News from Nowhere: Lowering the Tone
Tony Blair has always been, as they say, a ‘Marmite’ figure: some people love him, while a large group loathes him and everything he represents. This polarization of perspectives is hardly unusual in contemporary British politics.
On the first day of 2022, the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair was formally admitted to the Order of the Garter, the most prestigious and exclusive honour that the Queen of England can confer upon any of her subjects, and thereby became Sir Tony Blair, knight of the realm.
Within a few days of his accession to this noble order, more than half a million people had signed a petition to demand the withdrawal of this honour from the newly knighted Mr. Blair. By the end of the week, it had reached a million signatories. The story hit the press and social media like wildfire. This was suddenly starting to look like it was going to be the most disputed Tony Award since Lin-Manuel Miranda was overlooked for the Broadway gong for his performance in Hamilton.
The online petition was initially headed with a particularly diabolical photograph of the former Prime Minister, a picture that resembled nothing less sinister than a cross between the Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and the Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz. Those with memories long enough to recall the ‘demon eyes’ poster designed by the Tories to discredit the once personable Mr. Blair, ahead of the election which swept him to power in 1997, will have to admit that this old smear campaign would have paled in terror before the horrific image deployed to lead this particular petition. This tactic may be thought to have taken the demonization of one’s political opponents to a whole new level of viciousness: the Blair Witch Project, we might say. We may observe, however, that such unnecessary personal attacks sadly tend to lower the tone of what should be a more serious and focused debate. It may be that the petition’s organizer was alerted to this concern: after several days, the original picture was replaced by a rather less inflammatory image.
The text of the petition itself primarily argued its case on the grounds that Tony Blair ‘was personally responsible for causing the death of countless innocent, civilian lives and servicemen in various conflicts’ and should therefore ‘be held accountable for war crimes’. Despite its rather eccentric sentence construction, this would appear most obviously to refer to Britain’s involvement in the Iraq War, a stain on the nation’s history which the UK government’s own inquiry found to have lacked proper legal justification and geopolitical strategy. This, for many people, would have been more than enough. This is where the author of the document might most sensibly have stopped.
However, the petition goes on to declare that Blair ‘caused irreparable damage to both the constitution of the United Kingdom and to the very fabric of the nation’s society’. This may relate to the Blair government’s project to devolve democratic authority to the regions of the UK, and specifically to establish elected assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (the last of these, of course, being essential to the success of the Irish peace process). It may also be alluding to the constitutional reform of the House of Lords, and in particular to the phasing out the parliamentary powers and direct legislative influence enjoyed by hereditary peers.
This petition was initiated by a Scotsman who describes himself on the change.org website as ‘just a very unhappy citizen of the United Kingdom’. It was one of several similar petitions that appeared on that site within the space of a few days, all aimed at rescinding Mr. Blair’s honour. Another (a somewhat less popular one) accused him of selling off police and fire stations, surrendering British sovereignty to the European Union, introducing human rights legislation so extreme that it decriminalized crime itself, and generally hating ‘the British public and the British way of life’. Another blamed him for permitting ‘uncontrolled mass migration’ and committing ‘crimes against the English people’. Yet another such petition accused Blair of leading ‘the UK to the brink of economic collapse’ (apparently unaware that the global economic crisis which followed his term in office was provoked by the collapse of American subprime mortgage markets, an event that was entirely independent of Blair’s economic policies). It also blamed him for the introduction of higher education tuition fees. (It is true that his administration introduced such fees, but it is also the case that the level of these fees was tripled in 2010 by an incoming Conservative government.) It also proposed that ‘Tony Blair’s comments over the last 2 years of Covid pandemic have been divisive and discriminatory’, although it neglected to explain exactly how this was so.
On 4 January, the BBC noted that Mr. Scott’s original petition had ‘received enthusiastic backing on social media from left-wing activists’. In fact, its sentiments had been championed by a wide range of highly disparate parties, including (alongside anti-war campaigners) zealous Brexiteers, nationalists and unionists, as well as those in the right-wing tabloid press who, like the Daily Mail, really seemed to relish the ‘disgust’ and ‘fury’ ignited by the news of Blair’s elevation.
Meanwhile, the Labour Party’s latest leader, Sir Keir Starmer, while admitting that the Iraq War remains a highly controversial issue, defended Blair’s right to the honour: ‘Tony Blair was a very successful Prime Minister of this country and made a huge difference to the lives of millions of people’. Sir Keir is notoriously averse to saying anything that might cause offence or notoriety, and therefore very often seems to prefer avoiding expressing opinions of any substance whatsoever. This was certainly a classic example of his capacity to say virtually nothing at all. Various members of the Conservative government also weighed in to support the awarding of Mr. Blair’s knighthood, doubtless aware that their approval wouldn’t do his reputation any good in his own party’s heartlands.
Tony Blair has always been, as they say, a ‘Marmite’ figure: some people love him, others (admittedly, an increasingly large number of others) loathe him and everything they believe he represents. This polarization of perspectives is hardly unusual in contemporary British politics. In this case, on the one hand, figures of the establishment – of varying political persuasions – have endorsed Her Majesty’s right to acknowledge a highly influential ex-premier’s achievements and impacts. On the other hand, an apparently random coalition of discontents has loudly opposed this recognition. The problem with both groups is that their motivations seem so automatic and yet so disparate that they lack very much in the way of rational coherence.
The former cohort – the confederation of traditionalists – simply adopts the received wisdom that retired leaders deserve the respect that such titles and awards confer, regardless of their ostensible transgressions both during and since their periods in office. Conversely, the arguments of the latter group – the league of iconoclasts – feel like they would have made rather more consistent sense if they had focused exclusively on the Iraq War: indeed, one imagines that they would have encountered minimal dissent on that particular point.
Instead, however, they fragmented their appeal by attempting to broaden it. Rather than invoking only the Iraq War, they elected to chastise Blair’s willingness to involve Britain in other conflicts whose justifications might seem more commonly understood (if not always accepted): the NATO attempt to prevent genocide in Kosovo, and the NATO retaliation against Taliban support for the perpetrators of the attacks of 9/11. They also sought to hold Blair to account for a series of constitutional reforms and for the introduction of human rights laws which many progressives would nevertheless hail as very significant achievements. In addition, they denounced him for his role in the dilution of an array of public sector institutions through the introduction of private sector partnerships, although it remains the case that (following Blair’s proof of the viability of this principle) it was subsequent Tory administrations which substantially contributed to the acceleration of these developments.
The entrenched backing of Tony Blair’s knighthood is unconvincing because it is so unthinkingly monolithic. The rigid opposition to his knighthood is similarly unconvincing, but for entirely the opposite reasons: because it resembles such an incoherent and illogical mess. This tends to be the trouble with most modes of radicalism: they grow so wedded to the idiosyncrasies of their own ideological roots that they come to eschew the spirit of compromise which is so essential to the sustainability of political alignments and alliances.
Anti-establishment positions lack the adhesive of political pragmatism that embeds established and institutional authority. Anarchists, in short, are woefully short of organizational discipline. It is that confusion, that lack of solidarity and that moral intransigence which put the forces of revolutionary change at a distinct disadvantage in their relentless struggles with established power.
By contrast, Tony Blair’s own greatest talent and his greatest success has lain in his pragmatic ability, unfettered by the constraints of ideological convictions, to reconcile and to finesse highly divergent positions into clear, simple and attractive messaging. It was what allowed him to mould his party into one which espoused a centrist (or so-called ‘third-way’) mode of socialism, one more akin to social justice and social democracy movements than to unfettered redistributionism. This was the new iteration of the Labour Party that in the 1990s they called ‘New Labour’.
Blair’s watered-down version of progressive politics propelled his party to three consecutive electoral victories. He is the only Labour leader ever to have managed that. Indeed, he is the only living Labour leader to have won a general election. That is perhaps what his leftist critics find hardest to take: the fact that, for the most part, his compromises worked.
It was Blair’s opportunistic genius that emboldened him to site his vision of a new Britain at the core of that coalescence of popular culture known at the time as Cool Britannia. Yet it was also what led him towards that amalgam of half-truths that comprised the dossier of disinformation on which Britain built its case to go to war with Saddam Hussein.
Blair’s detractors often fail to see the complexity and ambiguity of the man. Like everyone else, he encompasses a mass of contradictions. He was responsible for leading the UK into the most appallingly unjustified conflict in Iraq; but his contributions were also key to establishing peace on the island of Ireland, and to the battle against ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. He overturned centuries-old bastions of metropolitan privilege and power; yet he is regarded by many reasonable people as a conservative champion of the institutions and traditions of London’s monied establishment. His government invested heavily in public services, but also very often enabled the concentration of extreme wealth.
His enemies mostly choose to ignore the nuances of the Blair paradox; they simply see the man in black and white. Mr. Blair himself has always, however, inhabited the greyer areas of public life. Some would call them the realms of constructive ambiguity; others would call them the ethical shadows.
So, perhaps, in seeking a reasonable response to the news of Mr. Blair’s knighthood, we might ourselves do well to avoid those murkier areas and try to stick to what we may accept as the facts of the situation. Whatever his motives may have been, Tony Blair led (or misled) his country into an unjust war on the basis of a set of falsehoods, a conflict whose conditions and consequences will continue to resonate to Britain’s shame for centuries to come. Let that be enough. To muddy the waters of the moral indictment against Mr. Blair with relatively petty domestic concerns is to belittle and insult the memories of those countless souls whose lives his administration’s rash actions destroyed, blighted and scarred. And to afford him the highest honour that his nation can bestow is, of course, to do precisely the same.