kenny hodgart

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Blair was an internationalist to the core

This article can also be read at SCMP.COM

It’s telling that when they were lining up to scold Britain in 2013, both Russia and China took aim at its self-image. A small island that no-one pays attention to was the verdict of Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov. “Just an old European country apt for travel and study” chimed the Chinese Communist Party-owned Global Times.

Fear of insignificance has rather haunted vital regions of the British psyche, perhaps for as long as the country has been without imperial possessions. Certainly, as detailed in Lord Chilcot’s voluminous and long-awaited report on his inquiry into Britain’s role in the Iraq War, published earlier this month, it haunted Tony Blair.

The former Prime Minister’s determination to go to war, Chilcot tells us, was underpinned by a sense of anxiety about Britain’s role on the world stage. In particular, he wanted to show that its ‘special relationship’ with the United States mattered; that however much George W Bush might have been prepared to walk a unilateralist line in 2003, deep down America really needed Britain on board.

Chilcot’s report is about five times the length of War and Peace. Unpacking it has therefore served as a distraction from the fallout of Britain’s vote to leave the European Union – a decision that has caused its own surfeit of angst. It has also meant assessments of the freshly-exeunted David Cameron’s Prime Ministerial legacy have jockeyed with renewed interest in the record of a man (Blair) who left office nine years ago.

The trouble with all of this is that Blair’s enemies – and they are legion, on both the left and right of British politics – hardly needed to read what Chilcot had to say about him, because they had already made their minds up as to the extent of his villainy. However nuanced the report, enough of it can be marshalled to succour the notion that the war was fought illegally – and for some that’s all that matters, as though proving the point might make the big bad world more ordered, more rational.

Britain’s forces were ill-equipped and ill-prepared for war in Iraq. Their attempts to hold Basra ended in humiliation. Unfortunately, knowing these things gives us no better idea of how to deal with failing or failed autocratic and authoritarian states in the Middle East.

As far as Blair is concerned, his part in the downfall of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein was at odds with how he approached other despots in the region. In his attempts to seek engagement with Bashar al-Assad in Syria, Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, he understood the trade-off between stability and tolerating intractable regimes. That none of them grew any less intractable led, by and by, to the Arab Spring, and to the civil wars that have followed.

By 2011, however, there was little appetite in the west for new military entanglements. Western powers willed democracy but withheld any meaningful support to see it delivered. In Syria, moderate rebels looked for help where they could get it, only to find themselves engulfed by a millenialist death cult. The result is a murderous stalemate that has caused about 11 million people to flee their homes. The shockwaves from Syria’s collapse are felt in all parts of the Middle East and Europe.

There are those for whom all of this goes back to the invasion of Iraq, for whom Islamic State’s neo-medieval brutality is a phenomenon born entirely of Western fallacy and folly. Neither provable nor completely falsifiable, theirs is a view of the world that will retain its appeal sufficiently enough to ensure, if nothing else, that Tony Blair’s reputation remains benighted, whatever the success of moves now to impeach or prosecute him.

The rueful irony is that for all his foreign policy failures, Blair was an internationalist to the core. His government – reforming, progressive, pluralistic – embraced globalisation and declared Britain more open to the world than ever before. When he stood down, he left it a little less gray and a little more gay than he had found it. Arguably, it’s his vision voters finally rejected with Brexit. Whether it can survive remains to be seen.

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Political books of 2008

This article appeared in The Herald

Many of the books on the politics shelves this year have been overtaken by events. As crisis became crash, the realisation that political economy is to politics what money is to banks was a little late in dawning, but there were at least one or two lonely voices who claimed to have seen the whole thing coming in time to dash off guides to where it had all gone wrong.

Robert Shiller’s The Subprime Solution: How Today’s Global Financial Crisis Happened and What to Do about it (Princeton, £9.95), a short expose of the lax borrowing that led to America becoming the world’s first subprime superpower, falls into that category. Niall Ferguson’s The Ascent of Money (Allen Lane, £25) does too but isn’t just a paean to capitalism’s convulsions: it’s also a thorough-going history of the rise of capital (the foundation, Ferguson believes, of human progress).

For anyone who takes fright at mention of stocks and bonds, securities, bears, bulls and hedge funds, it is essential reading. Ferguson’s lessons are that sooner or later every bubble bursts and that human greed and ignorance, rather than the financial system itself, created the current crisis.

There’s something atavistic about AN Wilson’s Our Times (Hutchinson, £25), an indictment of Britain’s national collapse. Wilson is a cultural conservative, yet there’s nothing rigid or canonical about him: neither the old establishment nor the new, the Britain of aristocratic humbug nor of health and safety tutorials, is spared his vituperation.

Britain’s shared sense of identity and purpose has been undone since the war, he believes, by political elites, mass migration, yoof culture, the demise of organised Christianity and the replacement of trains by cars. He can be contradictory, factually wayward, even scurrilous, but he is always entertaining and always illuminating.

China’s story over the last two decades – thanks to its economic reforms – has been one of rise rather than demise. Philip Pan’s Out of Mao’s Shadow: The Struggle for the Soul of New China (Simon & Schuster, £14.99), challenges utterly, however, the notion that democracy will be the inevitable corollary. In a sobering, saddening study he narrates the stories of men and women, dead or imprisoned, who dared to break rank. Their heroism, obscured and written out of history by the Party, a de facto “mafia”, deserves to be honoured everywhere.

Left-wing commentators lobbed so much mud at Martin Amis this year that even his virtuoso prose style was filed as a charge against him. Too clever, not self-effacing enough, crowed one reviewer, a marginally more coherent remonstrance than the view, expressed by the Marxist academic Terry Eagleton, that one should no more listen to a novelist talking about Islamism than a window cleaner.

The Second Plane (Jonathan Cape, £12.99), a collection of essays and short fiction written in response to 9/11 and all its consequences and bifurcations on the world stage, is a brilliant riposte to that view. Literature, for Amis, is “reason at play”; religions are repositories of “ignorance, reaction and sentimentality.” Islamism (“an ideology superimposed upon a religion – illusion upon illusion”) is a death cult every bit as pernicious as Nazism or Stalinism and the novelist – for whom morality and reason are, in the end, all – has in fact a duty to say something about it.

When confronted by Islamist terror, Amis believes, too many on the liberal left evade the truth: they see not a desolate and implacable ideology but misguided liberators whose cause is fundamentally righteous.

Where Amis’s eloquence is trained on anti-Americanism as an ideology, Simon Schama proffers instead its antidote. His The American Future (Bodley Head, £20) is both a history and a treatise on that most nebulous of constructs, hope. Our television don assumes a triangular perspective – daydreaming about the future as the past looms like a gently stirring branch at the window of the here and now. America’s history of violence is explored in considerable detail: from the obliteration of the Cherokee, to Gettysburg, to Vietnam. The liberty so prized by the early settlers, then, came at a cost to others; on the other hand, the country’s enduring racism and paranoia should be understood as inevitable by-products of being the world’s melting pot.

Convinced of America’s ability to reinvent itself once more in the 21st Century, Schama hoped for an Obama victory, and he got it. In the president-elect he sees a Jeffersonian figure salving the wounds of the bedraggled republic and renewing a sense of “common purpose.” Others tend, similarly, to see what they want to in Obama. One hopes he can be something more than that: his own man.