Alphen, Netherlands. 18 June. Every Yuletide when I was a kid my parents would haul me off to see a particularly perverse form of British theatre called the Christmas Pantomime. Usual stock included Jack and the Beanstalk, Aladdin and Robin Hood, normally in cahoots with varying and often suspiciously merry clown-like henchmen. Such ripping yarns tended to have two things in common which can explain a lot about we English. The lead ‘man; was invariably played by a woman whilst the inevitable ugly woman had to be played incontrovertibly by a man. However, it was the pantomime villain who reigned supreme (at least until the last scene). A character so steeped in comic evil that his (on occasions her) appearance would elicit a storm of high-pitched booing. Watching the visceral destruction of Tony Blair this week by the British political class and Press as he tried to say something sensible about Iraq I was reminded of those long gone innocent days when anything seemed possible. Tony Blair made some appalling mistakes but he is no pantomime villain.
Now, I must start with a disclaimer. I was a big fan of Tony Blair and from what I understand from one piece I wrote back in 1998 for the “New Statesman”, entitled “Time to Bite the Eurobullet” he was a bit of a fan of me. Put simply, Blair was a leader who still eclipses many of the current crop of politicians who clog the upper echelons of British politics with pretend leadership.
Now, do not get me wrong Blair made big mistakes. First, he over-estimated and then under-estimated the impact of globalisation. His cynical use of hyper-immigration to ram diversity down the throats of the right (in the infamous words of a Downing Street memo of the time) and assuage the left of the Labour Party was irresponsible in the extreme. Not only did he render all immigration toxic in the minds of much of the British population the self-serving left liberal London elite which he led refused to see the damage such a large and rapid influx did to English urban society in particular.
Blair then compounded that error by imposing ‘multiculturalism’ rather than integration on the British people. This led to patent absurdities such as the tolerance of extremism at home which today sees so-called ‘British’ jihadists fighting with ISIS in Syria and Iraq whilst at one and the same time sending British troops to Afghanistan to keep radical Islam at ‘strategic distance’. Indeed, tens of thousands of people from the poorest, most radical and traumatised parts of the world entered Britain under Blair even as British troops were fighting Al Qaeda and the Taliban. It was shaming that under Blair London became known as Londonistan.
Second, Blair failed to realise that Britain could never be at the ‘heart of Europe’ whilst being outside the Eurozone (and even then probably not). The imposition on the British people of the 2007 Lisbon Treaty and the systematic misleading of the British people about just how much sovereignty he was handing to Brussels without their permission was unforgiveable. This was compounded by Blair’s refusal to let the British people have a referendum on an issue of fundamental constitutional importance.
Third, he should have sacked Gordon Brown in 2001 when he won a second landslide electoral victory. The endless battles between Blair and Brown added to a sense of a country being held to ransom by Labour Party politics which emasculated effective government. Moreover, the paralysis of government at the highest levels helped turn ‘light-touch’ banking regulation into an open invitation to criminal bankers to create the 2008 banking crisis which has damaged so many ordinary lives including my own.
And then there is interventionism. Afghanistan and Iraq are today deemed to be disasters because of American and British intervention. Certainly, tens if not hundreds of thousands of people have died as a consequence of those events. However, it is utterly unfair to say that is all the fault of Tony Blair or that both countries would have fared better if no action had been taken. No-one knows what would have happened if Saddam had stayed unchecked in Iraq or if the Taliban/Al Qaeda had consolidated their hold on Afghanistan. Saddam clearly had ambitions to create weapons of mass destruction even if he had not attained them by 2003 when the coalition invaded. Saddam’s Baathist regime was sustained by violence and war. Sooner or later the Saddam regime would have either exploded or imploded under the weight of its own violent inertia.
Al Qaeda in 2001 Afghanistan was trying to do the same as ISIS today in Iraq; create a base from which to launch global Jihad. To suggest that ISIS is an unintended consequence of the US-led invasion of Iraq is perverse. ISIS is a further mutation of violent Islamism that is apparent across the globe from Nigeria to Afghanistan and beyond. Why are the French in Mali and the Central African Republic?
Tony Blair also enjoyed noted historic successes. It was Blair who brought peace to the streets of Belfast and across Northern Ireland. It was Blair who used British forces to successfully stop genocide in Sierra Leone. It was Blair who rightly moved European defence forward in 1998 with the St Malo agreement. It was Blair who believed that Britain, Europe and the West had to engage in a dangerous world and could be a “force for good”. It was Blair who was the passionate advocate of Responsibility to Protect and a United Nations that was more than a talking shop. Indeed, it was precisely the belief that Saddam had ritually flouted UN-sanctioned international law that led Blair to believe intervention was necessary.
Tony Blair failed not because he was too cynical but because he was too much the idealist. He failed at home because his attempts to prepare Britain for the twenty-first century and the concept of ‘modernisation’ he championed were far more radical than the British people realised or were prepared to accept. However, his prescriptions were essentially correct. Sadly, Blair’s abject failure has accelerated Britain's exaggerated decline. He has also left Britain a broken place, possibly about to break up, bearing an unacceptable level of Brussels intrusion at an appalling price and with little sense of itself or its place in the world.
Blair failed on the international stage because he found himself trapped between an uncompromising American president and a France and Germany which disagreed profoundly. He had to make a choice all British prime ministers have since 1973 strenuously tried to avoid; the choice between America and Europe.
However, perhaps Blair’s true failure was to open the door to Britain’s non-leaders of today. People who believe in nothing, believe nothing is possible and worse do not believe in Britain or its future. Stalk the corridors of Westminster and declinist cynicism oozes from every nook and cranny.
Tony Blair failed as a prime minister. However, he is not the villain he is so often painted. And, from time to time he still has something to say that is worth listening to.