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May 01, 2007

It is the decision which has made Tony Blair unpopular - going to war in Iraq - that has enabled Blair to acquire dignity and become admirable - argues Richard D. North, author of Mr Blair's Messiah Politics

Posted by Richard D. North

Richard D. North - author of Mr Blair's Messiah Politics: Or what happened when Bambi tried to save the world and its 2007 digital update Mr Blair's Messiah Politics: A story of inspired government, 1997-2007 - argues that it is Tony Blair's most unpopular decision - going to war in Iraq - that has enabled Blair to acquire dignity and become admirable. The views expressed here are those of Richard D. North, not those of the Social Affairs Unit, its Trustees, Advisors or Director. The Social Affairs Unit is not a party political organisation.


On 2nd May 1997, Tony Blair swept into Downing Street. Within a few days he is expected to announce the date of his leaving it, and there will be few tears. Back then, hastily-assembled party workers waved plastic Union Jacks, probably for the first time in their lives. Much of the nation was exhilarated by this youthful, promising, man. A decade of theatricals by the great actor-manager had begun. A few of us old right-wingers muttered dire warnings about spin and vacuity, but were easily dismissed as sour Establishmentarians who didn't like the new populism.

In full messianic flow as leader of the opposition, Tony Blair had warned that New Labour had "a thousand days to prepare for a thousand years". He was displaying both a tin ear and a giddy sense of purpose that his party had not experienced since its early days. Labour had lost four consecutive general elections, but would have needed to be utterly useless not to win in 1997. However, this wasn't a dull Buggins's Turn succession. Tony Blair was a turn-on.

Three and a half thousand days on, the Prime Minister leaves office neither widely mourned nor much hated. Who would have predicted that such a star would merely fizzle out? As late as 2005, his luck mostly held. He won the Olympics and was forgotten or forgiven as a Euro-phile. He had presided over a period of affluence which was really the fruit of Margaret Thatcher's liberating economic policies. He could always deploy the widespread and false perception that most of the decade's social ills were caused by her, too. Nice, sheltered, rather old-fashioned Tony Blair never quite got to grips with the social malaise that hung about what was supposed to be a brand new, newly-branded, Britain. Pop psychologists and philosophers identified a new misfortune called Affluenza, and it was Cameron, the rich Tory toff, who made hay with this tosh. The underclass got into knives and guns and Blair could only bleat about it. Sleaze, the old over-egged curse of elderly governments, is all about.

In many ways, Tony Blair has been good news. He made sure there was no turning back to a pre-Thatcherite Britain. On his watch, taxes rose a few percent, and had they been well-spent, few would have minded. As it was, the system struggled to absorb the new money, and its employees grabbed most of it. Blair first dismantled, and then largely reinstated, the Thatcherite welfare state reforms he had affected to revile.

Tony Blair's most important failures were of no interest to the public or the media. He was useless at government. From the start, he and his inner circle were frightened of Parliament and - even more disastrously - of the Civil Service. They retreated to the den at Number 10, and from there conducted "Sofa Government". They short-circuited the Cabinet, which meant that neither ministers nor ministries could do any good. Government couldn't even be usefully reformed. Instead, power was communicated outwards from the inner sanctum by New Labours' grim hatchet men and women. Armando Iannucci's series, The Thick of It, showed us how this world worked. The comedy was more graphic but just as trenchant as Lord Butler's report on Blair's preparations for war. Robin Butler's two successors as heads of the Civil Service have left off working for Tony Blair only to paint us a picture of a deeply secretive system - an unsystem - which was just the legal side of unconstitutional. One of them, Richard Wilson, said there had been a coup "against the processes of government".

The greatest oddity is that the worst of Tony Blair produced the best of him too. Tony Blair was never a fully operational Prime Minister. His court had always to contend with the rival powerbase run by Gordon Brown, whose "clunking great fist" lay on the levers of domestic policy.

But it was on the foreign stage that Tony Blair could develop himself as a big figure, with the hand of history on his shoulder. It was here that his rhetorical flourishes could be backed by the magnificent if small British military. So here was Tony, a man who never could get to grips with being middle class (his accent was all things to all men), and who fancied himself as a modernising class warrior, wholly dependent on the most unreconstructed of his loathed "forces of conservatism".

Never mind the paradox, feel the moral force. Tony Blair's biographers all agree that he was powerfully influenced by a sort of political religiosity whilst at Oxford University. It was as though John Ruskin had been let loose on the Age of Aquarius. When Blair came to power he had a lofty if undefined sense of mission. By 1999, he had developed a belief that the best democratic forces in the world had an obligation to intervene against the worst undemocratic ones. It seems reasonable to suppose that he came to the conclusion that this was the arena where he could be the transformative individual he longed to become. In Britain's military engagements in the former Yugoslavia and Sierra Leone he had what were emboldening dress rehearsals for the war against terror which he and George Bush would wage after 9/11.

I have coined the idea of Messiah Politics to capture the manipulative loftiness which characterised Tony Blair. It is intended to suggest a lonely, driven, high-minded sense of destiny, as well as a tricksy, dissembling, informal mode of operation. It seems useful as an idea because it explains how a rather vacuous and even ephemeral sort of a man also managed to be extraordinarily tough. Not ruthless, says Peter Mandelson of his old master, so much as steely. For much of his career, Blair looked at several possible destinies, and seemed hapless. He toyed with ending world poverty and halting climate change, and may have realised the impossibility of the tasks. Only as a warrior did he really blossom.

The powerful, like the rich, are different. Mr Blair has confounded some of the people who most despaired of him in 1997 by fulfilling their worst expectations whilst delivering a wholly unexpected bonus. Tony Blair never really understood or liked democratic government. Yet by keeping a great deal of power in his own hands, and by having very little respect for the traditions of the constitution, Tony Blair was able to take an unwilling nation into a profoundly unpopular war in 2003. It was by the majority account, his worst decision by far. History will decide that, and not quickly. In the meantime, it was as a military leader that Blair seemed to acquire dignity. He has been resolute and even taciturn. He has become admirable.

Richard D. North is the author of Mr Blair's Messiah Politics: Or what happened when Bambi tried to save the world (Social Affairs Unit, 2006) and its 2007 digital update Mr Blair's Messiah Politics: A story of inspired government, 1997-2007.


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I guess that analysis makes our Mr Blair more of a Theudas than a Jesus or a Mahdi, then?

Posted by: John Hayward, The Difference at May 2, 2007 04:21 PM
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From the start, he and his inner circle were frightened of Parliament and - even more disastrously - of the Civil Service.

This fear of the Civil Service is threatening to lead our country into the same position as mighty China found herself in the face of the aggressively expanding European powers in recent centuries. Perhaps the rot really started when Ming Dynasty officialdom put a stop to the excursions of admiral Zheng He, thereby leaving a power vacuum in the Indian Ocean. My Ould Da looked into Chinese history and philosophy, and came to the conclusion that the teaching of Confucius had a lot to do with this. Confucius taught that society should be governed by the man of ren (仁), which in practice meant “the right sort of chap”. One of the features was that when the official gave instructions, if they worked, all credit went to the official, and if they didn’t, it was because the recipient “didn’t follow my advice properly”. And very often they didn’t work, either in China or in modern Britain, because the official was an ignorant “Stumblebum” (as my Ould Da used to call them).

This lack of accountability is exacerbated by the fact that the officials hold all the strong cards. If one takes government to law, one may win one’s case, but they can appeal again and again, drawing on the public purse to fund their legal costs. There is a Chinese saying, “The Monkey cannot jump out of Buddha’s hand”, based on an incident from the classical Chinese story Journey to the West, but as a proverb it means that one cannot escape the clutches of officialdom.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at May 4, 2007 07:33 PM
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