

Um, no. There was substantial opposition within both the major parties, some of which was only won over because Blair had the evidence for war doctored. His own Attorney General had to jump through hoops to come up with a remotely plausible legal justification for the invasion—and a number of senior international legal ministers resigned over this decision. The Liberal Democrats were united in their opposition. Both Germany and France, Britain’s two largest European allies, were vociferously opposed. As was a substantial portion of the American population. Blair’s reasons were not “honourable and understandable” at all. Rachman is being extraordinarily revisionist here.

The bulk of the column is more or less along these lines, if you can stomach it. Rachman closes with a line worthy of Broder or Thomas Friedman:

My guess is that, in a few years’ time, the Blair years will be remembered for a lot more than Iraq. They will be seen as a period of prosperity and optimism in Britain – certainly compared with what was to come.

Rachman is presumably referring to the “prosperity and optimism” fueled by record levels of government borrowing and spending to keep the economic ball rolling. Well, the “what is to come” part of this is a little vague. But it will clearly involve a reckoning for some frankly reckless economic decision-making, notably all of Gordon Brown’s failed PFI initiatives, and other attempts to keep borrowing off the balance sheet, all undertaken with Blair’s knowledge and approval.

Today, over in The independent, John “paid by the word” Rentoul does a better job of trying to explain Blair, or at least trying to explain why people hate Blair so much. In a column aptly titled Where does the Blair rage come from?, Rentoul takes a similar approach—it’s all about Iraq. Rentoul presents his case a bit more reasonably than does Rachman, but is more scathing towards Blair’s enemies, which are particularly legion within the media:

Immoderate views of Blair are held by a minority of the population, while in the media class they are the norm. The notion that Blair was, on balance, quite a good prime minister, is often regarded as an extremist statement. The BBC in particular seems to regard “on balance a good thing” and “war criminal” as moral equivalents of equal weight, and the airing of both as fulfilling its obligation under Royal Charter to impartiality. And this daft idea of balance is made easy not just by the world-view of most BBC journalists but by the easy availability of so-called serious commentators who hold views about Blair – “evil” is an interesting word, used by Matthew Parris on the right and Natasha Walter on the left – that seem to me to be detached from reality. So where does such incontinent Blair rage come from?

Rentoul does not actually cite any evidence for his first sentence, but we can let that go. Rentoul goes on, in best Tom Friedman mode (note how cleverly he steps around the critical issues):

I have been puzzling over this for some time and, amid all the bile and insults my inquiry provokes, the response of one Blair hater was useful: “You well know that many people believe he deceived Parliament and this country into an unnecessary war. Given that is what people believe, then the anger is easy to understand isn’t it?”

Up to a point, but this only takes the question back one stage: back to why so many people believe such an unreasonable and unlikely thing. And it usually turns out that they don’t. Very few people actually believe that Blair had a meeting – on a sofa in Downing Street, naturally – and said to his closest advisers: “I’ve got this brilliant plan for joining the American invasion of Iraq: we’ll say it’s all about weapons of mass destruction and when it turns out that there aren’t any, everyone will hate me for ever. How does that sound?” Great plan, they all said, and made the necessary preparations.

What people believe is not that Blair lied, but that he was so desperate to keep in with the Americans that he exaggerated the threat from Saddam Hussein. That has the advantage of fitting with what was the conventional view, that the British interest is best served by a close alliance with the US, but overlooks the more obvious reason for assuming the worst of Saddam, namely his previous history of concealment.

Well, first of all, people actually do believe that Blair lied—52% of the British public, if the poll referred to above is any indication. Secondly, Rentoul’s little fantasy scenario ignores what inspectors, and much of the intelligence services were saying—that Saddam actually had no weapons of mass destruction. And Blair fully supported US efforts to keep inspectors from doing their work.

I will give Rentoul points for being more realistic (i.e., having a better memory) than Rachman in terms of opposition to the invasion:

I think what happened is that the case for use of military force against Saddam was the dominant view of the political-media establishment. It was supported – for all the good reasons that were given at the time – by the leaderships of the two main political parties, most of the newspapers (this one and its Sunday sister notably excluded) and in Whitehall. There was a strongly held opposing view, which mobilised a large demo on the eve of the invasion, and public opinion remained sceptical, although it swung behind the policy once troops were deployed. There were only two important resignations as the decision was taken, one political (Robin Cook) and one official (Elizabeth Wilmshurst).

Well, there were more resignations than that, but we’ll let that go too. But then Rentoul loses it completely:

That idea of deception is where the poison starts. I don’t know why we rarely hear from people who accept that Blair, Cabinet, Parliament and civil servants thought that they were acting in the national interest but miscalculated. But no, we get the most strident commentaries and Socialist Workers Party slogans about lies. From there the idea of deception spreads to contaminate the Labour left, who never forgave Blair for winning elections, and to the Daily Mail right, who never forgave him for winning elections. It feeds the conspiracy theories about David Kelly (who supported military action against Iraq but whose ghost has been co-opted by its opponents). Nothing Blair can say in his book today can stop the flow; the anger against him exists at a deeper level, impervious to reasoned argument, certainly from him.

Well, there are undoubtedly conspiracy theories out there—there always are. But Rentoul’s glib dismissal of the possibility that Blair actually did lie is the foolishness here. The evidence presented at the Chilcot inquiry thus far fully supports that view (even though the inquiry may be reluctant to draw that conclusion at the end). Rentoul is also prepared to overlook the fact that Blair continues to believe his own self-deception, as evidenced by his own testimony. Nor does he refer to Blair’s strange and potentially dangerous obsession with Iran that emerged in his testimony before the Chilcot inquiry last spring, but which a lot of people (well, people in the media, and political commentators, so maybe they don’t count for Rentoul) found pretty alarming.

What’s most disturbing about both of these columns (both Rachman and Rentoul are “serious” commentators, in the way that, say, David Brooks and Richard Cohen are in the US) is that it reveals that there are still pockets of the media and the commentariat that don’t get it. Look, guys—Blair lied. He did, really. And he lied about something really, really important, that, yes, really, involved Britain in an unnecessary and possibly illegal war. That’s why he’s loathed. Get a grip.

7 replies »

  1. Amazingly, I think a lot of Americans still have a highly positive view of Blair. Most people I know associate him with the opening days of the invasion and the aftermath of 9/11 when everything was happiness and rainbows on the war front. I got a dose of reality when I saw construction workers removing a vandalized section of fence near Westminster that read, “Convict Blair.” Whenever the I hear about investigations into war crimes, I always look at a photo of the two guys in hardhats unbolting the fence.

  2. Tom, Blair received the Presidential Medal of Freedom last January, awarded by the US Congress. And next week he’s receiving another medal (and $100K) from the National Constitution Center for his efforts on behalf of world peace, to be presented by Bill Clinton. Blair must be doing a heckuva job. It’s things like that that keep my irony meter maxed out.

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