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Thursday, May 10, 2007 

The great obfuscator.

Can it really be true that some are paying tribute to Blair by calling him "the great communicator"? Is Brian Brivati being deadly serious and not playing CiF for fools by praising him for the "humanitarianism" of his foreign policy? Can Martin Kettle get any more sycophantic without openly weeping about the political death of our lord and saviour, Anthony Charles Lynton Blair?

To call the coverage of Blair's end of the beginning of his exit overblown would be to do a disservice to those who specialise in going over the top: Muse and My Chemical Romance could learn lessons
from the hysterical response of the BBC, who seem to think that the man's died rather than announced that, err, he's still going to be around for the best part of another 2 months.

The thing is, plenty of us have been waiting for this moment for the last two to three years. It was always going to be an anti-climax. However much we dislike it, Blair has more or less been able to chose when he leaves and on what terms. He destroyed any plot there was last year, and has managed to survive for far longer than he should have been allowed to, due both to the weakness of his opponents and the astonishing way that parts of the media fought tooth and claw to make sure that he stayed put. It was this Faustian pact with the Murdoch media that helped him stay in Downing Street while also helping to ensure that he was loathed by vast parts of the party which he has never loved and which will never love him back. If in 1992 it was the Sun wot won it, in 2007 it was the Sun wot kept Blair there.

Handily enough, Blair's "farewell" speech in places sums up all that has always been wrong with the man. His hatred of ideology, the emptiness of the "third way", comes shining through in his analysis of Britain as he was growing up and coming towards his "political maturity":

And all of that was curiously symbolised, you know, in the politics of the time. You had choices. You stood for individual aspiration and getting on in life, or for social compassion and helping others. You were liberal in your values, or conservative. You believed in the power of the state, or the efforts of the individual. Spending more money on the public realm was the answer, or it was the problem. And none of it made sense to me. It was 20th century ideology in a world approaching a new Millennium.

And yet Blair was elected on the back of
"the longest suicide note in history". If none of Labour's 1983 manifesto made any sense to him, why on earth was he even a member of the party, let alone standing to represent both it and the people? Did he believe in it then, before this Damascene conversion to seeing the light and that the path to the light was paved with the bricks stamped with New Labour? Was he seeking power for power's sake, or was he back then fighting for social compassion and helping others? As has been pointed out, Blair's analysis is deeply flawed in any case: this isn't a reflection of Britain in the 1980s, the miner's strike, Greenham Common and the poll tax riots, when greed was officially good and when social unrest and misery reached their highest level until err, now, this is a vision of 1980s America, and the ideological battles there, not the ones that scarred and continue to scar Europe.

Most of what follows is the long listing of Labour's great achievements, how schools no longer have outside privies, how the NHS has successfully defeated cholera and how there's now a shiny 42" plasma screen in every home, but he does finally get to what is and always has been his biggest personal failing:

And in time you realise that putting the country first doesn't mean doing the right thing according to conventional wisdom, or the prevailing consensus or the latest snapshot of opinion. It means doing what you genuinely believe to be right. That your duty as prime minister is to act according to your conviction.

Except we know full well that the other members of his government have had to push through policies which they themselves regard as beneath contempt. That this is the government which can't do anything without first getting in a focus group, and that when it does do something of its own initative it does it so cack-handedly that you wish they had got in one of this soul-destroying groups of aspirational, middle England voters to give the thumbs up or down in the first place. It's only when he's been so utterly certain of himself, believing in his own powers of persuasion and conviction that he's rammed through policies with no thought for their consequences, his party or anyone at all. This happened over Iraq, it happened over trust schools, foundation hospitals, tutition fees and 90 days detention without charge. In his next paragraph he attempts to ridicule the accusation often made that he on these occasions he's acted like someone with messianic zeal, yet the evidence is there for all to see in this very statement. When he was defeated over 90 days, it wasn't a disaster because he knew he was right. History will judge him well, because he knows he was right, even it means he has to delude himself for the rest of his days.

And then came the utterly unanticipated and dramatic - September 11 2001, and the death of 3,000 or more on the streets of New York. And I decided we should stand shoulder to shoulder with our oldest ally. And I did so out of belief. And so Afghanistan, and then Iraq, the latter bitterly controversial. And removing Saddam and his sons from power, as with removing the Taliban, was done with relative ease - but the blowback since, in global terrorism and those elements that support it, has been fierce and unrelenting and costly. And for many, it simply isn't and can't be worth it.

For me, I think we must see it through. The terrorists who threaten us around the world will never give up if we give up. It is a test of will and belief, and we can't fail it.

See, the disaster in Iraq isn't our fault for invading it on a tissue of lies and distortions, it's all down to the evil terrorists and those that support them. It isn't down to our complete lack of ability to influence both US policy, which did more than anything to create the necessary environment for the insurgency, it's their fault for daring to attack a liberating force that is bringing democracy down the barrel of a gun. Blair did it, and he looked upon it, and he saw it was good. His belief is that it was right is all that matters. Nevermind that beliefs can be wrong; he had the best intentions at heart, and who can possibly condemn him for that?

We may as well then have a quick look at his assumed legacy. Relative peace in Northern Ireland, started by John Major, but Blair does deserve credit for carrying it through to the end, even though he ignored the role of Mo Mowlam, but then she's dead, so who cares? The introduction of the minimum wage,
which as Paul Linford points out, Blair hated, but did anyway. It still remains below a living wage. The introduction of the Human Rights Act, which we know full well the Blairites wish they'd never done, and the Freedom of Information Act, which they're trying to neuter. Despite all the veiled attempts at redistribution, through tax credits, which are a failure and hugely wasteful, however Polly Toynbee tries to spin them, or the tax system itself, inequality is actually worse now than it was at times under Thatcher. The prison system is hopelessly overcrowded, filled with the mentally ill, the drug addicted, vulnerable women and others who would be better doing community sentences than being locked up, as a result of Labour being tough on crime and forgetting entirely about the causes in order to appease the ever reactionary tabloids, even though crime is now at a historic low.

Then there's the emergence of a surveillance state,
John Reid choosing today of all days to write on CiF about ID cards are going to enrich and protect our lives, even though they're going to cost at least another £400m. The most CCTV cameras in the world, the removal of the right to protest within a mile of parliament, the police more powerful and influential than ever before, despite all the moaning that they can't do anything without filling in a form. In the name of the war on terror, we've been complicit in the transporting of suspects to places where they can be tortured, we're prepared to deport people back to their country of origin on the basis of a piece of paper which says they won't be mistreated, honest, and for a while we even suspended habeas corpus. Blair has led us into four separate wars, only one of which can be called truly successful. His government lied and broke international law by taking part in a illegal war which has killed at the very least 100,000 Iraqis, and out of a desire to prove that they hadn't done what he now know full they did do, hounded a man to his death.

Out of all of this, apart from Iraq, I think Blair will eventually be remembered for two things, both connected. The mendacity of his government has made the public so cynical that politics may well have to be completely rebuilt, from the bottom up. This will be an uphill struggle because in destroying trust in government, he's at the same time helped convince vast parts of the media, if not the public, that ideology is dead, that long-held principled beliefs, whether they be on the right or the left of the political spectrum, are something to be suspicious of and that indulging in them will only alienate the modern, aspirational voter who just wants good public services and there not to be any pesky teenagers, old people or beggars on the street when they walk down it. The inevitable result of this enduring vacuity at the heart of modern politics? Hazel Blears.

For all his great assumed powers of communication, for his ability to persuade, convince and speak for the people, if we're to believe a breathless Nick Robinson, Blair is actually the great obfuscater. He wants to have his cake and eat it. He doesn't enlighten, he aims to confuse. He isn't responsible, yet he's right. He's right because he believes he was right. And if you don't like it, well, you're entitled to your opinion. But you're wrong.

Related posts:
Blairwatch - Sic Transit Gloria Mundi
Mr Eugenides - The party's over
Blood & Treasure - first rough draft


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