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Tony Blair

Prime Minister 1997 - 2007

Many prime ministers through history have been crusaders - William Gladstone, Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher, for example. Many others have been pragmatists concentrating on reacting to problems as they came up - Robert Walpole, Benjamin Disraeli, James Callaghan and John Major for example. Some have pretended to be crusaders to keep excitable people happy, when in fact they were pragmatists really - Harold Wilson for instance. Tony Blair is perhaps the most peculiar variant of the two basic species of British prime minister. A religious man he was a natural crusader, but the great political goal he pursued through the 1990s to "modernise" the Labour Party actually consisted of making Labour more sensible, more realistic, and less of a crusading party. It was a beguiling contradiction. In a sense we all need to feel that we are heading towards a goal, a "heroic and predestined conclusion" as Hugo Young puts it in his biography of Margaret Thatcher. And yet life always goes on, and there is no heroic conclusion. Blair's administration consisted of a crusade colliding with a bewildering lack of direction. This strange contradiction was to define Blair's ten year period in office.

 

 

 

Durham Cathedral. This image is copyright free

Tony Blair was born 6th May 1953 in Edinburgh to Leo and Hazel Blair. Leo, a fostered child brought up as a communist in Glasgow, had through determination, hard work and ability established an impressive career. Law studies at evening classes led to lecturing jobs at universities in Edinburgh and Adelaide, Australia. By 1958 Leo was lecturing at Durham University, running a successful law business in Newcastle, and was chairman of the local Conservative Association. His two boys, William and Tony attended the Chorister School next to Durham Cathedral. Then on 4th July 1964 at the age of 40, just as Leo seemed to be about to break into a seriously successful career in Conservative Party politics, he had a stroke. Recovery was slow and incomplete. At the same time Tony's younger sister Sarah was hospitalised for two years with severe juvenile arthritis. Tony seemed to come through these events unscathed, doing well at the Chorister School. In 1966 came a move to Fettes College in Edinburgh, Scotland's most prestigious public school. Here an initially sunny disposition darkened, Blair became a rebel and was nearly expelled in his last year. At Fettes Blair was considered as showing leadership potential which was not harnessed by the school. A fellow pupil described him as becoming "leader of the opposition" (see Blair by Anthony Seldon P14).

 

Leaving school in 1971 a gap year was spent in London, living with friends and trying to make it as a promoter of rock bands. The former Fettes rebel was now seen as a very straight sort of person by the rock musicians he tried to promote. They were probably not surprised when Blair gave up rock music promotion and went to St John's College Oxford in 1972. Once at Oxford Blair was influenced by a charismatic mature student, Peter Thompson, who encouraged in him an idealistic Christian faith, which soon began to find an outlet in politics. In the autumn of 1975, not long after leaving St John's and beginning law training at Lincoln's Inn, Blair joined the Labour Party. He then married fellow law student and political hopeful Cherie Booth in March 1980, the couple moving to Hackney and attending political meetings together. Blair stood for Labour in the safe Conservative seat of Beaconsfield in 1982. Winning was not possible, but he nevertheless made an impression. While sticking to the party line, on nuclear disarmament for example, Blair was clearly hostile to the hard left wing of his party. His crusade against crusading had already begun. Finally in June 1983 Tony Blair became MP for Sedgefield in County Durham, a constituency conveniently close to the area where he spent much of his childhood. It was in Sedgefield that Blair first put his idea of mass party membership into action. The price of membership was cut from £15 to £1, and within two years membership had risen to 2000, four times the average for Labour held constituencies. Meanwhile in Parliament a lot of work was devoted to economic matters, links being arranged with economics specialists in Cambridge. A room was shared with a hard working and promising new MP named Gorden Brown. Peter Mandelson, the Labour Party's communications director spotted Blair's media potential and in May 1985 invited him to appear on Question Time. By 1989 Neil Kinnock appointed Blair as shadow employment secretary. Over the period 1989 - 1990 Blair led successful efforts to get grumpy trade unions to accept the end of the "closed shop" where membership of a union was obligatory. After 1992's general election Blair became shadow home secretary, and continued his effort to moderate the Labour Party. What he would actually do if Labour won power was vague, or "waffle and cliche" in the words of Martin Jacques (see Seldon P148). In the sense of what would be done once power was won, Blair's crusade seemed aimless.

On 12th May 1994 Labour Party leader John Smith died suddenly of a heart attack. Mandelson decided to dedicate his presentational skills to making Blair leader. This caused much tension with Gordon Brown, who felt that the leadership should fall to him. There were many meetings, most famously at the Granita restaurant in Islington on Tuesday 31st May 1994. It is not quite clear what was agreed, even it seems to the people who were there. In general Brown appears to have received assurances that he would be in charge of economic and social policy, and would eventually become prime minister, as long as he stepped aside for Blair.

 

 

Millbank Tower from the London Eye. In 1995 Labour built on its modern image by taking space at the bottom of Millbank as a campaign headquarters.

With this arrangement in place an important step for the end of Labour as the party of revolution could take place. Blair and his modernising allies removed Clause IV from the Labour Party constitution, the commitment to public ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange. This was accepted on 29th April 1995 at Westminster Methodist Central Hall, where Clause IV had been adopted 75 years before. Blair's crusade against the revolutionary element of Labour was going well. And yet still, there was a contradictory feeling that Blair didn't know where he was going. Lack of coherent policy was widely noted. David Marquard remarked on a set of policies with "a curiously makeshift air about it" (Seldon P245). Andrew Rawnsley talks of a "magisterial vacuity" (Servants of the People P5). It has to be said that lack of specific commitment to policy ahead of an election is an old political trick. Being vague on policy makes it much easier to be all things to all people, since people read their own wants into vague messages. Robert Peel used just the same approach as he prepared for office in 1841 (see The Life of Robert Peel From 1830 by Norman Gash P270) . Early Labour leader James Ramsay Macdonald was also adept at making speeches which "were open to any interpretation a person chose to place upon them" (see Keir Hardie by Caroline Benn P229). But Tony Blair raised this political noncommittal trick to an unheard of peak of sophistication. In a state of magisterial vacuity Blair's New Labour Party went on to win the general election of 1st May 1997 with a landslide majority of 197. Roy Jenkins said that Blair's "role in history" was to win that election. If getting elected and being popular were the aim, Blair did a great job. Tony Blair's peak of popularity came at the end of August 1997 with his response to the death of Princess Diana. His speech in Trimdon churchyard, and reading in Westminster Abbey were finely judged performances. A popularity rating of 90% was the highest for any prime minister since records began. It would be wrong to dismiss Blair's focus on getting elected as an intrinsically bad thing. It has long been part of the quasi religious Labour tradition that they were somehow above the murky business of compromise in pursuit of office. As early as 1905 James Ramsay Macdonald was being criticised for making deals with the Liberals. Macdonald's unromantic pursuit of office inspired John Lister, the Independent Labour Party's first treasurer, to write a bitter little poem which included the lines: "Anything! Anything! just to get in/ Anything! Anything! so you may win" (quoted in Keir Hardie by Caroline Benn P177). Inspite of holier than thou Labour mythology, it would be unwise to suggest that a Labour leader has to be less calculating than someone from one of the other parties. Tony Blair simply accepted reality. What he did not accept, perhaps, was that beneath the "modernising" veneer he actually was a crusader himself. This was to become apparent after he was elected.

 

After his long effort to get Labour into government Tony Blair had to work out what he was going to do. With Gordon Brown looking after social and economic policy, Tony Blair was free to concentrate on foreign affairs. And here a man with crusading tendencies had the opportunity to express himself. Initially things seemed to go well. The Good Friday Agreement of April 1998 created a Northern Ireland assembly. An Irish north/south council was put in place to improve cross border cooperation. The Irish government in Dublin agreed to amend its claim to Ulster, and a range of policies were agreed on decommissioning of arms, release of prisoners, equality and policing. This was an historic agreement. Blair certainly felt that the Good Friday Agreement was his achievement in many ways, and getting associated with success is certainly a feature of the political game. In reality the economic and social changes which led to a more stable situation in Ireland had begun in the early 1990s. People in Northern Ireland were simply becoming better off, and prosperity in general was tending to bring peace. Referring to the Irish situation of the early 1990s, Anthony Seldon says in his book on John Major: "...economic changes in the North were transforming the prospects for catholics in Londonderry and even Belfast. Prosperity meant both were becoming far less propitious hotbeds for hard-line terrorists" (Major, A Political Life Seldon P418). Inspite of all the late night arguing amongst government officials it could be said that Ireland was simply ready for the Good Friday Agreement; and according to Seldon it might even be true that when Blair arrived at the talks he disrupted progress somewhat: "His arrival at Stormont was ultimately decisive. It was also controversial on the British side. Some Northern Ireland officials believed his presence resulted in concessions being made unnecessarily because he had insufficient command of the detail" (Blair Seldon P361).

While things went well in Northern Ireland, Blair's campaign in Kosovo in 1999 was a disaster. Yugoslav president Milosevic was conducting ethnic cleansing operations in Kosovo. Blair was a leading figure in pushing for NATO air strikes against him, which began on 24th March 1999. These strikes were largely ineffectual, helping Milosevic win support and causing civilian casualties. Easter weekend, Friday 2th April to Monday 5th April was a low point. Blair said that this was the worst time in his career. Comparisons were made with Anthony Eden's disastrous attempted defense of the Suez Canal in 1956. Rather than backing off, Blair, using language of moral crusade, pushed for ground troops to go in. This showed Blair as an idealist who in the opinion of respected commentators, was worryingly misled. As Anthony Seldon writes: "In mid-May in a moment of hubris, he compared himself to Gladstone, the high moralist of late Victorian politics, about whom he knew little" (Seldon P401). Ironically Gladstone, another religiously inspired prime minister, has also been criticised for simplifying the Balkan situation. In 1876 he wrote The Bulgarian Horrors and the Question of the East, an "emotional and mischievous" booklet according to Disraeli's biographer Stanley Weintraub. Gladstone tried to make Turkey into a clear cut enemy in 1876, just as Blair tried to make Milosevic into a clear cut enemy in 1999. But in the Balkans it was difficult to tell bad guys from good guys. Douglas Hurd, foreign secretary to John Major had talked despairingly of only being able to create a "level killing field" in the Balkans (Major, A Political Life P373). Seldon says: "Since 1999 some 200,000 refugees have left Kosovo, some Serbian Kosovans have left of their own volition, but others have been driven out by the very people the humanitarian action in 1999 was designed to protect" (Blair P405). Milosevic was eventually ousted by his own people in 2000.

 

All of the misguided idealism displayed in policies regarding Kosovo in 1999 was a practice run for the most controversial decision of Tony Blair's time as prime minister. Following terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers in New York during September 2001, feverish attempts were made to find an enemy to engage with. This led to claims that Iraq was involved in terrorist attacks, and was developing "weapons of mass destruction". Intelligence was misread, and allegations were made by the BBC that there was wilful distortion to make the case for war more compelling. Although the Hutton enquiry of 2004 cleared the government of distorting intelligence, doubts have continued, and another enquiry was called in 2010. So it was on the basis of disputed information that the U.S. administration of George W. Bush pressured Britain to join an invasion of Iraq, even though United Nations agreement had not been obtained. After operations began on 20th March 2003 it quickly became apparent that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction, and on the basis of illusory threats British troops were immured in Iraq until their final withdrawal in April 2009. With the basis of the war in Iraq shown to be a sham, Blair justified his actions in a number of ways. There was a concerted attempt to change the reason of the invasion from one of defending against possible attack to an idealistic crusade against an evil dictator. The invasion it was claimed, was carried out with the best of intentions, and noble motivations excused any ensuing disasters. In answering this justification, David Runciman, a lecturer in politics at Cambridge University, quotes Max Weber, who famously demolished the idea that in politics noble motivations lead to good outcomes. It is simply a mistake "to believe that a Christian ethic, and the benign categories of religious thought would possibly apply to the world of politics" (The Politics of Good Intentions P37). There is much trouble in the world, and with the best of intentions it is impossible to believe that sending in the British Army will sort it all out. A second and unacknowledged justification for invasion could have been the judgment that it was in Britain's interests to side with the world's most powerful country, even if the actions of that country were questionable. But with this argument in mind it should be remembered that in the 1960s America also pressured Britain to join its war in Vietnam. Britain at the time required American help to prop up the value of the pound. Even so prime minister Harold Wilson still managed to resist American pressure and got away with doing no more than having his foreign secretary make a few speeches in support of the Vietnam war.

The final and most important justification for the Iraq invasion was a continued sense of terrorist threat. In 2004 in a speech at his Sedgefield constituency Blair claimed that terrorism posed an "existential threat" to Britain, that is a threat to our existence, like an asteroid impact. There are two ways you could look at this. First like Blair you could look to the future and claim that if religious extremists were to get their hands on nuclear weapons they would not hesitate to use them against the West - which given the example of the attack on the World Trade Centre in September 2001 seemed a reasonable argument. Or you could suggest that the supposed threat was overplayed, after western leaders fell into the hands of a brutal media manipulator. Robert Harris, for example, thinks that following the World Trade Centre attack the West has "erected this enormous monster of Islamic fundamentalism. We've almost created it out of our own paranoia" (Talking Books 25th September 2010). From this point of view Tony Blair was seduced by Bin Laden, to become a tool of paranoia. President Bush and Prime Minister Blair threw away many lives and a fortune on an enemy which tricked them into the sacrifice. The threat of religious terrorism was diffuse, whereas Bush and Blair tried to turn it into a particular country they could invade and subdue. Afghanistan was clearly a country in which Bin Laden was operating, and justification for the Afghanistan invasion is clearer following the 9/11 attacks. But Iraq was something of a mirage. Blair claimed that even if the threat from Iraq turned out to be a mirage, the threat could have become real in the future. As always things get very difficult when you talk about possible threats or potential outcomes, since we cannot know what will happen. It is impossible to know the outcome of an alternative course of action to the one taken. Therefore, what might happen can be used to justify virtually anything.

In 2006 Blair's predecessor John Major was one of the first to call for an investigation into the decision to invade Iraq. The invasion had gone ahead contrary to international law, which required UN agreement before any action took place. It was the crusading side of Tony Blair which drove the decision to invade without this agreement. The best comparison is perhaps with another crusader, Oliver Cromwell, who in the seventeenth century also decided that he didn't have to take any notice of the law. Charles I had been defeated, and Parliament had been heavily manipulated by ejecting a majority of MPs who did not agree with government decisions. Against a background of much legal arguing Cromwell and his colleagues overrode the law and had Charles I executed. As Bishop Burnet observed at the time: "They believed there were great occasions in which some men were called to great services, in the doing of which they were excused from the common rules of morality."

But Burnet was cautious on the consequences of such an approach. "It is very obvious how far all justice... may be laid aside on this pretense by every bold enthusiast" (quoted in Cromwell, Our Chief Of Men by Antonia Fraser P 285). It is ironic that the defining event of Blair's term, the decision to invade Iraq, should be so reminiscent of a crusade making questionable means justify a supposedly glorious end. Blair spent his political life taking the Labour Party out of the hands of "bold enthusiasts". It seems clear that Blair always remained a bold enthusiast himself.

Even though Labour won the general election of 2005, their majority was much reduced, to 66. With his popularity in decline, the leadership of Labour, and the post of prime minister was finally handed over to Gordon Brown at a conference in Manchester on 27th June 2007. Tony Blair went on to become a peace envoy in the Middle East. This might seem an ironic appointment. Watching Blair's interviews, he seemed to believe that his actions in Iraq will make sense retrospectively if events in the Middle East bear out his predictions of existential threats on the West. Certainly when his biography A Journey was published in September 2010, television interviews were largely dedicated to playing up the continuing threat to the West posed by extremists in the Middle East. As a peace envoy Blair was always going to be in a difficult situation. He will only be able to make sense of the most momentous decisions of his professional life if things do not go well in his job as a peace envoy.

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