A Sociological Autobiography: 42 – Tony Bliar

The boy who was to give the phrase ‘war games’ a cruel new resonance was born on 6 May 1953, the second son of Leo and Hazel Blair. His family background was modest but aspiring. Fettes and Oxford delivered him to party politics via a brief flirtation with the rock industry. He married Cherie Booth in 1980 and they went on to have four children. Diverting factoid: Leo, the youngest, was the first (legitimate) child born to a serving prime minister in over 150 years (since Francis Russell was born to Lord John Russell in 1949). Blair became MP for Sedgefield in 1983 and represented this constituency until 2007, when he quit to fill his coffers.

The turning point in his political fortunes was the premature and unexpected death of Labour leader John Smith in 1994. Blair and Brown, closer then than since, shared an office at the House of Commons. Both viable candidates to replace Smith, Brown clearly judged himself more of a front-runner than Blair. The polls, however, suggested otherwise and gave the Blair camp the momentum they needed. Was there a Blair-Brown ‘pact’ (incorporating an agreement that they would not stand against each other, and maybe more)? Well, only they know the details. For my part, I have never understood, other than sociologically that is, how and why individuals in the Labour Party come to elevate their personal ambitions over the effectiveness of the labour movement they invariably insist they entered the political arena to serve.

I was as relieved as many others when Blair led Labour to victory in 1997, closing down the Thatcher/Major era. We will govern ‘from the radical centre’, he had promised in the election run-up. ‘We are a left of centre party, pursuing economic prosperity and social justice as partners and not as opposites’, he announced in 2001. This is not the place for a detailed assessment of pros and cons, of promises kept and promises broken. In The Verdict, Toynbee and Walker provide just such account. He raised taxes; introduced a national minimum wage; kept much of Thatcher’s anti-union legislation; promoted new rights for gay people; integrated Britain more closely with the EU; brought in market-based reforms in education and health; introduced student fees; and so on. Perhaps his main achievement was his contribution to the Northern Ireland Peace Process by helping negotiate the Good Friday Agreement.

New Labour only looks tolerable, in my view, when compared to Tory neo-liberalism before and, particularly, since. The drift to the right of putative socialist regimes since the 2nd world war has been marked and alarming: just compare the Atlee programme with that of Wilson/Callaghan and subsequently Blair/Brown. A similar drift has occurred in the USA and elsewhere: compare Kennedy/Johnson with Clinton and now Obama.

I have a deal less sympathy for Blair than for Thatcher. With Thatcher you got what you voted for (she did, or tried to do, just what it said on the tin). Not so with ‘all-things-to-all-people’ Tony Blair. He was a consummate actor and so identified with the part he was playing at any given time that he drew audiences in: it ended in hubris of course (as David Owen has argued in a short book).

But he was also a killer. Closely allied with American Republicans and right-wing EU leaders (Berlusconi, Merkel, and later Sarkosy), he promoted an activist philosophy of ‘interventionism’. In his first five years in office Blair ordered British troops into battle five times (Iraq in 1998 and 2003, Kosovo in 1999, Sierra Leone in 2000 and Afghanistan in 2001), more than any other prime minister in British history. Like an animal that has tasted blood, he developed an appetite for it, the blood of others that is.

It was the prospect of a second excursion into Iraq – championed on a false prospectus, immoral, illegal and politically inept – that lit a flame in the transnational public sphere. On 3 February 2003 the Scamblers were among the million plus who took to the London streets heading for Hyde Park (the police reckoned 750,000, the organizers 2-3 million). Organized by the ‘Stop the War Coalition’, it was Britain’s largest ever protest. Worldwide, an estimated 6-11 million marched in 600 cities (the biggest gathering of 3 million taking place in Rome). ‘No War on Iraq’ was the slogan. In the face of Blair’s ‘trust me’ WMD theatrics, the riposte was stunningly simple: ‘don’t tell us we don’t understand, just don’t do it!’ He nearly resigned apparently. Certainly Robin Cook found a new eloquence and 139 of his own MPs voted against him. But in the end he stayed: and as George W (‘don’t misunderestimate me’) Bush’s poodle, he traipsed behind his master to join the ranks of the war criminals. Estimates of war-related deaths in Iraq are imprecise, for obvious reasons; but a general consensus has emerged around a figure of half a million and rising. And look at this country now! Yet still our smug, safe Catholic war-chief of an ex-prime minister insists he was right all along. Nor is it easy to forgive those who went into the lobby with him, most of whom have since repented or found it politically expedient to pretend they have. We said in 2003: ‘just don’t do it!’

If Blair will go down in history primarily for his propensity to sacrifice hundreds of thousands of anonymous ‘foreigners’ in Iraq, a crime that poets like Rosen speak of in hushed tones, he will also be remembered for his greed. Mass homicide and greed are perhaps familiar bedfellows. There seem to be few sources of income he is unwilling to tap, from investment banks like JPMorgan Chase to dubious regimes like Nazarbayev’s in Khazakstan. ‘Tony Blair Associates’ hoovers in money. Beckett, Hencke and Kochan estimate in their Blair Inc: The Man Behind the Mask, published in March 2015, that he has amassed a personal fortune of over $90 million and a property portfolio worth $37.5 million in the eight years since he left office. Blair tells a different story but he has run seriously short of people willing to listen.

Some leader of a labour movement!

 

 

 

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