I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him; The evil that men do does live after them… June 29, 2007Posted by WorldbyStorm in British Labour Party, The Left.
I’m genuinely interested in the responses to my previous piece on Blair. So let’s consider what I was trying to do, what I did and what I was critiqued for possibly doing.
Firstly I was trying to reflect in a fairly dispassionate way on the power Blair had. That was a power which transcended political division and yet was clearly very human. I think it is indisputable that he retained enormous power in that even after the Iraq War, and the passions that it engendered, he was still able to shape a third election victory. Now one can read that a number of ways. Perhaps the Iraq War simply didn’t upset many people as widely as it did deeply others. And the way in which the Conservative Party still held onto a significant vote share while Labour still maintained a majority of the seats might indicate some truth in that.
I think I noted that on many issues I felt his government was craven. Education, health and social services are three that I mentioned. I have noted before how even the traditional Labour right in the 1950s and 60s was more to the left than the current incarnation of the party (incidentally did I ever mention I was a member of British Labour in the early 1990s?). The ideas that underpin my socialism and in particular the implementation of a blanket state education from primary to third level simply didn’t register on the radar of New Labour. And I’ve critiqued the way in which substance was almost always overwhelmed by style during the Blair premiership. Indeed the only positive notes were to recognise that Brown had maintained at least some element of redistributionist instincts (marginal though, still marginal) in Number 11 and Blair had done reasonably well in relation to the North [incidentally I don't agree at all that any other PM would have done as well. British Labour has rarely been a true friend of the North. I can think of quite a number of faces around the cabinet table - even today - who would have relished the opportunity to play macho gestural politics on the issue to the detriment of any sort of progress. It is also arguable that had he not had so much of his reputation banked upon it that he might not have made such a great effort in the last two years to see some sort of resolution].
Now I’ve been taken to task, albeit gently and I truly appreciate that, for finding so many kind words. I genuinely am at a loss to find anything other than a ‘more in sorrow that anger’ tone to the post. And that sorrow is because I find him a fascinating personality. I think he was uniquely talented in his ability to deal with people. I think he had a capacity to reach beyond the Labour party (actually I’m certain there is a thesis on how he managed not to reach within much of the Labour party) and speak to different sectors of the society. To recognise these strengths is in no way to applaud the ends to which they were shaped. Quite the opposite. The problem is that these were opportunities missed. That personality could have wrought much more significant changes in British society. Perhaps a serious engagement with the European Union. Perhaps some sense that they were engaged on the transformative social politics that is necessary, now more than ever as the saying goes.
But I’ll tend to shy away from the rhetoric of disgust, the politics of condemnation. I can’t be bothered for one thing. Secondly I think it is a bit pointless. We know the history. We now need to work out how to avoid repeating it. Blair supported some atrocious decisions, but largely decisions that would have been made – such as the Iraq War – whether he supported them or not. I don’t think he was either bloodthirsty or stupid on the issue, but arguably far too egocentric to realise that his counsel would count for almost nothing in Washington during the course of that war. Had Britain not joined in the invasion that invasion would have happened. It was foolish – and wrong in light of what later came to light concerning the rationale for war – for them to support it. But again egocentricity masked in what ejh notes was a strange sort of piety won out.
And any leading politician will make decisions which will result in deaths. Worse than Bill Clinton who appears to have used the death sentence as an electoral crutch? Better than George Bush who did the same? I don’t know. In the end he appears almost an example of how the individual is shaped by historic forces and processes rather than the contemporary vogue for believing the opposite.
I have political differences with him that I will continue to have. But I have political differences with everyone. And I think it is perhaps implicitly a little contradictory to take the line that he was unimportant say in relation to the North and not then to accept that he acted as pretty much all centrist politicians of this era, whether or left or right, act. Who else who came to power as British PM in this period would do much differently? He cut his cloth according to his measure. And as for being a liar, every politician I have ever met, and I’ve met more than my fair share, have been liars. But then every human I have met has been a liar to some degree. I expect some level of dissembling, it goes with the territory. So he was hardly sui generis.
No, the problem with Blair is not that he did these things, which almost any politician would ultimately have to do, but that he did them in an almost egregious and off the cuff fashion. That he abandoned the project even as he said he was strengthening it. Or as Nick Cohen, who still wrote the best critique of New Labour in Pretty Straight Guys wrote:
Blair and his entourage looked, smelt and sounded like an elite. They had abandoned the Labour Party’s traditional hope of creating a more equal society and cheered on the rich. For the aristocracy of wealth which mattered more than the aristocracy of birth, Blair was everything it could have desired. Its wiser members knew the Tories couldn’t stay in power for ever. By changing the Labour Party, Blair had removed the possibility that the Labour Party might change the country.
Now that would indeed evoke disgust…
I return to his personality which was, like it or loathe it, remarkable and the real tragedy that had it had truly fixed moral and ideological moorings it could have been used for the force of good which in his own mind he clearly believed and still believes he is.
But this leads to a question as to why we expect[ed] better. He was a Labour Prime Minister. As Easterhouse put it so much more eloquently than I “You have to draw the line Sometime And I draw mine at Labour’s house-trained socialists, the lowest form of hypocrite” (not all are hypocrites, not all are house-trained…) …. That he did well on Northern Ireland is in itself remarkable. I’m not for a second suggesting that we got off lightly. Clearly we didn’t (but it could have been worse – for example had it been a Conservative government in power during that period). And here too he was author of his own misfortune.
The incredible rhetoric of May 1997 was never going to be fulfilled on this earthly plane… and there are too many ‘I’s’ in the above post.