Pity the Blairites
First they fantasised that Blair was a messiah, now they say he’s the devil. When will they wake up?
So there Tony ‘elder statesman’ Blair was, mugging his prime-ministerial past and thoroughly enjoying his appearance at the Leveson Inquiry into press ethics. It was all going swimmingly. Gesturing and grinning like it was 1997, Blair sang from the inquiry’s hymn sheet. Yes, there exists, he said, an ‘unhealthy’ relationship between politics and the media. Yes, media barons are so powerful it is difficult for even a prime minister to challenge them, at least not without being distracted from making Britain great again. And yes, the Daily Mail is staffed (and no doubt read) by rotters. And then it happened. The past bolted in from the corridor behind Lord Leveson. ‘Excuse me’, the past shouted rather reedily, ‘this man should be arrested for war crimes!’.
The appearance of the double-barrelled, single-issue David Lawley-Wakelin, from campaign group Alternative Iraq Enquiry (spelling is not his strong point, either), quickly brought to mind Jonnie Marbles’ moment in the Sun last year, when he interrupted the House of Commons select committee hearing into phone hacking to try to plant a foam pie in the face of Rupert Murdoch. And not just because both Marbles and Lawley-Wakelin are attention-seeking prats.
No, what really resonated was the complementary role that both Murdoch and Blair now play in the minds of leftish-thinking types. They are seen as the sources of our current malaise, the corruptors of the body politic. While Murdoch’s ‘baleful influence’ on public and politicians alike is blamed for the failure of a left-wing Labour Party to seize hold of the electorate’s imagination at any point in the past 30-odd years, so Blair, in his own way, is similarly scapegoated. He is held responsible for the ruination of not only the Labour Party but party politics in general. Thanks to Blair, substance has been sacrificed for spin, kowtowing to the media has replaced engaging with voters, and personality has replaced politics. And what’s more, his decision to invade Iraq has forever sullied ethical-cum-humanitarian intervention. Little wonder, then, that, like the foam-pie incident last year, a self-styled radical, frustrated with Blair’s unwillingness to admit he tricked the world into invading Iraq, decided to force the issue.
Both the images of Murdoch and Blair are misleading, of course. Just as Murdoch has been largely invested with, as one columnist put it, the power to ‘cast evil spells’ by an isolated political and media class unable to grasp its isolation, so the significance of Blair, too, has largely been created by a political and media class unable to grasp its own part in the events of the past 15 years. Hence the strange, excited response when, once more, Blair took to the political stage at the Leveson Inquiry. This was the chance, once again, to take a good long look at this political demiurge.
No wonder it seemed as if the commentariat had been taken over by a combination of body-language experts and nineteenth-century novelists keen to get to the bottom of Blair’s strange power. They had their nemesis right before their eyes. Commentators and sketch writers proceeded to subject his every mannerism, his every gesture, to the minutest of scrutiny. It was as if they were scouring that ‘tikka-tinged’ complexion for some semblance of what Blair was thinking, his motivations, his calculations. And why not? Here was the source of a conspiracy to deceive and manipulate, a charismatic shyster who led Britain into wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for some nebulous - no doubt, nefarious - oil-related reason. And here was a chance, once again, to have him exposed.
This was Blair, ‘the seasoned thespian’, noted the Mirror’s Brian Reade suspiciously: ‘[He was] using confident hand gestures and phrases which implied he was being open with us: “Look… the truth is… frankly… I simply say to you.”’ Others were equally transfixed by the apparent affectations, those oh-so painfully familiar moves with which Blair had once seduced a nation. ‘This was classic Blair’, observed another columnist: ‘He rolled out all the hits. He treated us to his range of expansive hand gestures (impressive, these – you can hardly see the wires). As he breezed out for a five-minute break, he flashed a smile at the public gallery, as though they were a cluster of fans who follow him everywhere.’ It was still there, concluded the Scotsman: ‘the well-rehearsed magic that captivated a nation.’
And yet there was frustration, too. Because Blair, just as he failed to do during the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq War, refused to disclose what his critics believe to be his true essence. The performance, such as it was, was all there was. The mask of sincerity, the garb of conviction, which Blair has worn better than any of his successors - including the current prime minister, David Cameron - refused to slip. ‘If I had not lived through the Blair years, and seen the way in which newspapers were manipulated and sometimes lied to by his formidable press machine, I might have been persuaded by this suave and confident performance’, remarked the Daily Mail’s Stephen Glover sadly. Reade was more angry than regretful: ‘Lurking behind the construct are those dead bodies in Iraq. And he can’t blame the evil press for them.’
The reason why the construct failed to give way to the guilty conscience, why the suave and confident performance once again disguised that dark, mysterious interior, is that Blair is not actually a demiurge with an impressive range of hand gestures and verbal tropes. In fact, I would go further. He did not actually bewitch his parliamentary colleagues into voting in favour of invading Iraq in February 2003, just as he did not trick the public into electing him as prime minister three times. There is nothing much more to Blair than meets the eye.
The problem, rather, was that far too much has always been imagined of Blair by others, many of whom now lambast him. Back in the mid-1990s, when he emerged to steer the Labour Party into government for the first time since the 1970s, Blair was the object of many a commentator’s hopes and dreams. In the words of the New Statesman, here was our ‘best prime minister since Churchill’. In 2007, another columnist recalled the glorious moment 10 years prior when New Labour entered government: ‘Tony Blair – smiling softly, like a messiah come to save us from the Toryism we had known all our lives – decreed, “A new dawn has broken.”’ Indeed, Blair was to reshape Britain in what his champions believed to be his and their image - ethical, righteous and, as he was to prove with Kosovo in 1999, quite happy to prove it in other countries, too.
And then came the disillusionment, marked finally and fatally by the Iraq War in 2003. Blair, once the object of groundless hopes and massive delusions, was transformed into the agent of crushing disappointment. But if too much was expected of him, too much has since been blamed on him. Blair, whose New Labour government always promised to be petty and authoritarian at home, and grand and arrogant abroad, was never going to be what his one-time supporters imagined him to be. And ever since the reality of New Labour became too hard to ignore, his disillusioned champions have sought to blame him for them having been so deluded. So at last year’s Labour conference, the merest mention of Blair’s name prompted boos and jeers. ‘Never has a Labour prime minister started out with such promise’, noted the Herald Scotland earlier this month, ‘only to leave so many feeling let down’.
If the strange, hypersensitive reaction to Blair’s appearance at the Leveson Inquiry is any indication, it seems many are yet to wake up to their own failure to see what Blair was and is, rather than what they imagine him to be.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.