From the Australian
By Nick Cohen
EARLIER this month a small and sinister act of intimidation took place in central London. Tony Blair was due to sign copies of his autobiography at the Waterstone’s bookstore in Piccadilly. In the normal way of things, readers would have shaken his hand and bought an autographed copy to show their friends. Blair’s readers could not meet him, however. Fear of violence stopped the book-reading public going to a shop to meet the man many of them had helped elect as prime minister.
The Stop the War Coalition had promised a demonstration. For good measure members of the neo-Nazi British National Party had promised to come along for a protest of their own. If a previous Stop the War fracas at a Blair book signing in Dublin was a guide, it would have turned nasty. The alliance of white far-leftists and Islamist clerical fascists, who had come together in an echo of the Hitler-Stalin pact, was delighted. Blair was becoming “a pariah the world over”, it crowed. He “cannot go anywhere near the general public without there being protests and attempts to make a citizen’s arrest”.
To have believers in the one-party Marxist state, the one-religion Islamist caliphate and the one-race ethnically cleansed nation as your enemies is a badge of honour any politician should be proud to wear. Unfortunately for Blair, his enemies are not confined to the thuggish fringe. The mainstream repeats the conspiracy theories of the fascists and the Trotskyists so faithfully it is hard to tell who is following whom; whether the extremists’ ideas have taken over the mainstream or whether the extreme is an exaggerated image of the furies of the liberal centre, like a disfigured reflection in a fairground mirror. With the left and right-wing newspapers, as with the far-left and far-right parties, differences between supposed political opposites have broken down. When a generous Blair announced that he would give the proceeds from A Journey to the British Legion, a charity that looked after injured soldiers, the Labour-supporting Daily Mirror ran this headline: “Tony Blair should amputate a limb and give that to the British Legion.” This miserable thought might have appeared just as easily in the conservative press. On the day he released the book, the right-wing Daily Mail had the headline “Crocodile tears – and STILL no apology: Tony Blair’s memoirs go on sale pushing his self-serving justification of the Iraq war”. The liberal press said much the same.
Throughout his career, Blair has made the BBC forget its obligation to impartiality. It was so exalted when he ended 18 years of Tory rule in 1997, its “corridors were strewn with empty champagne bottles”, as one presenter said. How long ago all that seems. Having treated Blair with an adulation no leader in a supposedly commonsensical democracy deserves, the BBC compounded the offence and further compromised its principles by turning on him with demented bitterness. I lost my respect for it when I sat in its studios and watched senior presenters, driven half-mad by Iraq, tear up every rule in the book to rig debates and bias programs.
Britain is now in an absurd position where to go on air and say a good word about a well-mannered, centrist politician, who won three elections, is to make a daringly transgressive statement. I do not want to do my country down in an Australian paper, so I will be as polite as I can be in the circumstances. The case of Tony Blair has shown its cultural and media grandees to be parochial, unprincipled, vindictive and stultifying conformist. They have allowed their self-righteous hatreds to push them into adopting the arguments of every totalitarian fanatic and psychotic bomb-maker on the planet. If your family came from Britain, and you are thinking of returning to your ancestral home, I really would not bother.
Journalists, artists and broadcasters do not weigh the pros and cons of Blair’s decision to commit Britain to the removal of Saddam Hussein, they do not discuss the pros at all. They have wiped from their memories what knowledge they had of the Baathist genocide of the Kurds in 1988, the deaths of one million in Saddam’s unprovoked attack on Iran, the 75,000 who died after his unprovoked invasion of Kuwait, the 50,000 who died after he suppressed the Shia uprising in 1991, the daily terror the Baath inflicted on Iraq for decades and the disease and malnutrition Saddam’s hoarding of the proceeds of the oil-for-food program bought. The fact Shia and Sunni representatives of the most racist, misogynist and homophobic movement the world has seen since Nazism have slaughtered Iraqis since 2003 counts for nothing, too.
The horror is Blair’s fault.
The consensus in Britain is that he is a blood-soaked murderer, a liar who tricked Britain into an “illegal” war at the behest of George W. Bush, who was himself a puppet of what they euphemistically call the Israeli lobby. Instead of showing remorse, the greedy charlatan grows rich with fees and directorships from US firms while the men he sent into battle are killed and maimed.
To put it another way, Blair has a lot of convincing to do with this book.
For all the accusations of spin and artifice thrown at him, A Journey is unquestionably Blair speaking in his own voice. A competent ghostwriter could never have written this. Platitudes abound. No cliche is left behind. Sentences begin reasonably, then run out of control, as if they were cars with slashed brake cables. As the title suggests, Blair wants to show readers what it was like for an inexperienced opposition politician to move to the centre of world affairs. He talks about his fear when he became prime minister, and how he worried that he and the British Labour Party would not be up to the job. He admits blunders and describes how he manipulated opinion to achieve worthy goals. Every politician goes through what Blair went through, but few have given us such a candid description of self-doubt. All refreshingly honest, you may think, until he describes how the jetsetting life of a statesman “played havoc” with his bowels. “You need to eat healthily and with discipline” to cope, he confides.
I am very typically British. I like to have time and comfort in the loo. The bathroom is an important room, and I couldn’t live in a culture that doesn’t respect it. Anyway, that is probably more than you ever wanted to know.
So it is, but sophisticated readers should not forget that the candour and the clumsiness are parts of the explanation of why Blair was such a success. Blair thrived in the lowbrow modern world. He loved it and, more to the point, respected it. Although he came to Downing Street from the upper-middle class leftish suburb of Islington – think Sydney’s Paddington but with more art-house movies – he was not of it. Long before September 11, I and many others had come to despise him. We loathed his populism, hated how he pandered to the tabloid press with ever-harsher measures against criminals and asylum-seekers. We thought that it was just a cheap deceit to win votes. We did not feel better when he realised that he was sincere. British Labour people are not like their comrades in Australia. There is no British equivalent of Kevin Rudd or Bill Hayden. The British Left does not depose leaders who look like losers, it loves them. Until recently, its most revered figure was Michael Foot, who led Labour to one of its most crushing defeats. By contrast, we suspect that winners will sell us out. This book tell us what we already learned the hard way: Blair was as keen on selling out the policies of the old Labour Party as he was on trampling on the delicate sensibilities of intellectuals.
The opening chapters describe what he calls “the project” to modernise Labour. I suspect Australian politicians will read and learn from them because, as a professional who could work an electorate, Blair was a maestro. His management of government was another matter. For years, the titanic feud between Blair and his chancellor Gordon Brown hobbled British domestic policy. Blair did not do what any self-respecting Australian Labor politician would have done, and stuck the knife deep into Brown’s back, but allowed hostile briefings and tantrums to dominate government.
His account of the soap opera is entertaining. But inevitably his story of the consequences of September 11 dominates the book and will ensure that A Journey is read by millions, whatever the critics say.
Blair gives a crisp and compelling analysis of the depths of the problems the world faces. Militant Islam is not all of Islam, he insists, and, of course, he is right. But he explains with surprising shrewdness how elements of Islamist ideology capture millions who do not follow its murderous tenets. Just as mainstream liberals, who think themselves moderate men and women, echo the screaming hatreds of the totalitarian demonstrators who would stop the public going to London bookshops, so notions of a war against Islam infect otherwise sane Muslims. In his chapters on Iraq, he makes a point Western commentators hardly ever mention. In Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan, the extremists have a further advantage. They will willingly slaughter any of their countrymen and women who hope for something better than theocratic tyranny, along with any and all innocent bystanders who happen to be near them.
Blair’s chat-show chumminess falls away at these moments. He is no longer the grinning celebrity on the sofa but an urgent advocate of the need to fight radical Islamism with the inspiration and moral commitment we brought to the struggles against fascism and communism.
Will his eloquence justify the conduct of the Iraq war? It cannot for two reasons. Even as someone who went from loathing to respecting Blair because of Iraq – a rare political journey, I grant you – I cannot accept his dismissal of the chaos that enveloped Iraq after the invasion. As he says, it was brought by al-Qa’ida and Iranian-backed militias who were desperate for liberation to fail. But his explanation for the failure of the US, Britain, Australia and their allies to foresee the danger is too brusque. He says in effect, “If someone had warned us, we would have acted differently.”
His tone is the same when he briefly mentions the banking crisis. “Had regulators said that a crisis is about to break … we would have acted. But they didn’t say that.”
It is not good enough. Elected leaders, not regulators or generals, govern democracies because the best of them sense crises before they break. In his foreign policy and in his economic policy Blair did not stop to think about unforeseen events preventing Iraq’s transition to democracy or blowing a hole in his booming bubble economy. He did not prepare for the worst. Indeed, he could not bring himself to imagine the worst.
The second reason he will never convince his enemies is that they already have an explanation for the horrors and repression he fought against neatly tied up and ready to deliver whenever the need arises. It is the West’s fault, they say. If bombs explode in European cities, or teachers are murdered in Afghanistan for showing girls how to read and write, if Shia Muslims are slaughtered in Pakistan, or Iraq finds that the 35-year hell of Baath fascism is replaced by the fresh hell of Shia and Sunni religious fascism, those who do the killing are not to blame. Foreign policy promulgated by Blair and Bush is the “root cause” of the world’s travails instead.
They will train their sights on Blair however well he writes. Perhaps one day some will realise that, like the guns at Singapore, their artillery is pointing in the wrong direction.
Nick Cohen is a columnist on the London Observer. His most recent book is What’s Left? How Liberals Lost their Way.