May 16, 2007

A relatively historic occasion

Filed under: Politics — duncan @ 7:05 pm

David Milliband had the soundbite of the hour. “It wasn’t tears and huge emotion but you felt you were there at a relatively historic occasion.” In the hours before the announcement, Westminster was swept with rumours that Blair was planning something dramatic: hara-kiri on the steps of Downing Street; a descent into central Baghdad strapped to a cruise missile; a suicide bombing in the war against terror. But in the event, he gave an emotional and dignified speech. Typical Blair. Spinning to the end.

“Go back to 1997. Think back. No, really, think back.” Christ. I can hardly bear to. It really did seem like a new dawn. I was seventeen. I’d never known a Labour government. I remembered the euphoria in my primary school when Thatcher fell from power. Classes stopped completely. Adults I’d scarcely seen smile before were suddenly overcome with childlike ebullience and joy. Our teacher wheeled a television into the classroom and sat entranced, while we fidgeted and tried to figure out what was going on. The adults’ faces expressed a deep wonder and happiness; something had been released inside them. Thatcher’s tearful exit was an objective correlative to Hope.

1997 was like that. Only with Blair. For years I was terribly snappy when people complained about spin. If you were up against the Sun and the Daily Mail, I felt, any degree of media manipulation was justified. The people who complained about Alistair Campbell were (often) the very people who would turn their backs on even the mildest progressive politics if they weren’t spoon-fed treacle. Let the treacle flow. Roy Jenkins said that Blair’s historic role was to carry a priceless vase along a crowded, polished corridor. Yes! I thought. Don’t let the bastards knock you down.

What can I say? I feel embarrassed writing it. Like Rick, who came to Casablanca for the waters, I was misinformed. Blair got the vase to Downing street. But the vase was empty. The vase carried residues of hemlock. Oh, I don’t know enough, I haven’t thought enough, to say anything worthwhile about Blair’s achievements. A few dumb thoughts, in lieu of a careful consideration of all those things I still don’t understand.

1) Of course those early critics of spin were right. When Labour got to power, Blair simply didn’t have any policies. He hadn’t given any thought to how to govern – he believed his decency, of which he was confident, would see him through. But government bureaucracies can’t run on good intentions, or on their corporeal instantiation, performance targets. As early as 1999 Philip Gould, of all people, was warning Blair that it wasn’t enough to be in power: he had to actually do something. (“We have got our political strategy wrong… We were too late with the NHS… a whole raft of often confusing and abstract third way messages…”) But Blair didn’t know he wasn’t doing anything. One winces when reading of the ‘Third Way’ seminars he held with Clinton and his entourage. Blair had only one properly thought through long term goal: to win elections. Well, he managed that. But he also wanted to make Labour the natural party of government. The first of Blair’s broken promises was his deal with Paddy Ashdown to reform the voting system. The most immediate consequence of Blair’s landside was that it removed all incentive for him to seek to change Britain’s electoral arithmetic.

2) Then, of course, when Blair did formulate some concrete policies, they left something to be desired. We now know that Blair’s doctrine of liberal interventionism, articulated in his rapturously received address at the Chicago Economic Club, was knocked out in a couple of days by the academic Lawrence Freedman. And, of course, its easy to see Kosovo in the light of what came afterward. I know fuck all. I should have read the papers. I should have read my history. (I feel like the character in the Dan Rhodes novel, who “knew all there was to know about the terrible things that were happening in what had once been Yugoslavia… except, now he came to think of it, who had been fighting whom, who was on which side, what the sides were, which ethnicities were being cleansed, and what the various wars had all been about.”) I have nothing to contribute. Except gossip, of course. The other day I was flicking through Christopher Meyer’s memoirs. He recounts how shaken Blair was by Clinton’s uncertainty; as if, Meyer says, Blair hadn’t thought through the possibility that his persuasive powers could fail.

3) It may be monstrous to focus on the domestic implications of Iraq, and not the conflict itself. But from that limited perspective alone, the tragedy is that Blair shredded his and his party’s popularity for a cause that did not even demand his support. (America would have gone to war anyway, come what may.) Possessing more political capital than any other British leader in memory, for the first years of his premiership Blair refused to spend it, rejecting any policy that carried even a whiff of unpopularity. Then he gambled it all – on Iraq. Think of the opportunity-cost of that choice. Think of what Blair could have achieved, if he had been willing to be hated for something worthwhile.

4) And then, of course, inevitably, Iraq itself. Blair’s chief legacy. It’s all been said before; but still more words. This week’s Economist reports on a survey conducted by the Pentagon’s mental-health advisory team last September. 36% of American soldiers and 39% of Marines believe that torture should be allowed to extract important information about insurgents. “Less than half (47% of soldiers and 38% of marines) felt that con-combatants should be treated with dignity and respect, as required by the Geneva Conventions.” And this is from Blair’s Sedgefield speech: “Removing Saddam and his sons from power, as with removing the Taleban, was over with relative ease. But the blowback [sic] since, from global terrorism and those elements that support it, has been fierce and unrelenting and costly. For many, it simply isn’t and can’t be worth it. For me, I think we must see it through. They, the terrorists, who threaten us here and round the world, will never give up if we give up.”

Yes, one more time: as if the war in Iraq was ever about terrorism. As if the terrorism in Iraq now (so much created by coalition incompetence and brutality) can be understood in the terms of Blair’s ‘war on terror’. Coalition forces are not fighting ‘terror’ there; they are aggressors participating in a civil war that we ourselves ignited. How can Blair – who has, elsewhere, done as much as anyone to draw the violence from a historical conflict, making power sharing possible for two religious communities bitterly at odds, one the other’s historical oppressor – how can Blair commit such blunders? How can he commit such crimes?

I know fuck all. (As is clear). I don’t know what to make of Blair – beyond the obvious failures and stupidities, weaknesses and evils. But (god help me) I think back (“no, really, think back”) to 1997; I look forward to the inevitable Cameron government. (Top hats in every city centre; a tax on children born to single mothers.) And (oh christ) I think that, though Blair was and is in thrall to money – though Blairism was, as much as anything, about the consolidation of the Thatcherite ethos of greed is good… for all that, Blair’s government was more redistributive than any conceivable conservative alternative.

If only things could get better.

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