Lord North and America, Chamberlain and Munich, Eden and Suez, Blair and Iraq – some Prime Ministers will be forever remembered for their failures, and any achievements will languish in the shadows of the disasters that define their place in history. There is a rather pathetic irony to Tony Blair’s inclusion in this pantheon of doomed and discredited reputations, in that he more than any of his immediate predecessors was desperate to leave a legacy. However, this legacy won’t be the Good Friday Agreement or the minimum wage or civil partnerships or the Freedom of Information Act, but an unnecessary military adventure that claimed over a hundred British soldiers’ lives and was responsible for the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians, leaving a toxic aftermath that continues to spill blood on a virtual daily basis at the scene of the crime. Barbaric events in Baghdad this past week are directly descended from events that began thirteen years ago on Blair’s watch.
For a man so apparently obsessed with legacy, I can only assume Blair is either ignorant of history or simply stupid. There are so many examples of what becomes of a society when a totalitarian regime is removed and the people are left to their own devices that for Blair to pay no heed to them at all seems to highlight both ignorance and stupidity; and one doesn’t even need to go back that far to find them.
Blair only had to reverse barely a decade to recall the chaos in Eastern Europe following the fall of the Berlin Wall; irreparable tears in the Iron Curtain unleashed all the sectarian and nationalist forces that had been suppressed during the decades when Balkan countries had been Soviet satellite states; suddenly realising their newly independent nations were up for grabs led to the bloodiest conflict in Europe since the Second World War. It was still going on when Blair was elected Prime Minister in 1997, and the British Army’s own role in Kosovo was something he was happy to take credit for. How could he witness what had gone on there and not make the connection with Iraq should a dictator who had been in power for twenty-five years be abruptly toppled? Probably because his unquestioning compliance and infatuation with a US President blinded him to everything that was all-so sadly inevitable.
As Blair came to power, Bill Clinton was a year and-a-half into his second term; having emulated Clinton’s ‘third way’ policy, and to a large degree modelled his hip, swinging persona on Bill’s charismatic public image (opting for strumming a guitar where Clinton had blown a saxophone), Tony had an evident fixation with the tenant of the White House. And it wasn’t merely Clinton, but the office of the President itself. Blair’s idea of government was, as has been often pointed out, ‘presidential’ – minimising the role of the Cabinet and surrounding himself with aides and advisors rather than fellow MPs, with the odious Alistair Campbell particularly prominent.
When Clinton was superseded by George W Bush, any superficial political ‘differences’ anticipated between a Labour Prime Minister and a Republican President were rendered null and void. Blair was so in love with the concept of the Presidency that it didn’t matter which side of the American political divide the President came from. For Tony, it was as though the class nerd had been taken under the wing of the school bully, and he eagerly followed the Commander-in-Chief round with an excitable grin on his face, hardly able to believe the Leader of the Free World was his bezzy mate. Of course, this was all in Tony’s head. The rest of us cringed with embarrassment to see the humbling dynamic of The Special Relationship laid so bare.
The personal price paid by Blair for his love affair with the American Presidency is a permanent blot on his copybook that no amount of airbrushing will ever entirely remove. What’s perversely ironic is how Blair’s part in Iraq as recounted in the Chilcot edition of ‘War and Peace’ seems to have painted a portrait of a British Prime Minister at the head of the world leaders’ table for the first time since 1945. Had things turned out differently, what a legacy that would have been; talk about punching above your weight. But perhaps it was this obsession with legacy and determination to make a mark on the international stage that made Blair such a gift for an American administration more than happy for a gullible idiot to act as their patsy, as he continues to do.
Anthony Eden’s effort to arrest Britain’s slide into imperial oblivion with Suez was a desperate act by a man who had to step into the shoes of Churchill, a man who had waited years for his illustrious predecessor to retire and was determined to make his own mark by seeing Hitler reborn as Nasser; he needed a Hitler to prove himself. The humiliating withdrawal imposed by a furious Eisenhower highlighted the change in the world order that Eden was in denial of. With the exception of the Falklands, there would be no more military interventions by British Prime Ministers inspired by old colonial commitments.
Harold Wilson was forced to take the flak for not condemning US involvement in Vietnam, but that was the price he paid for spurning Lyndon Johnson’s entreaties for Britain to commit troops there; he could easily have gone along with LBJ because the war was America’s and America would ultimately carry the can for the disaster – quite a contrast with Blair’s approach, making Iraq as much of a British concern as it was an American one. And Blair’s ambition to be remembered as the great restorer of Britain’s international prestige, to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with a nation that has spent the majority of its independent existence at war with someone, overrode every other consideration – for the people of Iraq, for British servicemen and women (and their families), and for the country. I would add for himself, but going by his press conference yesterday, he still doesn’t think he did anything wrong.
© The Editor