May 11, 2007

So farewell then, Tony Blair

Tony Blair’s so-called resignation was possibly the most inelegant exit made by any British Prime Minister. By no means the first leader to go before his term was up (of the post war ones Churchill, Eden, Macmillan, Wilson, Thatcher did), his was most the most prolonged and agonizingly dull. By yesterday morning, when the BBC Russian Service called to ask if I would take part in a discussion to be broadcast that afternoon, all I could do was to groan. Hasn’t he gone yet? We are waiting for the announcement, chuckled the producer.

In fact, he still has not gone, keeping his departure for after the forthcoming European Council that will mark the end of the German Presidency of the European Union and, presumably, one last Prime Minister’s Question Time, the weekly event (reduced by him from a twice-weekly one) that he always hated.

The timing, which, some of us suspect, was put together largely to discomfort Gordon Brown as much as possible (after all, did Blair really have to wait till after the local elections that he knew would go badly for Labour?) has excited a certain amount of suspicion in various people’s minds. He will sign up, they are muttering darkly, to an attenuated version of the European Constitution that can be pushed through without a referendum. He will tie Gordon Brown’s hands.

Anything is possible in politics but this particular scenario seems unlikely for a number of reasons. We have heard a great deal about Chancellor Merkel rushing round the EU, trying to get various heads of states and of governments to agree to her supposed plan to push through some version of the constitutional treaty but we have not yet seen a definite text. This will have to be produced very soon and circulated for discussion by member states who will all want to add their own little and not so little demands. Then she will have to ensure that the European Council will agree to turning itself into an Inter-Governmental Conference, the body in the European Union that decides on new treaties. Then the horse-trading will start. And this is not to deal with the fact that 17 member states (though not Germany) have already implemented the existing Constitutional Treaty into their law.

A very tight schedule, even not allowing for the fact that one important participant, Blair, will be on his way out and another one, Sarkozy, only just on his way in. It seems much more likely that the renewed attack on the constitutional structure will happen next time round, with the new British Prime Minister safely in place.

Tony Blair’s great “achievement” as far as the European Union is concerned is not what he had promised or many misguided souls expected. He did not reform the EU, something he could not have done even if he wanted to. He did not make it outward looking, economically competitive or dedicated to free trade. What he did do is surrender as much as he could of Britain’s defence, offering our armed services as a substitute for the fact that he could not bring the country into the euro (or the Economic and Monetary Union, as it is really known). As a consequence, Britain and her defence policy is more than ever torn between the American and Anglospheric alliance and integration into the European structures.

In fact, while much of the procurement did swing towards the European Defence Identity into which Chirac lured Blair at St Malo in 1999, the war against terrorism and, in particular, the war in Iraq, has kept Britain in the American sphere. How that will play under a new Prime Minister remains to be seen.

In the end, it will be Blair’s domestic policies and achievements or lack of them that will be remembered. British Prime Ministers, with one exception, are judged on domestic issues. The one exception is Churchill who was largely a political failure at everything except leadership in war, at which he excelled above any of his predecessors and, so far, successors. Famously, he lost the election of 1945, which came immediately after he had led the country from its darkest days of defeat to a great victory. His second premiership was, on the whole, a mistake.

So, how does Blair measure up on domestic issues? Not very well, I fear. His one supposed achievement, the Northern Ireland agreement, so fatuously praised in too many American outlets, has rewarded terrorism, destroyed the province’s security and locked it into a system of ethnic division that means no possibility of political development for the foreseeable future. For anyone who really cares about Ulster, it is all very depressing. Even Blair has stopped claiming that the hand of history is on his shoulder.

Blair is handing over a country to his successor that is a hideous mess. To be fair, some of that mess was created by Brown who will now pay the penalty. For once, some justice will be seen. The two of them inherited a strong economy from the Tories and proceeded to destroy it by high taxation, ever higher government spending and a growth in both state and individual indebtedness.

The much vaunted reform of the public sector never happened. Our health provision, education, legal and police system are all in crisis. Gordon Brown’s answer to all of it was more money and an insistence on the state having a near complete monopoly on funding and provision of services. (In actual fact, ever more people pay twice for health, education and, even, security by going to private providers but that, in itself, is not a happy solution either for them or for those who cannot do so.)

Instead of policies we have had a large number of bombastic initiatives, none of which seem to have worked. Crime in the streets has grown with some, like commercial crime, that is shoplifting, no longer being reported. Policing in most parts of the country is a joke and the prisons are overflowing.

Our state schools have sunk ever lower into nothingness and most of our universities are following suit. The government’s only solution appears to be endless bullying of the few remaining institutions of some stature to “diversify” their intake, that is, to lower their standards. This will continue under Gordon Brown and, if he should ever become Prime Minister, David Cameron.

The National Health Service is in very serious crisis with junior doctors protesting about recently introduced employment strategies, hospitals so filthy that patients are lucky if they emerge without acquiring many extra diseases (it is as if Joseph Lister laboured in vain) and the huge amount of money thrown at it by the Chancellor and Prime Minister in waiting, swallowed up by handsome salaries paid out to various people but particularly to administrators and management consultants.

This tale of woe is particularly important because Blair’s great promise was the reform of the public sector. It was the core of his manifesto in 1997, in 2001 and, even, in 2005. On that he will be judged.

He will also be judged on his careless and improvident destruction of the British constitutional order. It is fair to say that much of that had been undermined by the fact that most of our legislation comes from the European Union and the European Court of Justice is, in fact, in many ways the highest court in the land. Nevertheless, the badly thought through devolution of Scotland and Wales, the ham-fisted destruction of the House of Lords, the undermining of the courts and the attempt to create departments of justice, constitutional courts and other suchlike fripperies without recognizing the need for an underlying agreement on a Bill of Rights has created chaos and instability.

Of course, Blair’s great achievement is winning the elections three times in a row, the only Labour leader to have done so. But is that enough?

His other achievement is to make it quite clear even to the dimmest elector that politics is all about front. He who comes up with the pithiest sound bite wins. But is that enough?

It is certainly in Blair’s favour that he recognized the danger that the Taleban, Al-Qaeda and the nasty ex-dictator of Iraq presented to the world and that he recognized the importance of the American alliance. One can but hope that his immediate successor will do so as well. But even his handling of the issue has been typically inept and, in the long term, harmful.

The problem with Blair is that he knows no history and, being a child of his age, does not understand the concept of national interest. That has been at the bottom of his doomed attempts to manoeuvre between the American alliance and European integration. That was the reason why he messed up Britain’s involvement in the Iraqi war. Instead of arguing that it is in Britain’s interests to support her greatest and closest allies, the United States, Australia and Canada in order to rid the world of Saddam Hussein, he produced that dodgy dossier about WMDs and the 45 minute threat.

The problem of the WMDs is far too great to cover in this essay. There is evidence that the story of there not being any is as untrue as all the previous ones. It is also fair to say that by insisting on the presence of WMDs Blair was merely repeating what he was told by every single expert in the field. But he could not resist twisting and turning and embellishing the story, in the process managing to undermine what should have been a righteous cause. Interestingly, he has remained convinced that he was right to commit Britain to both the Afghan and the Iraqi operation. About the only time he has spoken sincerely was when he told an interviewer that he is ready to answer to his Maker for the decision. (It is a sign of the extent to which Christianity has been eroded in Britain that all too many people thought that his comment about a higher court than public opinion showed his arrogance rather than conventional Christian belief.)

Blair’s inability to argue in terms of national interest and, consequently, necessary alliances as well as his unlimited faith in transnational organizations, such as the European Union (which he never really understood), the UN, the International Criminal Court and the Kyoto Protocol (which he did begin to doubt) meant that this close ally of the United States under two very different presidents has done enormous harm to the Anglosphere.

Under his governance Britain moved further and further away from her obvious allies, who are in the Anglosphere. His apparent dishonesty and shenanigans made the American alliance even less popular in Britain that it would have been. (British anti-Americanism deserves a separate and rather depressing essay.) His apparent inability to exert British influence in Washington DC convinced far too many people here that he was “Bush’s poodle”. In fact, this was not so, as the lightest reading of American opinion makes it clear. Blair and Britain are immensely popular in the United States (except with the moonbats who do not like this European endorsement of Bush) and he could have exerted a great deal of influence. One must say the comments, especially from pompous Conservatives and journalists that suggested Blair should control the Administration or tell them how to wage war are equally stupid. Britain was never in a position to control anybody and the catastrophic way in which British troops have been prosecuting war until recently both in Afghanistan and Iraq do not point to any kind of superior knowledge or achievement.

Blair himself saw his position in Washington as a wonderful opportunity to drag the United States into the world of the transnational organizations, thus undermining the whole concept of democratic nation states and weakening the case for the war he sincerely believes in. His demands that President Bush support further European integration have had a neutral effect. While some parts of the American government, notably the State Department, remain committed to the idea of a European Union, others are less happy about it. Bush has, understandably, been wary of the movers and shakers of European unification, France and Germany, preferring to concentrate on the potential American allies in Eastern Europe.

The obsession with the UN has been less happy. It is largely to please his closest ally that President Bush went through that long, painful and ultimately fruitless attempt to “legitimize” the war against Saddam with the corrupt and dishonest United Nations, only to find himself betrayed by President Chirac. In actual fact, Blair felt even more betrayed. He had really trusted Chirac though it is hard to tell why.

The one thing that was immediately offered to Britain, a free trade agreement, Blair could not take up, having to explain rather sheepishly that the right to negotiate international trade deals has long ago been signed away to the European Union.

The war against terror, the growing menace of Iran, Russia and China, the freeing up the economy in countries like India and the appearance on the international scene of seriously Anglospheric politicians such as Singh in India, Howard in Australia and Harper in Canada created the possibility of strengthening the network of Anglospheric nations for the future. It is, sadly, Tony Blair’s fault that this obvious development has not happened to the extent it should have done. And it is most certainly his fault that, in so far that it is going ahead, Britain will not be part of it. That, too, he will be judged on.

Posted by Helen Szamuely at May 11, 2007 11:46 AM

Helen, throughly enjoyed your essay on this. Could you spend time working on the topic of British anti-Americanism? In fact given the tones I found most Britons on the net whether they are Labour, LibDems, or Tories, all seem to regard Americans with contempt and hide behind excuses like "We disagree with the USA national policy!", "We are against Bush, sure, but not anti-American!".

Posted by: Joel at May 11, 2007 06:51 PM

It is a seriously depressing subject but you are right in that it does need to be tackled. Maybe when the sun is not shining as it is today.

Posted by: Helen Szamuely at May 12, 2007 05:49 AM

In fact, given that Margaret Thatcher could manage to be the longest serving British Prime Minister and with her philosophical conservatism (her brand of conservatism is in fact more Anglo-American than a traditional Tory type, and I have no doubt she would be 10 times more hardline than George W. Bush on Iraq), I would have thought that the Britons would be all behind Bush's WOT efforts. Apparently had Thatcher still been at 10 Downing Street there will be hordes of the largely anti-war ordinary Britons demonstrating outside the Residence demanding her head.

Apparently the Britain of Thatcher-era, which was even more spineful than Reagan-era USA, is sadly a thing of the past.

Posted by: Joel at May 12, 2007 06:11 AM

There aren't that many demonstrators outsided Downing Street. You can't get to Number 10 itself these days, not since the IRA attacks. Certainly far fewer than there were anti-war demonstrators in the period between early September 1939 and June 22 1941, as organized by the CPGB. There is nothing much to be read into separate and far apart demonstrations. The main problem is that the majority of Britain's population is not aware that we are at war.

Posted by: Helen Szamuely at May 12, 2007 12:47 PM

When it comes to British anti-Americanism, I like to comfort myself with the thought that the popularity of foreign nations within Britain is all relative. Take any opinion poll which suggests that, say, only 46% of Britons have a positive opinion of the US, and contrast it with the same figures for France, Germany, Russia, China, "Zimbabwe", Burkina Faso, whatever, and I'm absolutely certain that their figures would be considerably lower. If France got as much as 3% I'd be surprised.

Indeed, the highest would probably be Ireland, Australia and New Zealand. There would be a big question mark above Canada, I'm afraid to say; but this is less a reflection of British disdain for the Senior Dominion than of 40 years of deliberate [pre-Harper] efforts to turn the country into what is, in fact, a big question mark. The Liberals have ensured that a Canadian is not a kind of American, the Tories that he is not a kind of Frenchman, and the Quebecois that he is not a kind of Briton. Trudeau & Co should probably have considered that the eradication of a British North American identity would need something meaningful with which to replace it, but that's not usually the way with soi-disant counter-cultural iconoclasts.

Be that as it may, I'm certain that a fuller examination of statistics would show that the deliberate unravelling of the links with our cultural analogues in the Anglosphere have not produced a tide of enthusiasm for European integration to take its place. English-speaking nations are not as popular here as they should be, but the rest of the world is liked even less. The challenge is not to prevent us from becoming Europeans, but to prevent us from becoming Little Englanders.

Posted by: Ed at May 15, 2007 07:11 AM

I'm not sure if Britons are that positive towards Australia either these days. I read articles from Australia's left-liberal leaning Sydney Morning Herald and the travel columnist Ben Groundwater mentions one of the newest coinwords of British usage is Jafas (Just a F******Australian) borrowing from New Zealand usage of "Just a F****** Aucklander":

Apparently I know some American acquaintances who said they have witnessed disdainful remarks from a number of Britons that they could not distinguish Americans and Australians manner wise.

Posted by: Joel at May 15, 2007 07:58 PM

There are two separate issues here. One is that, sadly, the British as a whole, have not quite appreciated that Australia has become a major regional power and see it still as a somewhat entertaining place where the convicts and other misfits were exported to. That is quite similar to the "dumb Yanks - how dare they take our place in the world" attitude.

The other problem is the Aussies here. They can be a ghastly nuisance. As I know from Aussies themselves the youngsters who come over in vast numbers, either to work for some years here or to travel round the world fairly mindlessly (as do a few Brits), take the opportunity of being here to behave considerably worse than they would at home. Their argument is that British youngsters behave so much worse than anyone in Australia that they just fit in. But they do tend to be considerably noisier and a good deal of a nuisance, spending much time expressing contempt for the local population. That is unlikely to be popular. On the other hand, many of them are cheerful, hard-working and easy-going. So it's swings and roundabouts.

In my opinion the first problem - seeing Australia as a major power and Australians as an important part of the world order (to use that expression in its proper way) is far greater and needs an urgent solution.

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