Tony Blair. I find I can hardly say the name without someone, somewhere, calling “war criminal” as they cough into their fist.
I’d expect that from his political opponents, or from the general public, but not from his own party. It’s like the whole of the Labour party have engaged in some vast conspiracy of lunacy. Blair garners a sort of reluctant respect, yes, but, beyond the small pockets of his more hard-line supporters, he is often seen as that chapter in the party’s history no one wants to remember too fondly, beyond the grudging compliments for the electoral feats. Mention, say, Tony Benn’s name, meanwhile, and there’s the flicker of a light being switched on in the eyes of many a Labour socialist, an adoration for a man seen as upholding the party’s principles and traditions even though it led him to achieve very little to improve the lives of the working class.
I feel there is something of an intellectualist faux outrage when it comes to ignoring or condemning everything Tony Blair did, which is why it is frustrating at times to see Diane Abbott, an otherwise honest Labour politician of working-class roots, become the ambassador of this new socialism that has gained an iron-clad grip over the party. When Abbott said that no one remembers supporting Blair, she’s also ignoring the many achievements Labour forged under his and Gordon Brown’s watch, achievements that any socialist should be proud of.
Before I get too far into this polemic, I’d like to address Iraq first. After all, by my earlier reckoning, “war criminal” must have been called as a knee-jerk reaction at least four times already in the space of this article alone.
Blair came to power in 1997 obsessed with securing the voters’ trust (and rightly so; Labour hadn’t been trusted with power for nearly 20 years). At one point he suggested that even the perception of mistrust would merit the resignation of a minister, an absurd proposition that if enacted would have triggered his own departure by Christmas (along with every sitting MP in Westminster). Nonetheless, Blair knew Labour had not been trusted with power for 18 years, and he was going to do all he could to forge an unbreakable bond between his government and the electorate.
He published thorough annual reports on what his government had promised and achieved, apologised for mistakes, gave exhaustive press conferences so any tough question could be asked, and, in the early days, made only incremental promises so there could be no accusations of betrayal. Leaders change in style and outlook, but they do not change from being gripped by the necessity for absolute trustworthiness to being manically indifferent to it.
There is also the wider issue of character. Blair pursued the Northern Ireland peace process around the clock. Why would someone allegedly indifferent to the bloody consequences of war work sleeplessly to secure peace? The theory does not add up.
I mean, don’t get me wrong; Iraq was a disaster, and our involvement could have been preventable had he not been so desperate to prove that he could be pro-US. But this, too, was inevitable in the political climate of the day. Blair never had to answer the question: ‘should the UK invade Iraq?’ He had to answer a different one: ‘should I support President Bush who has decided he wants to remove Saddam Hussein?’
Before the attacks on September 11, Blair told visitors to No 10 that one of his second-term objectives was to prove that a Labour prime minister could work with a Republican president of the US. While eminently understandable – Blair had been brought up politically in the 1980s, when Labour lost elections partly because it was seen as “soft” on defence and anti-US – I think this aim blinded him to some extent.
Regardless, there is no point guessing whether or not Blair believed the hopelessly speculative intelligence. He HAD to believe it. He was putting a case in a desperate attempt to persuade parliament (which he didn’t need to do, I might add), the electorate and the media, because Bush had decided he was going to war, and Blair was duty-bound to support him.
Of course he genuinely saw a case for war, however sceptical or shaky. No human being could do what he did without believing there was a case. But in different political circumstances, less bound up in suspicion and paranoia, Blair could have applied his intelligence to recognising the case for not going to war, and come to a more balanced conclusion.
Ultimately though, Iraq would have been a disaster anyway, with or without us. Whether Blair had stood up with Bush or not, the Americans would have had boots on the ground on the exact same timetable.
What we can criticise Blair for here – and what Chilcot’s report concluded – is the unpreparedness of the British forces sent into war. No one should forget the catastrophic mess that was the Iraq war, which will always be a stain on Blair’s legacy. But to remember him simply for that and to forget, for example, the humanitarian interventions in Kosovo and Sierra Leone, is absurd. In Kosovo, for instance, parents still name their children Tonibler in honour of him, following his role in the ending of the conflict.
Blair’s domestic record is far more important in terms of what he had control over, and I think that too much of it (good and bad alike) is ignored in favour of Iraq. So many conversations with certain members of the party now go down the line of “Tony Blair? War criminal (that again, see). Take your opinions about Sure Start elsewhere. No, I don’t want to hear about the minimum wage.” And that’s a real shame – we have a bad habit of pointing the telescope backwards on those successes.
Some victories are very well-known: the reduction in pensioner poverty; the creation of Sure Start centres; the introduction of the minimum wage (against fierce opposition from William Hague, back in the pre-Brexit days when the Tories could claim with a straight face that they were guided by the best interests of businesses). But there are plenty more.
For starters, how about House of Lords reform; up until Blair, the Lords had effectively been a permanent Conservative check on whatever government happened to be in power. In 1997, there were over 1000 peers, most of them hereditary, most of them Conservative. We shared the unenviable distinction with Lesotho of being the only two countries in the world with reserved seats in our parliaments for hereditary chieftains. Look at how that was cut down to just 90 or so. House of Lords reform would have been impossible without Blair, and because he committed to that, Labour and the Lib-Dems now have the numbers to block legislation in the upper house (as they did when they stopped Osborne’s tax credit cuts in 2015), which would have been otherwise unthinkable.
How about gun control? It’s an issue we more commonly associate with our American cousins across the pond, but up until 1997, handguns could still be purchased in the UK, despite the Dunblane school shooting taking place in 1996. New Labour put a stop to that.
In 1998, workers finally got the right to four weeks’ paid holiday; before that, six million Britons received less than four weeks, and two million got none at all.
What about the Right to Roam? Accusations of betrayal preceded the Countryside and Rights of Way Act in 2000 – that is, it upset landowners by letting us plebs walk across their fields.
Free entry to galleries and museums, too – that was a New Labour achievement.
The party significantly reduced child poverty, founded the low pay commission, and introduced tax credits.
Labour invested in the NHS and schools, created the Human Rights Act and introduced devolution for Scotland and Wales.
Under Blair the deficit was maintained at a low rate – prior to the global financial crash, that is (which had very little to do with the actions of New Labour, but I’d need a separate article to do that issue justice).
We had more teachers and nurses, and the welfare system wasn’t the threadbare net it’s been reduced to today.
I could go on forever about the ‘hard’ policy achievements of the administration, but, as a change of pace, let’s think about our social conscience as well, which New Labour undoubtedly had a hand in changing for the better. The mood of the late 1990s and early 2000s was much less tolerant than our memories might allow: I recently re-watched a TV clip in which Mel B from the Spice Girls had to explain why she didn’t find blacking up particularly funny. In 1999, a homophobic neo-Nazi set off a nail bomb in a Soho gay bar. We’ve kept the memories of shell suits and platform trainers and forgotten that it took until 2001 for the gay age of consent to be lowered to 16; and until 2003 for Section 28 to be repealed. In 1995, 44 per cent of Britons said that same-sex relationships were “always wrong”. By 2010, that had fallen to 20 per cent.
There’s a temptation to see social issues as “soft” – the art history of the political world – but the change in our attitudes to gay rights, for instance, has improved the lives of thousands of people across the country. And would the Cameron/Clegg coalition have pushed for marriage equality without the civil partnerships act paving the way?
I don’t think Tony Blair should be “forgiven” – whatever that means to you. But I do feel a bit baffled when Blair appears on television to defend internationalism, or call Brexit a disaster, and the Right demands that the Left joins it in furious condemnation of his very existence. Over twenty years after he won his first landslide victory, and with his name supposedly mud among all virtuous people, it’s still crystal clear to me that the Right is terrified of him. And if you really listen to his words – his ability to analyse and his interest in understanding more – I think I can see why.