AS WITH CAESAR, SO WITH TONY BLAIR

“The good is oft interred with their bones”

When Julius Caesar was assassinated it was because powerful discontents in Rome feared he was getting above himself.  Caesar insisted he was not a king, according to the Greek-born Roman historian Plutarch, who clearly didn’t believe his assurances.  Caesar had showed disrespect to the Senate, too, which was considered an insult to the people, and was too eager to go to war, even when it wasn’t necessary, such as against the Parthians and Scythia.   Even so, another Roman historian, Seutonius, records that he planned a new canal to improve access to Rome, to drain the Pontine marshes, to build a highway from the Adriatic to the Tiber and to provide the best possible public libraries.   He also reformed the calendar so that the various ceremonies lined up with their correct seasons.   Ambitious stuff and undoubtedly good for Rome. After his murder, one of the conspirators, Brutus, reassured the Roman crowds that Caesar’s ambition had been his overriding fault.   In Shakespeare’s play, the mob are swayed by Brutus’ oratory.   Then Mark Antony speaks, initially in the face of hostility, and he assures the people that his aim is merely to bury Caesar, not to praise him.  “The evil that men do lives after them,” he says, “the good is oft interred with their bones.   So let it be with Caesar.”   And so let it be with Tony Blair?

There is no modern Plutarch to write the story of Tony Blair, although there are plenty of biographies, but Plutarch would surely have seen parallels.   Great achievements but a feeling that he was “getting above himself”, getting too ambitious and rather too keen to engage his troops in a war, whether or not it was truly justified.   Blair has had no Ides of March moment with dagger-wielding conspirators, but his character has been assassinated many times in the media.   Does he deserve that opprobrium?   That is a judgement for tomorrow’s historians to make.

FOLLOW THE LEADER

The first time I met Tony Blair he wasn’t sure he wanted to be interviewed by me.   It was at the Essen summit of the European Union in December, 1994.   As part of the Brussels press corps I was there to report for Sky News and I had arranged the interview in advance with Alastair Campbell, a man I liked and who was, I think, vital to Blair’s premiership.  Things started to go wrong for Blair when their ways parted.  The interview was one of a series, conducted in the garden of the building being used to house the media, and I was in a queue behind the BBC’s John Pienaar, a member of the Westminster lobby and a familiar face for Blair.   He didn’t know me and didn’t seem keen to talk, asking Campbell in a stage whisper if he had to do the interview with someone he didn’t know.  Campbell promptly, and in no uncertain terms, said yes, he did have to.  I got the feeling Campbell was very much in charge on that occasion.  I can’t remember what I talked about with Blair but as he was still fairly new to the job of Leader of the Labour Party and therefore of Her Majesty’s Opposition, I’d guess it would have been British politics, John Major’s administration and his plans for the future.  It probably involved Europe, too.   Blair has the memory and charm of the professional and successful politician; it’s said he modelled himself on Bill Clinton, that most practised and skilled worker of crowds and “pressing the flesh” (shaking hands).  Establishing a rapport with the media is a skill which, to Blair, was as instinctive as breathing.

Anthony Charles Lynton Blair rose to the top of the Labour Party as a fresh, new face with a vision, following the sudden and early death of John Smith, who had himself only been elected leader in 1992.   Not everyone saw him as Smith’s natural heir apparent.   “He didn’t strike me as someone who would go to the top,” admits Linda McAvan, a young party activist at the time who went on to become a Labour member of the European Parliament.   “I’d been a student in Edinburgh and met Gordon Brown and Robin Cook and they seemed more the favourites for senior office.     So I was surprised when Gordon stood aside after John Smith died, but as Tony grew into the job, happy that at last – after 18 wasted years in opposition – Labour had a leader who was on track to win.”

MINING FOR POPULARITY

Blair was the MP for Sedgefield, a small former coal mining town in the Durham coalfield of North East England.  In fact, the connection with Durham went back to when he was 5 years old; his father took a job as a lecturer at Durham University after four years at the University of Adelaide in Australia where the family had lived since Blair was just a year-and-a-half old.   In Durham, Blair attended the city’s highly-regarded Chorister School but when he was 13 he was sent to Fettes College in Edinburgh, sometimes described as the “Scottish Eton”.  He did not enjoy the experience.   It would be nice to imagine that Sedgefield would have felt like coming home for a lad partly educated in Durham, but it seems unlikely.   Blair’s father was a practising Conservative, which would not have gone down well in Sedgefield.

The nearby city of Durham is the venue for the annual Miners’ Gala, at which every coal mining town in the United Kingdom is supposed to be represented, led by its inevitable brass band and carrying magnificent banners which are proudly displayed to the various left-wing dignitaries and trades union leaders on the balcony of the County Hotel.   It has been held on the second Saturday of July since 1871, with brief breaks during wars or national strikes.   These days the slowly dwindling numbers of colliery towns and their banners are augmented by other trades unions, keen to take part in Britain’s biggest celebration of trades unionism.  To the deep puzzlement of its organisers and regular participants, Blair never attended one during his time as Prime Minister.   Although there are no longer any deep mines in Durham or the rest of the United Kingdom, the Gala – called by locals the “Big Meeting” – still attracts some 50,000 people every year, mostly from former mining communities who are still having new banners designed and made at considerable cost, so that they can be blessed in Durham Cathedral during the Gala.   It is a sight to see, although as Prime Minister, Blair never did.

A CHANGE OF KEY?

It’s significant, perhaps, that the theme music of Labour’s landslide victory and early administration was “Things Can Only Get Better”, performed by the pop group D:Ream, with particle physicist Brian Cox – now Professor Brian Cox – on keyboards.  Quantum particles and political promises have something in common.   As the great Danish physicist Niels Bohr once said: “Everything we call real is made of things that cannot be regarded as real.”   Well, perhaps not everything.   Blair saw his task as modernising the Labour Party, making it electable after the party had suffered four successive electoral defeats.  The Labour Party leader who had been in Winton Churchill’s wartime coalition government, Clement Attlee, and who went on to oust Churchill as Prime Minister in the 1945 election, had once said that he had felt “not much idea of destiny” when he came to power.   From the hype surrounding the election of Blair it seems likely that, unlike Attlee, he did.  He set out to distance the party from its traditional roots on the fairly far Left.   He eventually succeeded in abandoning the Party’s Clause IV pledge to work towards “the common ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange”; in other words, a programme of nationalisation.   One British Labour member of the European Parliament at the time, Scotland’s Alex Falconer, even approached me about the possibility of making a campaign video for him, opposing the proposed changes, although the idea came to nothing.   As another of his colleagues told me, he expected Blair to amend the first lines of the Red Flag, the left-wing anthem traditionally sung at Labour Party conferences, replacing the words

“The people’s flag is deepest red,

It’s shrouded oft our martyred dead.”

with

“The people’s flag is palest pink,

It’s not as red as you might think”.  

That didn’t happen, of course, but the singing of the Red Flag was abandoned altogether at party conferences under Blair.

One of his friends, the former actor Michael (now Lord) Cashman has no doubt about Blair’s legacy, saying his administration “on balance was highly positive. After 18 years of Tory rule the country’s public services including education and health in particular were at rock bottom. Schools were overcrowded, hospital waiting lists for serious operations were as long as 18 months. Morale in public services was low and the economy was far from positive.”   So D:Ream were right: things could only get better.

TOTALLING THE POSITIVES

The changes Blair’s administration put forward were opposed in Parliament but his massive majority saw them through.   “One must remember the brilliant sure start scheme giving young children that early start in life, support so that we could build 100 new hospitals, new schools recruiting new teachers, police, additional nurses and doctors. Investment in public services was at the top of the agenda,” points out Lord Cashman, “But equally a minimum wage was enshrined in law.  Positive directives on workers’ rights and the environment were no longer resisted in the European Union, they were supported.”

Tony Blair arrive pour le deuxime jour du conseil europŽen de bruxelles. Le 24/03/06

Blair did advocate peace, which makes it ironic that he ordered British troops to war on five occasions during his first six years in office, a record for any Prime Minister in British history. He was accused by the media of trying to adopt a more “presidential” style of government than any former British Prime Minister.   Certainly, he seemed to admire the US President of the time, George W. Bush, apparently eager to support his “war on terror” in the aftermath of the 911 attack on the World Trade Centre in New York.   Bush seemed to like Blair, too, greeting him before the assembled members of Congress and the Senate with the words “Welcome, friend,” when Blair attended a special sitting following the 911 terrorist attack, before going on to say that “America has no truer friend than Great Britain.”   But there were signs that the relationship was perhaps a little one-sided – Bush was overheard trying to attract Blair’s attention with an imperious “Yo, Blair!” – and in any case, even if the closeness was genuine and mutual, it was a closeness that didn’t please the British people.

But Blair’s time as Prime Minister is too well documented to require recapping.   He had the public largely on his side until his decision to join Bush in the invasion of Iraq, based on his claim that Saddam Hossein had “weapons of mass destruction”, or WMD, that could be launched against Britain in 45 minutes.   Saddam was a brute, a tyrant and a vicious thug but he never had any WMD, the intelligence upon which the claim had been based was at best doubtful and Blair stood accused of exaggerating it further to win over the House of Commons to military intervention without a UN mandate.  It compounded the anger of the thousands who had marched through London in protest at the invasion and the 139 of his own back-benchers who vociferously opposed it.   

STORM CLOUDS BLOW IN

Additionally, the Labour Party’s traditional supporters felt they were being left behind and ignored as Blair cosied up not only to the Americans but perhaps more worryingly to wealthy businessmen, getting them involved in funding projects in a way that many economists saw as detrimental to the interests of tax-payers.   The voters felt he was not so much “New Labour”, as he claimed, and rather more “Not Labour”.   But it was Iraq that ended the dream.   From then on, to misquote D:Ream, things could only get worse. 

Blair has admitted to mistakes (not many), including the suggestion that the invasion helped to motivate the creation of Daesh or Islamic State.   But he has refused to apologise for involving the United Kingdom in the conflict, despite being severely criticised in the Chilcot Inquiry in 2016.   In June, 2007, he officially handed over leadership of the Party – and thus the keys to Number 10, Downing Street – to his long-serving Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown.   He claimed in his 2010 autobiography, “A Journey”, that the relationship between them had been difficult.  It’s said that Brown agreed not to oppose Blair for leader on condition that Blair would subsequently stand down to let Brown take over.   He did, of course, but much later than Brown felt he’d been promised.  During his time in office, however, Blair had a number of successes to chalk up: the creation of the Department for International Development and the progress towards spending 0.7 per cent of national income on overseas aid, establishing a national minimum wage, some social reforms and improving the rights of gay people with the Civil Partnership Act of 2004. That was especially welcomed by Lord Cashman, a long-term campaigner for LGBTI rights.   “When it came to the LGBTI community, Blair led the way,” he said, “his speech as shadow Home Secretary in an equal age of consent debate in 1994 is a hint to his commitment, but he was unflinching in ensuring that LGBTI people were afforded equal rights, equal treatment, even when it meant facing down the House of Lords and having to use the Parliament Act in order to achieve an equal age of consent.” Blair never dismantled Margaret Thatcher’s restrictive laws on trades unions, however.   Faithful members of the Parliamentary Labour Party felt he had lost his assured touch and was no longer in line with public opinion.    “For someone who prided himself on being connected with the mood of the nation,” says Linda McAvan, “by the end of his term in office he seemed to have lost that feel for where the nation stood and seemed too close to the wealthy and the bankers whose careless management of the nation’s wealth would lead to the 2008 crash.”    Time to go, in other words.

TRIUMPH AND DISASTER

Hero to zero?   Not at all.   Whatever British voters thought, Blair was in great demand on the international speaking circuit, commanding extremely high fees for offering his words of wisdom.   When he came to speak to MEPs and journalists at the European Parliament in Brussels about progress in the Middle East peace process, one fellow journalist commented, tongue-in-cheek, that at least we hadn’t had to buy expensive tickets just to hear him.   An attempt by human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell to perform a “citizen’s arrest” of Blair for alleged war crimes during his visit was thwarted by security staff and Tatchell was ejected from the building.  Many felt that with Blair’s record in Afghanistan and Iraq he was the wrong choice to be Middle East Peace Envoy on behalf of the United Nations, the European Union, the United States and Russia – the so-called “Quartet” – but his achievements in Northern Ireland suggested otherwise.   His negotiating skills, backed up with EU funding and supported by the Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Bertie Ahern and the then Commission President, Jacques Delors, had put an end to thirty years of what are called “the Troubles”, which began in 1968: a bitter, bloodthirsty war between the IRA, who wanted a united Ireland, and the Loyalist paramilitaries, who didn’t.   The locals, more or less regardless of their affiliation, were tired of the sound of bombs and gunfire, the death and destruction.   Meanwhile, the leaders of the two main terrorist groups were happily carving up the spoils of their respective extortion rackets, meeting clandestinely, sometimes in the Crown Liquor Saloon, a beautiful and historic Victorian Belfast pub that has changed little in more than a hundred years.   Their criminal and secret use of the place was why it never suffered a bombing campaign while the International Hotel, just across the road and popular with visiting journalists, was bombed five times.   One Northern Irish politician, the Official Ulster Unionists’ Jim Nicholson, always said there were really three armed groups operating there: the IRA (Irish Republican Army), the UDF (Ulster Defence Force) and the CBC: common bloody criminals.

Bringing about an end to the killing must never be under-estimated; it was a stunning achievement, and the peace Blair won goes on, despite squabbles between the Democratic Ulster Unionists (DUP) and Sinn Fein (Irish for “ourselves alone”) and the random acts of sectarian violence between Catholics and Protestants.  Religion never really mattered here as much as was reported in the mainland British media except as a fig leaf to hide murderous activities, extortion and criminality.  Many of the killings carried out by the paramilitaries were done because the volunteers on both sides received a cash bonus for what they did and came to rely on it.   It’s why, when peace was achieved, there was a brief upsurge in so-called “punishment beatings”; the fighters, denied the chance to commit murders for money, sought to augment their incomes with less deadly but extremely unpleasant activities, often involving baseball bats.  It didn’t end the hatred that began with the Troubles.   Before that there was general co-existence, inter-faith friendships and only what one Sinn Fein councillor, Connor Maskey, described to me as “recreational violence” in Alexandra Park, where a wall now divides Republican and Loyalist communities.  The park is in a fairly wealthy area of Belfast, where Israel’s first president, Chaim Herzog once lived.  Now that uneasy state of affairs has been returning, although an untidy “no-deal” Brexit leading to a closed border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, complete with customs posts, could well bring about a return to the bad old days.  

AT THE HEART OF EUROPE?

If he never achieved anything else in his life, that one great peace accord, the Good Friday Agreement, would have earned Blair his place in history.   So, putting him in charge of bringing peace to the Middle East – another tangled web of religious and political hatreds – seems logical with hindsight, despite voices raised in opposition because of Afghanistan and Iraq, which smacked to many of an attempt to win favour in the United States.   The problem for Blair was that his stock had fallen; the Iraq adventure seemed to have been designed more to boost corporate America than to bring democracy to the country.   Indeed, what it brought was a vicious radicalisation of Al Qaeda sympathisers that then spawned other extremist groups.   

On the eve of Britain taking over the rotating Presidency of the European Council in the second half of 2005, Blair addressed the European Parliament.   “The media predicted a very uncomfortable ride for the British PM, who by backing George W Bush, had alienated many EU partners,” Linda McAvan recalls.  “My recollection is that Tony made a very powerful speech, using that self-deprecating style he often employed – ‘I know guys you’re not very happy with what I’ve been up to’ – style and by the end of the session, he had many MEPs eating out of his hand.   I remember leaving the Parliament Chamber and one of the Tory right wingers said to me “boy, I wish we had someone like that”.    They still don’t.

In the speech, Blair told MEPs that it was his aim to “put Britain at the heart of Europe”.   Unfortunately, with all the anti-EU stories circulating in a hostile British media, that proved an unreachable goal.  As a Brussels correspondent, working for a TV agency at the time, it’s easy to see why.   If I telephoned a regional newsroom with a positive story, however well it reflected on a local MEP or a group of visitors from the region, it was almost always turned down.   News editors would actually ask for Eurosceptic stories, claiming they were what people wanted, on what evidence I have no idea.   The picture back in the UK was a very distorted one.   There were plenty of politicians back in Britain who wanted to leave the EU and turn the UK into a kind of “Singapore in the North Sea”.   Oddly enough, in his autobiography, “A Journey”, Tony Blair quotes Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s leader in 1995, who told Blair “Britain can’t afford to be out of Europe in a world as it is today.   It’s just not realistic.”   While wishing to emulate Singapore, Britain’s Eurosceptics were never in a mood to heed the advice of its leader; advice, Blair wrote, that was echoed by the then Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh and others.

Blair took up the post of peace envoy immediately upon his resignation from government and the House of Commons in 2007.   He resigned the job eight years later but not before drawing criticism for allegedly profiting from his role. He has been accused of earning millions from giving advice to some fairly shady companies and less-than-wholesome governments, which rather undermines his record as a peace-maker.  There is no doubt that Blair has enormous talent and remarkable negotiating skills that could still be put to use for the benefit of the world.   Sadly, his brand is now seen as “too toxic” for him to have anything other than a negative effect on any campaign in which he gets involved.

FROM WHITE KNIGHT TO DEMON KING

In their book Heroes or Villains?, John Rentoul and the academic Jon Davis, wrote that Blair’s administration was more successful than those of other recent leaders and was, on balance, positive (many might say considerably more so than David Cameron’s or Theresa May’s, for example). “Historic victories were achieved,” they wrote, “mistakes were made, but overall we believe that the condition of the country improved.”

Since stepping down as Prime Minister he has set up the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, which aims “to promote respect and understanding about the world’s major religions”, and also a sports foundation, also in his own name, which is supposed to encourage participation in sport among disadvantaged children around the world.   In 2016, Blair set up the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, with a stated aim of making globalisation work for everyone, rather than just the industrialists and super-rich who mainly benefit from it, at least directly.  In fact, the rush towards globalisation has slowed considerably since 2010 as the cost of transporting goods stops falling and multinational companies find themselves losing out to local producers.   According to the Institute’s website, the idea is “to work on some of the most difficult challenges in the world today, including how the centre ground of politics renews itself with practical policy solutions”.   Laudable if somewhat vague and even esoteric, perhaps, but won’t his tarnished reputation prove a barrier to progress?   Certainly, on the political left where the Iraq war has led to him being considered a pariah and even a class traitor.   Given his background that’s a difficult charge to prove.   After all, his father was a Conservative.

Most controversial was his creation of Tony Blair Associates (TBA), which served in an advisory role for various governments.   TBA’s first contract, with Kuwait, was reported to have earned the company £27-million (€30-million).   While he was serving as Middle East Peace Envoy, TBA also worked for Nursultan Nazarbayev’s regime in Kazakhstan, reputedly earning another £16-million (€18-million) in the process.   That drew a lot of criticism, given Nazarbayev’s reputation as a cruel and ruthless dictator.   Blair said his task was merely to “nudge controversial figures on the progressive path of reform”.   He also denied receiving any personal gain from the work, although opposition activists in Kazakhstan said he would have “blood on his hands”.   Truth, as ever, is an elusive property, but there is no doubt that Blair earned a lot from TBA, whether it was, as his critics put it, “whitewashing” the blood-spattered public image of despotic regimes or merely helping them in terms of international negotiations and difficult public relations.   Becoming rich in such a way has not endeared Blair to the political left, nor, indeed, to the public at large.

ET TU, BRUTÉ?

He has become in the public mind what Julius Caesar had seemed to the Roman mob after hearing Brutus speak about his assassination in Shakespeare’s play.  Having achieved so much, according to Plutarch, Caesar ‘s “past successes induced and encouraged him to hope for more in the future and engendered in him plans for more grandiose projects and a lust for fresh glory”.   Familiar, isn’t it?  Were Blair’s ten years as Prime Minister and his three electoral victories to Britain’s advantage or not?   Lord Cashman has no doubt: “He changed the political landscape so that the Tories had to modernise and change their approach to human rights, including LGBTI rights, in order to prove that they were a modern and relevant political force.”   However, deciding the balance between good and bad in his case will be the job of future historians; my instinct suggests that they will plump for “mainly good” with some awful lapses of judgement along the way, further shadowed by his pursuit of personal wealth.   For now, though, in Britain at least, causes he openly supports seem to benefit more from his absence than from his participation.   It is a sad waste of an enormous talent.   “Sometimes I think the hardest thing is getting the right answer,” Blair wrote in the introduction to the paperback edition of his autobiography, “This is harder still in an era of uniquely low predictability.”   He also passes this comment on his time since leaving office: “The oddest yet most interesting thing about being an ex-leader is how much I did not know when I was leader, how much there is to learn about the world and how endlessly fascinating are the processes of change going on within it.”

The question is: will Blair be remembered with kindness or contempt?   Returning to the Julius Caesar comparison, despite his ambitious overreaching and the belief in his own superiority that led to his assassination, it’s worth noting that even today people place flowers on the spot where Caesar’s body was cremated by the Roman mob.   Still being remembered with gratitude and fondness after more than two millennia has to be some kind of recognition.   Perhaps Blair won’t have to wait quite so long.

ROBIN CROW

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