Why don’t they just hang Blair and have done with it?
The shrillness and rank stupidity of the anti-Blair hysteria around the Iraq inquiry echoes the way Saddam was monstered to justify the war.
Along with other spiked writers I have never been a supporter of the Iraq War or a fan of Tony Blair. But the scale, shrillness and rank stupidity of the anti-Blair hysteria surrounding the former prime minister’s appearance at the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq War in London on Friday was almost enough to make me feel like a Blairite. (Almost, I said.)
It seemed like a rare moment of near-unanimity across the political and media board, when observers and pundits from the liberal Guardian or Independent to the conservative Mail or Telegraph came together to demand that Blair be condemned, damned, or even arrested for his role in somehow tricking the nation into the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
You could sense that all those media outlets really wanted to say: ‘It weren’t us who swallowed and published all those stories about Saddam’s invisible weapons of mass destruction! It was that Alastair Campbell who sneaked in after school and done it!’ And the politicians queuing to criticise Blair really were desperate to pretend that, ‘We never wanted to vote for the war in parliament – he said he’d tell our mums if we didn’t do it!’
The overall impression was of the UK political and media elite acting like a crowd of children trying to shift the blame for the mess they made by crying with one voice: ‘A big boy done it and ran away!’
Listening to the discussion around Blair’s appearance at the inquiry I discovered he was not only wholly responsible (with a little help from his sidekick Campbell) for the disaster in Iraq, but that by taking Britain into that war he had also ruined the prospects for Middle East peace, caused terror attacks in London and elsewhere, destroyed the ‘progressive’ Labour Party and wrecked British politics altogether. It might be tempting to make a joke about how I would not be surprised if some blamed the Bush/Blair war for exacerbating climate change – were it not for the fact that some really do.
There is an irony here that is not lost on those of us who opposed the first Gulf War against Saddam in 1990/1991 as well as the second one. For years the US and British authorities sought to put themselves on the side of the angels by depicting the little dictator Saddam Hussein as the modern devil in a moustache, on a par with Hitler and Stalin as an inhuman monster of history and threat to world peace. This was begun by Tory prime ministers Margaret Thatcher and John Major even before Blair, alongside US presidents George Bush Senior and Bill Clinton before George W Bush. It reached its peak in the run-up to the 2003 invasion, when we were told that Saddam was not only stockpiling WMD but was somehow to blame for everything from 9/11 to the soaring price of oil.
Now, remarkably, it seems something similar is being attempted in relation to Blair himself. He has been monstered in the media and held personally and almost solely responsible for just about everything, less in order to get at ‘the Truth’ than as an exercise in making his critics feel better about themselves. They may have only dragged Blair off the international speaking circuit rather than out of a hole in the ground, Saddam-style, but the same desire for some cathartic bloodletting was evident in the frenzy surrounding Blair’s appearance before Chilcot. Many were clearly upset that they could not punish Blair more effectively, that it was only an inquiry he was facing rather than a court. Perhaps they should just have hanged him on the spot and had done with it.
Blair is not of course an innocent being burned at the stake for imaginary crimes. Nevertheless the Blair-baiting does contain the main element of a witch-hunt: the attempt to find a symbol of evil that can be blamed for all of our ills – another irony given his Manichean tendency to see everything in good v evil terms – and in the process absolve the rest of us of our sins.
And what good did the pillorying of Blair do? How exactly has it advanced our understanding of the real world? After his appearance at the inquiry, we were left with the shocking revelation that Blair is generally in favour of the Iraq War he launched, is not sorry for having helped to overthrow Saddam, and does not regret being prime minister of the UK, a close ally of the US, and strutting about the world stage.
This Blair affair points up a wider question. What is the Chilcot circus supposed to be for? What exactly is it inquiring into? Indeed, why has such a singular deal been made of the Iraq War at all? It was a grim local conflict that led to tragic deaths of course. But by historical standards it was no big deal. Nor was its questionable legal status in any way exceptional. There is a striking historical naivety about the protests that it was illegal under international law. As Brendan O’Neill shows elsewhere, most of Britain’s wars and invasions since the Second World War have been technically ‘illegal’, up to and including the 1999 attack on the Serbs over Kosovo (see Why Elizabeth Wilmshurst is not my hero). International law has always been a flexible tool for the great powers (indeed, they wrote it), and no law ever stopped Washington or Whitehall going to war.
So why is the circus in town this time? It should be clear that Chilcot is not really about events in Iraq, just as it ought to have been obvious all along that the war was never really about Saddam’s illusory WMD (see Which fool ever thought the Iraq War was about WMD?, by Mick Hume). It is about the crisis in British politics and public life. It has become a cross between a sort of high-powered reality TV show where celebrity statesmen can be made to emote in public, and a family therapy session for the establishment, where they can all let out their frustrations and insecurities on one another.
We are assured that the inquiry is finding out ‘the things we did not know’ about the run-up to the Iraq conflict. But these ‘things’ seem to be not the stuff of major diplomatic events. Instead the focus is on the state of mind and emotions of various individuals involved. Asking Blair what he thought and felt about Saddam, those WMD or whatever is the equivalent of asking The X-Factor contestants, ‘What does this mean to you?’. It would have come as little surprise if Blair had begun his self-obsessed and unenlightening response by describing the conflict as ‘a journey’.
Indeed, what the anti-Blair consensus really wanted was not for Blair to reveal any new facts – we know the story well enough by now – but rather to show some contrition, to feel their pain as he has so often claimed to do in the past. It was a therapeutic more than an interrogative exercise, one that peaked when they brought on the haunted relatives of dead servicemen to act as a sort of chorus for the opposition. All that this emotional thrashing about achieved was to allow Blair to look almost like a principled statesman, standing by what he believed to be right regardless (even if that belief was based more on narcissism than analysis).
At one point I even heard Blair being blamed for ‘turning his back on the relatives’ in the inquiry chamber – something which was inevitable, since he was seated facing the panel at the front. But then, in the rush to blame Blair’s Iraq War for everything, a lot has been got back to front. Iraq was a symptom of the political crisis in Britain and the West, not the cause of it. Thus it was not, as one Brownite columnist claims, the war that destroyed the Labour Party and ‘progressive politics’. It was the fact that New Labour was already an empty shell and had no idea what progressive politics might mean that encouraged Blair and his Cabinet to seek a moral mission in foreign battlefields – and persuaded desperate MPs to go along with it. Nor is it true to say that Iraq destroyed the authority of the New Labour government. It was because the government lacked any powerful political authority at home in the first place that it was unable to build a lasting consensus behind its Iraqi adventure.
Indeed, the Chilcot inquiry is itself a product of the breakdown of any national consensus about what Britain stands for and should fight for. In the past, wars were expected to bring people together behind the flag, which is why governments have often been keen to manipulate and exploit the politics of patriotism and militarism. Now, by contrast, a war such as Iraq can only demonstrate and exacerbate the divided attitudes and lack of a shared national outlook in our nation of individuals. Even within the political elite it becomes a cue for people to let rip and blame somebody, driven less by anti-war politics than by a sense of personal pique. Hence, with the exception of Blair, the general theme of the Chilcot evidence to date could be summed up as ‘Not in my name’.
The Chilcot circus might be irrelevant to any proper arguments about Iraq. But it is helping to fog matters further and distract attention from the questions that ought to be asked: questions about the crisis of politics that led Blair to launch it and so many to go along with it, and which has only been intensified as a result; and about the broader politics of intervention that underpin Blair’s assumptions about his right to decide who governs Iraq. Instead many of the critics seem even more colonial than the former prime minister, since they think the US and UK should have taken firmer steps to run Iraq properly after the invasion.
Worse, the entertainment-free Chilcot circus and Blair’s starring role in it can only reinforce the widespread feelings of cynicism and anti-politics that already dominate discussion in the run-up to the UK General Election. There is already a common assumption that having an inquiry into something such as a war, headed by unelected officials and academics, is better than a debate amongst the public or our elected representatives for getting at ‘the truth’. Now it is being suggested that it would be better yet if the inquiry was headed by a proper judge, who could sit in unaccountable judgement on elected governments and politicians. Preferably, perhaps, a hanging judge who has brought his black cap along.
Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.
Previously on spiked
Mick Hume wondered why the shock and awe over Iraq came so late. He also asked which fool really believed that the Iraq war was about WMD? Tim Black said we don’t need another Iraq inquiry. Brendan O’Neill said the coalition’s war exposed a hole at the heart of the West, and left a hole in the heart of Iraq. Elsewhere, he examined David Kelly’s connections and said the cult of transparency is a threat to democracy. James Heartfield said the road to Baghdad was paved with good intentions. Or read more at spiked issue War on Iraq.
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