Paul Anderson, Tribune column, July 23 2004
It might seem the height of perversity to most readers of Tribune, but in the past few weeks I’ve felt more than the odd pang of sympathy for Tony Blair.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve never been a fan of the man or his politics. Sure, before he became prime minister, I interviewed him a few times for Tribune and the New Statesman, and found him personable and charming. And yes, I voted for him in the 1994 Labour leadership contest.
But I was never a Blairite. I voted for him 10 years ago only because Robin Cook decided not to stand and the other candidates were not credible. My hopes of Blair (electoral success apart) were modest in the extreme — that he’d prove more of a constitutional reformer than he’d indicated previously, and that he’d be consistently pro-European.
From there, it was downhill all the way, even before he got to Number Ten. I found the “New Labour” rebranding of the Labour Party asinine and banal, its culture of spin and intolerance of dissent nauseating. Within a year of his becoming Labour leader, I was appalled by Blair’s extreme caution on everything apart from kow-towing to big business and law-and-order populism.
After 1997, with Labour in government, even my modest hopes evaporated. Far from embracing radical constitutional change, Blair did the bare minimum he could get away with. Devolution to Scotland and Wales and regional government for London went ahead — but reform of the House of Lords stalled after the removal of the hereditary peers, the long-awaited Freedom of Information Act was a damp squib, and the promised referendum on changing the electoral system for the House of Commons was postponed indefinitely.
On Europe, Blair blew his chance of securing early British entry into the euro, then stood in the way of developing a social-democratic bloc in the European Union with France, Germany and Italy by pressing a hard deregulationist position at every opportunity in every EU forum. Long before his capitulation to the Eurosceptics with his promise of a referendum, I’d given up on anything worthwhile coming from Blair’s supposed pro-Europeanism. As for the rest of the government’s record — well, there are certainly plenty of good things about it, including sustained economic growth, low unemployment and, at least in the past few years, serious increases in public spending (particularly on the health service and schools), but, as everyone knows, they have largely been down to Gordon Brown as Chancellor.
On those areas of domestic policy in which Blair has taken the lead — public service reform, crime, asylum — the government’s record has been at best uninspiring and at worst miserably illiberal. On foreign affairs, Blair’s real enthusiasm, his administration started surprisingly well, but since 2001 its unstinting support for the adventurism of George W Bush has been has been dangerously reckless and seriously damaging to Britian’s relations with Europe.
So why, you may well ask, have I started to feel some sympathy for Blair? Believe it or not, it’s because of Iraq. It’s not that I’ve come round to thinking that the war was right after all and that Blair deserves plaudits for his stance. Far from it: the decision to remove Saddam Hussein by force was irresponsibly risky and the US and Britain went ahead without adequate thought for what happened afterwards in both Iraq and the wider Middle East.
But I’m increasingly irked by the way the argument about the war has got stuck in a groove. Ever since Andrew Gilligan’s infamous broadcast more than a year ago, the media and most British opponents of the war have focused obsessively on a single issue — whether Blair lied about the threat of Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction in order to bounce parliament and public opinion into backing war.
This is of course an important question. If he did lie — or, rather, if he could be proved to have lied — that would be very serious indeed, and he would be deservedly hounded from office in disgrace. Yet precisely because the consequences of being found out telling such a big lie would be so devastating, it was always implausible that Blair had gambled on any such thing. And with each inquiry and report, culminating in the publication last week of Lord Butler’s findings on the uses of intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq war, it has become ever more clear that, whatever else Blair and his circle did wrong, he genuinely believed the intelligence reports that said Iraqi WMD were a threat, and he acted on them, as he put it, “in good faith”.
Of course, the intelligence was dodgy and the weapons have not been found. But that isn’t the point. On the main charge levelled against him, Blair is not guilty, and no amount of invective can secure a conviction. On this, he has been absolutely right to face down the pack that is baying for his blood. There are plenty of reasons he should go — but not for deliberately misleading us about WMD. Like it or not, he didn’t.