It is hard to envisage now but once upon a time Tony Blair was an eager to please, likeable, pragmatic politician. In 1997 he caught the mood of the times and led Labour to an election victory of historic proportions, and inflicted the worst-ever defeat on the Conservatives, from which they took more than a decade to recover. At that year’s Labour conference Alastair Campbell, Blair’s head of communications, leaked a private poll which revealed that Blair had a 93% public satisfaction rating.
Whatever happened? Power, the allure of others with global authority and influence, being impressed by and wanting to keep in with elites and the super-rich from Murdoch to the City, and the limits of charismatic leadership, are part of the explanation. But this doesn’t account for the descent of the reputation of Tony Blair to its current nadir. Iraq played a huge part in the political decline of Tony Blair, and has created an open wound in British public life about politicians and trust which has been bitterly damaging and corrosive.
Now, 4,857 days after the UK and US launched their military invasion of Iraq, finally comes the Chilcot report into the war. After the false starts of the Hutton and Butler reports which were, to all intents, blatant whitewashes, we finally have what amounts to the most comprehensive account yet of the Bush-Blair march to war.
Chilcot in quiet, calm, devastating language has torn the Blair case for intervention apart. While he doesn’t pronounce that Blair lied, he does give credence to the argument that Blair misled the country. Chilcot stated: 'We have concluded that the UK chose to join the invasion of Iraq before the peaceful options for disarmament had been exhausted. Military action at that time was not a last resort'.
In his press conference, Tony Blair expressed 'more sorrow, regret, and apology than you can ever believe’ and said he took 'full responsibility’, but it was unclear what if anything he was offering an apology for. He looked and sounded like a haunted, broken man, close to the version in Robert Harris’s novel 'The Ghost’, but then considering his track record, we are left with the impression it might all be an act.
New Labour ministers from the period – Jack Straw, Alan Johnson, Hilary Benn – were rabbits caught in the perpetual headlights of the world circa 2003, and repeated the same rationale and mantra that 'they did what they did out of good faith’. Far worse and more odious was Alastair Campbell’s take ('no lying, no deceit’) – still defending his former master, the dodgy dossiers, and taking swipes at the BBC and other detractors of the dysfunctional style of government he hugely contributed to.
Many of their excuses are destroyed by Chilcot, particularly, the 'if we had known now what we know in hindsight’ argument. Chilcot makes clear that the case for war was not made in 2003 and that there was indecent rush: 'We do not agree that hindsight is required. The risks of internal strife in Iraq, active Iranian pursuit of its interests, regional instability, and al-Qaida activity in Iraq, were each explicitly identified before the invasion'.
It is too easy to see this as all about the failings of Blair, or even other senior individuals such as Campbell, and the collusion of Gordon Brown. Instead, there is a much bigger context. One is the broken nature of British government decision-making. The UK cabinet – a forum which once debated some of the key issues in this country’s history – was reduced to a weekly pep talk by Blair – and diminished to the extent that it had few important discussions on any major issue over his premiership and made next to no critical decisions.
A big historic lesson is the dangers of prime ministers who freelance and play fast and loose with intelligence. Whenever this has occurred, political humiliation for the UK has followed. Blair’s predecessors in this included Neville Chamberlain who, in conducting his appeasement of Hitler and Mussolini, cut out the Foreign Office and official intelligence and opened numerous back channels to the dictators. This culminated in Munich in September 1938 when the UK and France agreed to the dismemberment of a democratic state, Czechoslovakia.
The other example – Anthony Eden – who thought that having been foreign secretary he could interpret the Middle East and the Egyptian dictator Nasser’s intentions better than any formal expertise. This ended in the disastrous UK-French military attack on the Suez Canal in 1956, Eden lying to the House of Commons, and his resignation. These are ignominious antecedents – as the UK never fully recovered its reputation for years after Munich and Suez, and the same is true today over Iraq.
One fundamental dynamic in the Iraq conflict is the US-UK relationship, and Blair’s decision to 'hug them close’ in terms of George W Bush and the US administration. It was Alastair Campbell who coined the phrase, 'Poodle-ology gone mad’, talking about Bush and Blair, and the now infamous memo of 28 July 2002 from Blair to Bush where he states, 'I will be with you, whatever’, will define him in history.
The UK’s obsessive Atlanticism, its constant evoking of 'the special relationship’, and rather dependent need to be recognised and praised, wasn’t exclusive to Blair or New Labour. However, they did take this love affair to excessive proportions, even naively projecting that the US was just a bigger, more glamorous version of the UK, and that the New Labour persuasion machine could work its magic in the corridors of Washington.
This matters to this day, because there is a direct line from Blair and the Iraq disaster, the over-investment in the US relationship, and New Labour’s failure to convince the British public that the UK was a European country whose future lay in an integrated EU. The Iraq disaster burned Britain’s bridge with the EU, and sadly led to the upsurge of eurosceptism, and ultimately the Brexit vote.
The Blair premiership and how it lost any sense of humility, honesty and capacity for self-reflection with Iraq, is a warning about the distortive effects of charismatic leadership. Blair came to the conclusion that he could persuade literally anyone of anything: from the US administration of the need for a Palestinian state, to his 'masochistic sessions’ with sceptical voters to win them over to the case for war. Ultimately, Blair’s narcissistic self-love was his undoing – and his decoupling from any notion of moral anchor.
The anger about Iraq sometimes perplexes some of the small band of Blair true believers left. What they don’t recognise is that this is about Blair and Iraq, but it is about much much more. Even at their peak popularity in 1997, New Labour and Tony Blair were never really loved. They were respected and tolerated, but did politics and power in a manner which was shoddy and shifty and which contributed to its downfall.
This has played a major role in the current sad state of progressive and centre-left politics in Britain. First, Ed Miliband then Jeremy Corbyn were elected as Labour leaders in response to the New Labour era, its excesses, and the elemental anger that many people feel about Iraq.
The fury of many Blair haters, the moniker 'Bliar’, pointless attempts to impeach Blair, need at some point to be parked. They contribute nothing constructive to the current chaos of the Middle East, do not help the people of Iraq one iota, or aid the development of a progressive ethical foreign policy for which Robin Cook fought and resigned from cabinet. The British left have to at some point shift from defining themselves by their numerous battles with, and opposition to, Tony Blair and in particular, the Iraq war. There are bigger challenges for radicals in the here and now.
Radicals and left-wingers need to tackle the deeper motivations which took the UK to the killing fields of Iraq – the Atlanticist relationship, the misuse of intelligence and security, the UK’s now to be formal detached relationship with Europe, the continual obsession with the Middle East and toppling governments we don’t like – the 2003 invasion of Iraq being the third UK intervention in the country, after the 1916 and 1941 invasions.
History was never Blair’s strong point. Captain Clement Attlee, unquestionably Labour’s greatest ever leader, was nearly killed in a 'friendly fire’ incident in the battle of Hanna in what was then Mesopotamia in 1916. If Blair had known a bit more Labour history, he could have saved himself from his own shadows.
Rather than continually dwell on the crimes and misdemeanours of the Iraq conflict, instead we should use it a warning and lesson to say never again to such grotesque and ill-thought-out military adventurism. The UK, its people and its armed forces, deserve better. That won’t come about just by damning Tony Blair as a war criminal.