First, a couple of credentials: I am immodest enough to think that few people have a longer record than I of attacking former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his government.
My book Blair’s Britain was begun in Blair’s salad days a few weeks after he took power in Britain in 1997. It was published in 1999, when he still dominated British political and cultural life, and was selected as a Book of the Year in the London Spectator. This was when the religious correspondent of my local paper was gushing ludicrously that “Secular leaders become moral and spiritual leaders, challenging the role of the churches. In Britain, for example, Prime Minister Tony Blair, has emerged as the country’s moral and spiritual leader…” I said then that New Labour threatened to be not the least but the most dangerously radical of governments.
Blair’s Britain was singled out for praise — a gem in my collection of cuttings! — by my journalistic hero Peter Simple in the Daily Telegraph, and Professor Antony Flew in the introduction to Standardbearers: British Roots of the New Right, lamented that it had not been available earlier. It sold out quickly but for some reason was not reprinted.
Since then I have written frequently on British politics and culture-wars in this magazine and elsewhere. One of my main arguments has been that New Labour under Blair, apart from incompetence and inconsistency in policies, has in innumerable ways led, or at the very least condoned, the degradation and hollowing-out of British institutions, the lowering and coarsening of British culture and the general triumph of the Gramscian Left. There has been permissiveness and sleaze (including, we have now discovered, the apparent corruption of the House of Lords), coupled with the Draconian enforcement of political correctness and Nanny-Statery. Taxation policies have been designed to destroy traditional families. New Labour’s general reversion to doctrinaire socialism and class-warfare was a complete betrayal of the overt and implied promises on which it was elected of a managerialist, market-friendly, post-ideological “big-tent” party: that proved a lie immeasurably greater and more far-reaching than any involving the decision to go to war in Iraq. I could mention more. And all that before the current economic downturn.
I write this not only to blow my own trumpet but also to emphasize that I am not a person exactly prejudiced in Blair’s favor. I turned on the recent teleplay The Trial of Tony Blair (well, it’s been around in Britain for a while but has just got to this part of the world) with some anticipation.
In fact, it is a disagreeable piece of work for a number of reasons. It attacks Blair from the left not for the almost innumerable things he got wrong but for almost the only big thing that he got right and showed real courage over: the need to stand by America in the war on terrorism. The whole thing driving its hatred is the assumption that Blair was an American puppet (“Poodle” has generally been the term used, far beyond the point of cliché).
Further, it does this with both childishness and the grossest artistic crudity and a personal savagery that seems somehow disgusting even to me. It has been widely advertised as a “sharp satire.” That is one thing it certainly isn’t. Sharp satire is what you get from the likes of Tom Stoppard, with a genuine clash of ideas and argument, not to mention wit. Even Bernard Shaw gave his bad characters good lines. The Trial of Tony Blair, however, is just crude venom, with what is really an anti-American agenda, very much in the line of all those British lefty rantings against Margaret Thatcher. It looks like a revival of the Leninist technique known as “animalization of the enemy.” I think there is a good chance that such a play would simply not have found a producer a few years ago, not because of its politics but because of its forensic infantilism.
Hardly a cliché is left undeployed. Blair is shown haunted by the ghosts of dead Iraqi children (Saddam Hussein’s and the Taliban’s victims somehow fail to make an appearance). The Americans are fatuous and hypocritical swine who abandon the deluded Blair the moment he ceases to be of use to them. While Blair is attacked for sending British troops to Iraq, there is no mention of one of the real indictments that could be made: that is, sending them with inadequate equipment and as part of a force whose whole ethos he and those around him had treated with indifference and contempt. Blair is shown raving that the overthrow of Saddam was a good thing, but he is plainly intended to be regarded as going mad as he says it. It is taken for granted as a self-evident truth that the invasion of Iraq was simply crazed war-mongering by the U.S. that no decent or sane person could have supported.
Blair is gleefully shown being ridiculed by his publisher over a paranoid and unsaleable book of memoirs, facing financial ruin, being betrayed by (and betraying) Gordon Brown, sneered at and abandoned by his wife, being arrested for war-crimes, finger-printed, swabbed for DNA while being ridiculed by a policeman over the number of Iraqis he has killed, and shouted at by a magistrate in court at an extradition hearing (highly unlikely behavior towards an ex-Prime Minister). He is locked in a cell, suffers a heart attack, and is forced to lie in a hospital bed in the proximity of excrement, is then mocked and ridiculed by Gordon Brown again, and finally deported as a prisoner to Europe to face trial in the International Criminal Court — the film-makers plainly regret that because the U.S. has not recognized the ICC George Bush can’t be there beside him.
When he is summoned to the American Embassy someone mockingly suggests it is because the Americans want to make him President. He is shown as taking this seriously and replying that it is impossible because he is not an American citizen. All this is so over the top that a bare recapitulation of it sounds farcical — in fact some sort of successful farce could have been written along these lines — but it is all done with that kind of leftist earnestness that is entirely devoid of humor, subtlety, or even self-awareness. I have never seen anything so redolent of George Orwell’s “Two-Minute Hate” in 1984. There is a mental atmosphere of Stalinism or Chinese literature in its Maoist days about it. Mark you, while there is no doubt you are meant to end the play hating Blair, it is dubious that this is the effect such overkill actually achieves. I can imagine a subtler piece being more effective by far, and — Heaven knows! — there is more than enough that Blair could be legitimately attacked on.
And yet, in a way, there is a kind of poetic justice in this, though not of the kind that the makers of the play would have had in mind. I mentioned above the coarsening and lowering of British cultural standards under New Labour and the way the Gramscian Left has been given its head. In the sheer crudity of its viciousness this play is one of Blair’s, and New Labour’s, authentic children.