Why We Still Love The People’s Premiere

In that autobiography you may possibly have noticed former British PM Tony Blair is currently touting, the one called ‘A Journey’ (a title that masterfully captures the sublimely faux modesty of its subject), Blair compares himself to Princess Di.

‘“We were both, in our own way, manipulators” — good at grasping the feelings of others and instinctively playing on them.’

The papers of course have seized on the People’s Premier’s candidness, making headlines out of it.  That and his observation (conveyed in a kind of morse prose) that Gordon Brown had: “Political calculation, yes. Political feelings, no. Analytical intelligence, absolutely. Emotional intelligence, zero.”  And also his claim that he knew Gord’s premiership would likely be ‘a disaster.’

I agree with Tony.  Or rather, Tony agrees with moi.  Back in 2006, when Brown’s bizarre (and now conveniently forgotten) popularity with the media was rampant, just before his coronation as Labour Leader, I predicted, with Cassandrine accuracy, that Brown would be a disastrous leader of the Labour Party and that he had in fact already lost the next General Election.  I also compared Brown and Blair to Charles and Di, calling Brown an ‘operator’ and Blair a ‘great manipulator’.

Of course, it didn’t really take much insight to see all that coming, even if most of the media couldn’t at the time.  But in the piece I talked about how Blair’s ‘lying’ was what made him a much more successful, much more popular politician than Brown – who was very, very bad at it.  Which is not to say that Brown was a much more honest man – just that he wouldn’t and couldn’t perform for us.

‘Admitting he lied is not a mistake Blair is likely to ever make. Blair’s special talent, the thing that puts him ahead of most other politicians, certainly in British political history, is that he can convince himself his lies are literally the god’s honest truth, at least for as long as he’s telling us them. And – truth be told – in his mind, he never actually ‘lies’ to us at all. He’s an actor – an actor of the Stanlislavsky school: the emotion he shows us is ‘true’, it’s just usually attached to something that is not. This is why he’s such a great performer and politician – we appreciate and are flattered by the energy and the psychosis he puts into his performances. He is a great manipulator…’.

‘Brown on the other hand is a great operator. And operators, unlike manipulators, are painful to watch. They resent having to manipulate us and we resent having to watch them resenting having to manipulate us. Tony is Princess Di to Brown’s Prince Charles. Brown, who tells us he is ‘quite private’ and who prefers ‘substance over celebrity’ as if these were reasons why we should be interested in him, clearly wants power but he doesn’t really want to become the thing that power is in this mediated day and age: an actor. He won’t be forgiven for that by the electorate/audience.’

Brown’s desperate agreement to appear in those Election X Factor shows – in which David Cameron and Nick Clegg, both thespian heirs to Blair, shone with their ‘look, guys’ sincere insincerity – only threw his boring manse inflexibility into even more painful relief.  The electorate treated him with Cowellian disdain (the most damning thing of all was that those listening on the radio thought Brown had won the debates).

And even in the political afterlife the emotional gulf between Brown and Blair persists.  Blair of course is passionately hated, where Brown is merely despised. Or worse, pitied.

‘Doesn’t he look OLD?’ we spit, when Blair pops up in the papers or on telly, usually to tell us with those raised eyebrows how he doesn’t regret anything and didn’t fib about anything either, honestly guys.  ‘Hasn’t he aged BADLY?’ we gloat, pretending to be beyond his charms now.  But actually sounding just like a bitter ex trying to convince themselves that their former amore fell apart after the affair ended after he turned out to be sleeping with the au pair.

Truth is, Blair still has that Diana star quality – partly because he is still a great manipulator, but mostly because it’s so difficult to work out which side of the reason/unreason line he’s on these days.  You can’t but watch with rapt attention, trying to divine the content of his (Catholic) soul.

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

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 said ‘no’, 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 ended up 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 back 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 he saw as a political necessity. And in doing so found 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 unsinkable 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.

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 soldiers 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.

Dame Democracy is a Size Queen


Mark Simpson on why size matters in the privacy of the voting booth

Dame Democracy is a bit of a size queen.

Actually, she’s a lot of a size queen. The vital statistics she’s really interested in are not the size of the money supply or the rate of inflation, but the heft of a politician’s inflatable. All those graphs, statistics and ‘swingometers’ on election programs are trying to answer the only question that anyone’s really interested in: which candidate is hung like a baby’s arm?

And like a lot of size queens, Dame Democracy instinctively feels that men with faces like a bag of spanners are more likely to be packing a bigger monkey wrench. This is why we vote for men – and they usually are men – that you might be forgiven for thinking no-one would lay if they were the last suit left standing at the office party.

Of course, there are exceptions: Kennedy was a looker and still made the Presidency of the United States. But the American public was swayed by the fact that his father had one of the largest penises in the American Underworld, and Jack’s encouraging habit of fucking everything that moved – including one or two things that didn’t, such as Cuba and Vietnam.

Nixon was a man who strutted around like the proud possessor of a real tonsil-teaser. Perhaps this is why he was elected in 1969. However, a special Senate Committee was set up to investigate the true dimensions of his masculine virtue, calling witnesses and threatening to subpoena certain ‘tapes’ which, it was rumoured, would reveal the ‘whole picture’ and the full extent of his naughtiness.

Exposed as a liar, Tricky Dicky spent the rest of his life in disgrace, proving that there’s nothing the public hates more than a pussy-teaser who doesn’t deliver in the luncheon-truncheon department. His successor, Gerald Ford, didn’t measure up either, despite the encouraging impression conveyed by his habit of losing his balance and falling forwards whenever he became excited.

President Carter, it goes without saying, had the smallest penis in the history of American democracy. Political scientists had to employ high-powered optical instruments to locate it. The American public was initially fooled by his lazy, self-satisfied Southern Drawl and his intimate knowledge of farming practises, but Afghanistan and the Iranian hostage crisis soon revealed him for the short dick man he was.

So the US dumped Jimmy and plumped for Ronald ‘It’s Morning in America and I’ve got a woody’ Reagan whose virility was so enormous that it even promised to reach out into space, where it’s vast, hi-tech dome would protect America from penetration by Russian warheads, and eventually cow the Reds into submission. Which it did. Even if it actually belonged to Nancy.

That his Republican successor was called ‘Bush’ was hubris indeed. Despite his reaming of Saddam in the Gulf War, it was inevitable that someone called ‘Slick Willy’ would force him to submit. By the same token, Dole was never in with a chance in 1996 as his name rhymed with ‘hole’.

The last British leader to sport a world-class weapon was Winston Churchill, a man who didn’t need to read foreign muck like Freud to understand what sucking on a Havana cigar could do for his public image. But then we lost an Empire and gained Clement Attlee – someone Churchill once described as ‘a harmless, penisless, grass-grazing creature in the clothing of a harmless, penisless, grass-grazing creature’.

Sir Anthony Eden lost his dignity up the Suez Canal in 1956 but his successor Harold Macmillan thought he knew what the public liked when he crowed that we’d ‘never had it so good.’ Even though he was a promisingly tall man with large feet, the punters decided that they had had it better, actually, and dumped him for Harold Wilson who smoked a big black pipe.

But Wilson suffered a foreign exchange crisis which shrank the ‘penis in his pocket‘ and eventually lost to Heath who had the biggest nose in British political history but who led us into an unwilling threesome with Europe and its garlicky vagina dentata. Happily, he was brought to his knees by the stalwart miners (stiffened no doubt by being raised on Attlee’s free school milk, which did much to ensure the full muscular development of the lower orders).

So Wilson won again, but suddenly cut himself off only two years into his term of office. Callaghan plugged the gap but despite palling around with the TUC big boys he never quite got over this psychological blow and was forced into the hands of Jeremy Thorpe and the Liberals who massaged his frail majority for him.

Little wonder then that he was no match for Margaret Thatcher, a woman with the largest penis since Winston, her idol. Indeed it is rumoured that her penis was Winston’s, which after his death had been pickled in a jar at Conservative Central Office for the day when England would need it to rise again.

But Thatcher proved that even in the greedy world of politics you can have too much of a good thing. The Poll Tax and EMU had nothing to do with her downfall. In-party jealousy over her gargantuan Hampton Wick was to blame. Excessive endowment, you see, can blow up in your face (see also Alan Clark and Michael Portillo).

To appease the humming-bird tendency and heal the rifts in the party, Maggie’s successor, John Major, was chosen precisely because, despite his bragging name, he possessed an even smaller penis than Jim Callaghan. After being trampled on for years by Maggie Stryker, Major was a man that the Tories could at last look down to.

That he managed to defeat Neil Kinnock, a bald Welshman with a large nose who played rugby is further evidence that size alone isn’t always the determining factor. Sometimes the electorate will choose a man with a smaller penis simply because he doesn’t have red pubes. Shape and symmetry also count for something. Despite a consensus amongst psephologists that Blair’s membrum virile is bigger than Major’s Minor, there does appear to be some anxiety as to the actual width and weight of his instrument and whether it is one of those nasty numbers that has an unexpected bend to the left.

Whoever Britain’s next Prime Minister is, and whatever the dimensions of his electoral tackle, it seems inevitable that Dame Democracy’s attitude will eventually echo that of a size queen friend of mine who always crows about the size of her latest amour’s penis – ‘Mark! It’s MASSIVE!!’

Only to announce, usually about a week later, that she’s no longer seeing him, saying: ‘Oh, I didn’t like ‘im anyway – ‘e ‘ad a really small dick.’

(Originally appeared in Attitude magazine, 1997 and collected in Sex Terror: Erotic Misadventures in Pop Culture)

Gordon Isn’t a Moron – But He’s a Terrible Liar

Gordon Brown, Labour’s leader-in-waiting, can’t win the next election. This week’s address to the Labour Party Conference might as well have been his speech conceding victory to David Cameron.

Why is Gordie such a liability? Not because of the disdainful verdict of dodgy Newsnight focus groups, or his recent impatient unleashing of political-suicide bombers on Number 10, or even because his Conference speech with its liberal use of the word ‘aspirations’ sounded like that of an ambitious TUC chief, but because he’s such a bad liar.

The proof? The most embarrassing, excruciating lie from that speech – “It has been a privilege for me to work with and for the most successful ever leader and Labour prime minister” – has dominated the coverage of it.

That it should have been Cherie Blair, wife of the most successful ever lying Prime Ministers in British history who pointed this out to the world is entirely appropriate. After all, she must, by now, be something of an expert. She was though entirely right when she claimed she was misheard: she didn’t say, ‘Well, that’s a lie.’, you see. What she actually said was, ‘God, you’re such a bad liar’.

Certainly, we all squirmed and tutted when we heard him. It may or may not have been an endorsement that was wrung out of Gordon by the application of a hot poker to the Chancellor’s red box, but it was definitely torture for the rest of us. Even though Tony has yet to relinquish the reigns of power, and despite the fact that we’re all, in one way or another, as tired of him as he now looks, it was difficult watching Brown’s near-autistic delivery not to feel like we were missing Tone already. A feeling only enhanced by Blair’s Hollywood performance the following day, complete with his trademark, quavery-voiced sincere insincerity and impressively shameless use of the word ‘truth’ in the first few seconds of his final speech to Conference.

Those who complained that ‘Blair lied to us!’ after it emerged that there those Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq were so fiendishly well-hidden that they, er, actually didn’t exist at all, slightly miss the point. It’s his job. Tone has been so successful and so popular for so long precisely because he lies, and lies so well. Even after he has been caught lying in Lying Town, as with Iraq, he comes up with other lies that are equally if not more persuasive, or at least momentarily diverting. He was, if you remember, re-elected with another thumping majority after the criminal Iraq debacle.

Iraq aside, Tone usually tells us the lies we want to hear – and he tells them extremely convincingly. That’s what a politician’s job is. That’s what we elect them for. That’s what ‘aspirations’, the things Brown kept referring to in his speech, really are. Otherwise known as ‘illusions’. It’s the basis of most relationships. Like most suffering wives, however, what we don’t like and will not tolerate is having our faces rubbed in it . This is why the Hungarian PM and Blair pal Ferenc Gyurcsany got into such a pickle. Not because he lied but because he admitted – even behind closed doors – that he lied.

Admitting he lied is not a mistake Blair is likely to ever make. Blair’s special talent, the thing that puts him ahead of most other politicians, certainly in British political history, is that he can convince himself his lies are literally the god’s honest truth, at least for as long as he’s telling us them. And – truth be told – in his mind, he never actually ‘lies’ to us at all. He’s an actor – an actor of the Stanlislavsky school: the emotion he shows us is ‘true’, it’s just usually attached to something that is not. This is why he’s such a great performer and politician – we appreciate and are flattered by the energy and the psychosis he puts into his performances. He is a great manipulator. (His final tear-jerking address to the Labour faithful demonstrated that.)

Brown on the other hand is a great operator. And operators, unlike manipulators, are painful to watch. They resent having to manipulate us and we resent having to watch them resenting having to manipulate us. Tony is Princess Di to Brown’s Prince Charles. Brown, who tells us he is ‘quite private’ and who prefers ‘substance over celebrity’ as if these were reasons why we should be interested in him, clearly wants power but he doesn’t really want to become the thing that power is in this mediated day and age: an actor. He won’t be forgiven for that by the electorate/audience. Clearly he will lie and lie to get the top job and to keep it – he has already proved this to us by carefully parroting Tony’s lies about Iraq, for example – but unlike Tony he won’t do us the courtesy of lying convincingly, let alone entertainingly.

The delivery of his speech yesterday was full of visual proof of this. I have no idea what Brown is like in the flesh, but on telly – i.e. the real world – Brown looks like a loser. Dead, hooded eyes which offer no contact with the audience or the camera, choreographed but strangely ill-timed, clawing hand movements and weird goldfish-like gulps at the end of each line. After nine years of Tony’s glamorous drag queen charisma, he looks like a particularly deluded punter auditioning for X-Factor while Simon Cowell pulls faces.

Brown may well, as he says, ‘relish’ the opportunity to ‘take on Cameron’, but Cameron looks increasingly likely to simply sweep him aside. After a couple of years of Brown-ness the electorate will stampede to elect the smooth, moisturised, green-ish manipulator Cameron, someone who knows exactly what we want to hear and how to coo those sweet nothings in our ears. By then he’ll be seen as Tony Blair without Iraq. Tony Blair without the TUC. Tony Blair without the haggard face.

Tony Blair without Gordon Brown.
© Mark Simpson 2006