Oh Do Stop Nailing Blair to the Cross: He Enjoys It

Posted by in commentary, politics

Tony Blair’s Jesus Christ Sings Edith Piaf per­form­ance yes­ter­day at The Queen Elizabeth Conference Centre, giv­ing testi­mony at the Chilcot enquiry into Britain’s involve­ment in the Iraq War, dis­ap­poin­ted a lot of people who hoped he would get nailed, or at least express a few regrets.

I’m not one of them.  Now, I enjoy a good scour­ging as much as the next man, espe­cially in the wake of a war that has cost so many lives, but it seems to me that the expect­a­tions of the media and pub­lic played into Blair’s (stig­mata) hands.  Tone the Catholic con­vert bar­ris­ter excels at cru­ci­fix­ions and turned in a per­form­ance Mel Gibson would envy yes­ter­day, hanging from the cross of his ‘belief’ that ‘remov­ing Saddam Hussein was the right thing to do’.  For all the spears in his side, noth­ing was made to stick.  He won’t need to rise on the third day because unlike Our Lord Jesus Christ he didn’t die — instead he thrived.

Besides, the thing that many if not most people in the UK long to pin on him – per­sonal and com­plete respons­ib­il­ity for our involve­ment in a dis­astrous US war – isn’t some­thing that can be really pinned on any one British politi­cian, how­ever annoy­ing his grin.  It has to be pinned on his­tory.  The his­tory of the UK’s ‘spe­cial rela­tion­ship’ with the United States.

Blair is more than happy to play the self-aggrandising role he’s been allot­ted by pub­lic opin­ion and the pub­lic is only fur­ther infuri­ated by the evid­ence of this.  Blair of course inter­prets his role not as The Man Who Invaded Iraq Illegally And Has Blood on His Hands, but as The International Statesman Burdened by Heavy Responsibilities, Special Knowledge and Big Decisions Reluctantly Made to Guarantee Our and An Ungrateful World’s Safety.  But it’s essen­tially the same role: A big­ger one than he deserves.  Blair is a much more piti­ful fig­ure than most of his enemies are will­ing to admit.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be offer­ing Blair a vinegar-soaked sponge, but scape­goat­ing him as all sides of the polit­ical spec­trum want to do – He lied to us!  He was syco­phantic to Bush!  A poodle!  A nar­ciss­ist! – obscures the lar­ger, much more pain­ful issue: that the UK invaded Iraq not because of weapons of mass destruc­tion.  Nor Al Qaeda.  Nor Saddam’s tyranny.  Nor Zionism.  Nor even for oil.  And cer­tainly not because Tony Blair is a weak man or a strong man.  No, in the final ana­lysis there was only one reason why we invaded Iraq. Because the US wanted us to.

Jump is what mil­it­ary satel­lites of imper­ial powers do when their mas­ter tells them to, and it’s very dif­fi­cult to ima­gine that any other British Prime Minister since 1940, with the pos­sible excep­tion of Harold Wilson (and look what happened to him – you can be sure that Blair did) could have said ‘thanks, but no thanks’ to Uncle Sam’s kind invit­a­tion, espe­cially after it had been attacked on 9–11 (the fact that Saddam had noth­ing to do with that attack is irrel­ev­ant — or at least it was for America’s need for ven­geance).  The Tories cer­tainly wouldn’t have done, and their attempts now to wriggle out of their enthu­si­astic sup­port for the war –without which Blair would not have won his Commons war vote – by bleat­ing about being ‘misled’ by Blair is just shame­less opportunism.

The former premier that Blair most calls to mind is Anthony Eden, who was forced out of office after the dis­aster of Suez in 1956.  Eden bigged up Nasser as a ‘mon­ster’ threat­en­ing his own people and The World – and also fam­ously lied to Parliament to jus­tify  inva­sion, but this isn’t why he was shamed and shunned, even more so than Blair.  By fatally mis­judging America’s wishes Eden had rubbed the UK’s nose in its post-war sub­ject status.  Suez was actu­ally a much more ‘jus­ti­fi­able’ war from the point of view of British interests than Iraq –  the canal was British and French owned and the route to (what was left of) the Empire.

But the Americans were not amused: they were com­pet­ing with the USSR at the time for anti-colonial cred and told us to bog off home. And we did, pronto.  Eden was so reviled at home not for lying as many claimed, or even for los­ing, but because he suc­ceeded in mak­ing it embar­rass­ingly clear to every­one, most espe­cially the French, that the UK no longer had a sov­er­eign for­eign policy.  He shamed us in the world’s eyes.  In our own eyes.

Likewise with Blair.  Those loud com­plaints about Blair’s ‘syco­phancy’ to George Bush over Iraq – well, really it’s mostly about how we don’t like to be reminded of our national syco­phancy towards US interests, unavoid­able as it may very well be.  Sometimes its that very unavoid­ab­il­ity that makes it so painful.

Blair, ever the actor, decided to make a vir­tue of what was essen­tially a polit­ical neces­sity.  Being some­thing of a devotee of the Method School, he prob­ably even suc­ceeded in con­vin­cing him­self of that neces­sity: and yes, doing so meant that, like Thatcher before him the US gave him a global stage to preen upon.  But this is what the US has done to the UK since the Second World War.  As a mil­it­ary satel­lite of the US – or giant American air­craft car­rier, as the great American anti-imperialist Gore Vidal puts it – we’ve been bigged up by US power as a way of fur­ther pro­ject­ing that power around the world.  Like, say, Austria-Hungary was by Germany in the early Twentieth Century, but with slightly less inter­est­ing headgear.  As a res­ult we have remained far too big for our post-Imperial, post-industrial, post-everything breeches.  Though we of course prefer to term it: ‘punch­ing above our weight’.  As if punch­ing above your weight was some­thing clever.  Even when you’re not tee­ter­ing as we now are on the verge of bankruptcy.

In hind­sight, to save our sens­ib­il­it­ies Blair should have made it look like the UK wasn’t so easy.  He should have made Bush wine and dine us more – and put up more of a vir­tu­ous struggle before giv­ing Bush everything he wanted and was going to get any­way.  Instead Tone seems to have gone the whole way on the first date.  We feel cheap instead of ‘special’.

True, the way Blair and his min­ions set about ter­ror­ising us and his own party with fairy stor­ies of WMDs was very naughty indeed, but as he now cheer­fully admits, if it hadn’t been WMDs it would have been some­thing else.  After all, we elect politi­cians to lie to us.  And did any­one, apart from David Aaronovitch, really believe any of it?  Something else that shouldn’t be for­got­ten: Blair would prob­ably still be in power and only hated by a small ‘bit­ter’ minor­ity of the British pub­lic if the US occu­pa­tion of Iraq hadn’t gone so spec­tac­u­larly awry – he was remem­ber, like his mas­ter Bush, feted by the press and much of the pub­lic in the imme­di­ate after­math of the inva­sion. They only fell out of favour when they seemed like losers rather than winners.

Nailing Blair to the cross of Iraq now won’t change what happened, or even stop some­thing like it hap­pen­ing again.  In fact, by obscur­ing the real nature of our ‘spe­cial rela­tion­ship’ with the US and instead blam­ing one man’s weak­ness and men­dacity, it may make it easier for it to hap­pen again.

And it is already hap­pen­ing again. In a war that threatens to make Iraq look like a pic­nic.  Despite all the dis­cus­sion and debate in the UK media about why we’re still in Afghanistan after eight years, what we hope to achieve, and what tac­tics should be employed, every­one in the media knows – but doesn’t say – there is only one reason why we’re in Afghanistan.  Because the Americans are. Everything else is hot air.  Or, in the case of Brown’s claims that the war in Afghanistan has to be fought to stop ter­ror­ist attacks in London: another 45 Minute WMD lie that no one believes.  After the UK dis­tin­guished itself in the 7/7 London bus and tube bomb­ings as being the only coun­try in the world that has suc­ceeded in rais­ing, hous­ing and edu­cat­ing its own sui­cide bombers, every­one knows that the real prob­lem the UK faces with rad­ical Islamism is homegrown.

Gordon Brown, Chancellor of the Exchequer at the time of the Iraq Invasion and now Prime Minister in large part because of Blair’s unpop­ular­ity over Iraq, is very for­tu­nate to have US imper­ial interests rep­res­en­ted these days by someone much more appeal­ing and per­suas­ive than George W Bush.  Someone who gets handed plaudits and Nobel Peace Prizes just for being elec­ted.  But how­ever nice his smile is, the Emperor is the Emperor and our troops must still die for him.  Why are we send­ing even more troops to Afghanistan?  To lib­er­ate women, build power plants, and stop people being blown up on London buses?  No.  They’re going because Barack ‘I-didn’t-vote-for-that-war!’ Obama says so.

Blair should be held to account for his actions of course, but we shouldn’t fall for his self-aggrandising view of him­self and his­tory.  Even if it takes our mind off the rather vul­gar details of the ‘spe­cial rela­tion­ship’ and how embar­rass­ingly, van­ish­ingly small our influ­ence is over our transat­lantic boss.

© Mark Simpson 2010