IN Oliver Stone’s film Nixon the eponymous, and incumbent, president, played by Sir Anthony Hopkins, looks up at a portrait of JFK in the White House and exclaims: “When they look at you, they see what they want to be. When they look at me, they see what they are.”
In the space of ten years, Tony Blair, on his ascension Britain’s youngest prime minister in almost 200 years, has been both Kennedy and Nixon. The man who, on the morning of May 2, 1997, beamed from ear to ear on our television sets and spoke of rejuvenation and radical reform, has latterly borne the mantle of one who knows and accepts there are many who love to hate him. No end in sight in Iraq, the cash-for-honours inquiry threatening to leave an indelible stain on his record, the perception is that, Nixon-like, he has given up listening to advice. What certainly seems to have changed in the last year or so, is that he no longer seems to care what they – left-wing commentators, anti-Blairites in general, much of the country – say about him.
When they look at Blair, they see Britain for what it is – centrist, pro-market, in various ways “neoliberal” – and many of them don’t like it. And some of them, naively, believe that once Blair, and Bush, are gone, and the troops have come home from Iraq, that neo-liberal interventionism will no longer have currency and that we can all forget about the threat fundamentalist Islam poses to the West because that threat will wither and die.
Well, it may seem like ancient history, but Blair was not always as hawkish as the doves assert him to be. Ten years ago no-one could have anticipated that his premiership would be defined by a war, on several fronts, against terrorism. Shortly after becoming prime minister, indeed, he declared: “Mine is the first generation able to contemplate the possibility that we may live our entire lives without going to war or sending our children to war.”
From the beginning, Blair himself wanted his great achievement to be public service reform in England – since devolution, Scotland has clung largely to the old Labour panacea of public services entirely funded, provided and controlled by the state. Mindful of having left it late and perhaps fearful that Gordon Brown might quietly sideline the reform agenda when he takes office, the past 12 months have seen the PM go hell for leather at “securing his legacy.” Having relied on Conservative support to stave off a backbench rebellion over last year’s education bill, which gave secondary schools in England greater control over admissions and budgets, he has pushed forward the building of more city academies and introduced greater competition between health providers in the NHS, with the aim of effecting a service “driven by consumers, not providers.”
The motivating force behind these reforms has been to make the welfare state more effective. Yet while the Labour party has always been concerned with social justice and using “the system” as a means of supporting those least equipped to cope with life, the Blair credo insists it must also promote and reward those able to climb the ladder of opportunity.
That essentially meritocratic stance was outlined as recently as last month, when he went on record to claim that his reputation would recover with time and perspective, adding: “I also believe that the essential Labour position, which is to get over the old divisions of left and right politics and to say you don’t have to choose between a more just society and a more economically efficient one … will hold.”
Meritocracy, of course, means the de facto abandonment of equality as a political ideal. It means a smaller role for the state and a greater role for market forces – but given time, Blair’s thinking goes, meritocratic policies may well be a better means of increasing social mobility, which is, scandalously, at an all-time low.
No-one dare speak of the “undeserving poor” but with David Cameron sniping at Gordon Brown over his management of Britain’s accounts and questions being asked about the effectiveness of Labour’s public spending, Blair’s middle-ground “modernisation” agenda – hailed by both presidential candidates in the recent French elections – is likely to have a bright future.
So, modernisation was the big idea, but Iraq will still dominate the political obituaries. Britain’s part in the invasion, hugely unpopular from the beginning, was driven almost entirely by Blair. What moved him? No shortage of commentators have imputed any number of cynical, sanguinary and imperialist reasons for his actions, but it is more likely that he simply believed, to the exclusion of all sense, in his own inherent rightness.
To fathom the origins of that moral bombast, think back to the early days of Labour in power. The party has won a landslide victory; the prime minister can do no wrong. Perhaps he begins to believe in his own legend; perhaps he starts listening too much to people like Peter Mandelsohn. Then Princess Diana dies and he utters a few lachrymose words which tap expertly into the prevailing mood of emotional incontinence. In April 1998 his diplomacy is paramount in securing the Good Friday peace agreement in Northern Ireland and his amour propre cranks up a few points. There follows the successful military intervention in Kosovo, the rescue of Sierra Leone and even the ousting of the Taliban in Afghanistan post 9/11 and Blair must believe that the crusade to enforce democracy wherever there is intractableness to be not only right and good but his own personal moral duty.
In the case he put before the British people as justification for entering Iraq, as in his role in the peerages mess, there are question marks over his personal probity, but in the matter of deciding that the war was just, or even sensible, it is his personal judgment which should be condemned.
And yet, while the left and swathes of the liberal press take it more or less for granted that the disasters of Iraq are to blame for the continued existence of the global terrorist threat, we now know, for example, that young British Muslims who plotted to kill thousands in the UK were being indoctrinated at mujahideen training camps as early as 1994.
We also know that after 9/11 Blair toured the globe in an attempt not only to drum up support for the US, but also for a Middle East peace plan and the fight against world poverty. In those efforts he can hardly be said to have succeeded, but his greatest failure has lain in not publicly challenging the abuses at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, or using his influence with President Bush to ensure thought was given to how Iraq would be handled after the coup.
Weighed against such debunked grandiosity, the genuine achievements of the Blair government – a decade of economic growth and high employment, the minimum wage – do seem slight. Perhaps he is right to predict that his reputation will recover, but the days of people taking his word for it are long gone.