Special Report

Decoding the Tony Blair Enigma

His New Labour enterprise has been a dysfunctional mess, and yet...

By 9.15.06

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Few people have been more critical than I of British Prime Minister Tony Blair. In 1997-98 I wrote and in 1999 I had published possibly the first book, Blair's Britain, highly critical of the whole New Labour enterprise and its associated culture-war, and have published many articles arguing in effect that he has headed the most destructive and dysfunctional British Government since that of Ethelred the Unready.

Drift and weakness on substantial policy matters, coupled with high-handed and Draconian bullying and harassing of individuals in areas that should be none of its business, bumbling, ludicrous and often cruel enforcement of political correctness, endless futile gimmicks and slogans, government by spin and deception, have been the hallmarks of Blair's New Labour government. I believe that under it many institutions vital to the continuance of Britain's identity have been wrecked to the point that it is easy to despair of their recovery.

Almost every area of Government activity seems a shambles. In 2003, Blair had to decline an offer from the U.S. of a free trade agreement because Europe would not permit it -- a terrible admission that Britain could or would no longer exercise sovereignty in its own interests. According to a very recent BBC poll, nearly half the population believes life is worse than it was 20 years ago. A competent opposition that knew what it wanted and where it was going would T-bone the government.

Muslim extremism and terrorism has bred in Britain because of the Government's incredibly conciliatory and purblind attitude towards it since 9/11 and for years before that. Warnings by moderate Muslim leaders -- for example that radical Imams had a monopoly of proselytizing and distributing literature to Muslim prisoners in British jails and other extremist proselytizing was going on at university campuses and youth clubs -- were ignored. Multiculturalism has been a total failure. More than 80% of British Muslims now consider themselves Muslim rather than British and the proportion is higher with the younger, British-born, generations than with their immigrant parents. Forty-five per cent of British Muslims believe the Jews were responsible for 9/11.

In March the Terrorism Act 2006 finally made it an offense -- with prison of up to five years -- to glorify or promote terrorism. By September there had not been one prosecution, despite what appear prima facie to be many breaches of the legislation, like British-born Muslim preacher Abu Adullah praising the 7/7 London bombers and saying he would "love" to kill British soldiers in Afghanistan. Labour Member of Parliament Louise Ellman has commented: "We have very strong legislation yet nothing seems to happen."

One senior retired Conservative politician has said the Blair Government simply does not know how to engage the levers of power. In many areas this may be a good thing (the consequences of some New Labour policies actually working are terrible to contemplate), but where a strong state in needed this dysfunctionalism is potentially disastrous.

How long ago it seems that radiantly grinning Tony Blair, elected by a landslide and hailed as "Prime Minister for the foreseeable future" claimed: "Today at the frontier of the new Millennium I set out for you how...we make it a century of progressive politics after one dominated by conservatives."! On when he actually cried before a meeting of European socialist leaders: "New! New! New! Everything is new!"

WHAT, THEN, ARE WE TO MAKE of the one huge exception to the saga of government incoherence, lies, dysfunction, vacillation, myopia, self-indulgence, class-vindictiveness and corruption: Blair's unflinching support of Israel, George Bush and the U.S.?

It is a stand he has taken virtually alone and maintained against all manner of pressures both from the left in his own party (which means almost everyone else in it) and a Tory Party apparently determined to prove its old nickname of "the stupid party" to an unprecedented degree and to add the epithet "the cowardly party" as well. Indeed, at least when set on the world stage beside the weirdly boneless Tory leader David Cameron, Blair so far looks like a second Churchill.

Yes, the British Armed forces have been cut to the bone -- spending on the Army has been reduced in real terms by about 3.5 billion pounds (about $7 billion) since New Labour came to power in 1997, the quality of much defense force equipment and training is questionable. Blair's leftist ministers have mocked and sneered at defense personnel and at their traditions and ethos. But Blair, alone of Western European leaders, has committed those armed forces in significant numbers to Iraq and Afghanistan and is keeping them there.

Attacked from almost every part of the British political spectrum Blair has shown what looks not unlike high and lonely valor.

William Shawcross has put it well: "We have a prime minister who in my view has committed many, many errors at home; but abroad Tony Blair has a clear vision, both moral and pragmatic, of the threat we face."

Blair has recently been unequivocal in portraying Islamic extremism as the enemy. Speaking in the U.S. recently he said of the values that are to govern the future of the world: "Are they those of tolerance, freedom, respect for difference and diversity; or those of reaction, division, hatred. This is war."

These words are not only clear, strong and true. For someone in Blair's embattled and isolated position in his own country and among Western European leaders, and someone whose previous career has been spin and populism, they are brave.

The abuse of Blair -- not for the failures of his government but for his support of America -- has reached an astounding level. A former British Ambassador to Moscow and ex-chairman of the joint intelligence committee, Sir Roderick Braithwaite, writing in the Financial Times, described Blair as a "frayed and waxy zombie straight from Madame Tussaud's," programmed by the CIA to "spout the language of the White House with an artificial English accent...Mr. Blair's total identification with the White House has destroyed his influence in Washington, Europe and the Middle East itself: who bothers with the monkey if he can go straight to the organ-grinder?"

For an ex-ambassador to say this of a prime minister who is leading a country in a war, when there are thousands of British troops in the field whose morale may be an important concern in battle, seems disgusting. There is an Anglosphere alliance, and it matters.

Reporting this, the conservative Daily Telegraph brought out the grandmother of a British soldier killed in Afghanistan to say: "Tony Blair should send his sons out there and see how it feels. We want out boys back home. Our boys are fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that they don't understand ..." At the risk of both sounding callous and of stating the obvious, professional soldiers in an all-volunteer Army do not join it with the idea of picking and choosing where they are sent. Further, I receive e-mails every day from servicemen in Iraq and Afghanistan who appear to know exactly why they are there, who are proud of the job they are doing, and who are not pessimistic about its outcome. It is disappointing that a paper of the Telegraph's stature should indulge in this maudlin gimmickry, while elsewhere defeats suffered by the British in Afghanistan a century and a half ago are recalled with masochistic glee.

The most transparently dishonest ploy of Blair's enemies of left and right is to portray President Bush's greeting, "Yo, Blair!" as evidence of some subservient relationship in which the word "poodle" is almost invariably deployed. In fact it is evidence of nothing of the kind, but rather of friendship. The leftish Catholic weekly the Tablet was typical of the media in claiming on no evidence that this was "condescending." Leftish Tory Malcolm Rifkind claimed: "The Prime Minister is derided around the world as George Bush's lapdog."

Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett gratuitously attacked the U.S. for flying munitions to Israel through Britain, behavior whose only motives would seem to be to pander to anti-Americanism on left and right and to undermine the appearance of allied unity in a crisis -- though the behavior of some Philbyesque Tories has been even worse. The ineffable John Pilger claims: "Eighty-two per cent believe his warmongering was a principal cause of the London bombings ... Blair's extremism, like Bush's, is rooted in the righteous violence of rampant Messianic power. It is completely at odds with modern, multicultural, secular Britain." But then, Pilger refers to Hezbollah as "the people's movement that saw off the Israeli invaders."

THE MYSTERY REMAINS: Why is Tony Blair persisting in this steadfast course that seems so alien to the rest of his and his government's character and style, and against what seems to be an appeasement and surrender culture at both the political and administrative levels? Even the fact his son Euan has been sent to the U.S. as a political intern for first a Republican and then a blue dog Democrat may be seen as a significant gesture.

Possibly Blair has found something he thinks is actually right rather than expedient and it is a heady experience. Perhaps he was actually changed by 9/11 and the London tube bombings. It may be there are men -- some might say Neville Chamberlain in 1939 was like this -- who are given just one great spurt of courage. Or perhaps -- it may come to the same thing -- on this issue at least he understands what is at stake.

In 1922 the great British writer G. K. Chesterton (of whose 1914 book The Flying Inn I wrote previously) published a book, The Man Who Knew Too Much, about cynical and conniving British politicians in sewers of intrigue.

At last comes a great national crisis. A crusading journalist claims the government is about to "send thousands of Englishmen out to die for nothing..." but at last he has a handle on the matter, and can "blow the Government to Hell." Horne Fisher, the man "who knew too much," says (I have abridged this slightly):

"I am proud of the Chancellor because he gambled and the Foreign Minister because he drank and the Prime Minister because he took a commission on a contract. I am proud of them because they did these things, and can be denounced for them, and know they can be denounced for them, and are standing firm for all that.

"I take off my hat to them because they are defying blackmail, and refusing to smash their country to save themselves. I salute them as if they were going to die on the battlefield....And it will be a battlefield, too, and not a metaphorical one.

"Our unhappy politicians have made concession after concession. If we do not fight now we shall never fight again. But my poor old gang is going to stand to its guns at last. Of course it's only natural that when they have been whitewashed for half a century as paragons, their sins should come back on them at the very moment when they are behaving like men for the first time in their lives....

"Did you think there was nothing but evil at the bottom of them? Even in a Parliament, life can be lived with occasional efforts to live it well. I tell you it is as true of these rich fools and rascals as it is true of every poor footpad and pickpocket; that only God knows how good they have tried to be."


And perhaps that is a hint of an explanation.

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About the Author

Hal G.P. Colebatch, a lawyer and author, has lectured in International Law and International Relations at Notre Dame University and Edith Cowan University in Western Australia and worked on the staff of two Australian Federal Ministers.