Unbelievable Blair

John Lanchester

Sixteen years ago, not long after I began working as an editorial assistant at the LRB, my bosses gave me a top-secret assignment. My mission, should I choose to accept it, was to find out if there were any talented newish Labour MPs who might write political pieces for the paper. (The whole idea of finding an MP who can write, and who might have anything interesting to say, and who might be willing to say it – let’s just agree to call this a period detail.) My research involved taking the number 14 bus all the way back to Parson’s Green and asking my flatmate, who worked for Hansard, to find out who was spoken of among her colleagues as the Coming Man. She reported back a day or so later.

‘Tony Blair.’

‘Never heard of him.’

‘He’s a used Johnnie,’ she added – this being the name by which former members of St John’s College, Oxford, refer to themselves. We knew that because both of us were also, to use the posh term, Johnians.

The LRB asked Blair to write a piece, and he did. Its left-is-best vibe makes entertaining reading now, but it’s well written and at least showed signs of a mind at work. The main thing I remember about it was that Blair dropped into the London Review’s Tavistock House office in person to deliver it, one Friday night. He came literally bounding down the corridor, handed in his piece with a flash of teeth, and then bounded out towards Euston and the train north for his constituency, leaving behind an impression of youth, good looks and energy, which made a lasting and to this day hotly denied impression on a female member of staff whom I shall refer to only as –--.

That was the only piece Blair ever wrote for the paper. The following year he was elected to the Shadow Cabinet, and his days of being a backbencher with enough time to write pieces were permanently over. During the subsequent years I egged him on from the sidelines, in that way you do when as a clueless punter you accidentally put a bet on the right horse. It’s easy – too easy – to forget the feeling one had in those days, that the Tories were going to be in power for ever. If you thought of a Labour politician as a good thing, you never thought of him as someone who was going to be in office one day. Liking Blair had no consequences. It was like wishing Ryan Giggs was eligible to play for England.

That changed, once Labour won the 1997 election and Blair was Prime Minister. Within about ten minutes, Blair was being spoken of on the left as a blatant sell-out, a public-school-educated Tory infiltrator. The gist of the complaints was always the same: Blair’s position on x was a tragic, unforgivable betrayal of Labour and the electorate. The x in that sentence varied – it could be Kosovo, indirect taxation, public sector reform, proportional representation, the euro, devolution, freedom of information, schools, health, the decision to stick to Tory spending limits for the first two years of government, you name it. I very quickly felt as if I was the only person I knew who still basically approved of Blair, apart from all the people who voted for him. (Which, by the way, I didn’t. I was in Hong Kong and forgot to arrange a postal vote.) Mind you, Labour’s electoral majority has always been misleading when it comes to assessing Blair’s actual popularity. He won his stupendous 179-seat majority in 1997 on the basis of 13,517,911 votes – which is a lot, but not as many as the 14,093,007 votes John Major won in 1992, and Major’s Government quickly became the most unpopular in modern British history. Blair’s 2001 majority of 167 seats was won with 10,724,895 votes, which is fewer than Kinnock’s losing total in 1992 (11,560,484). Labour’s huge majority is attributable to low turnouts and to the fact that the British electorate has finally twigged the point about tactical voting, rather than to any mad passion on our part to slip between the sheets with New Labour. Blair’s caution about alienating the electorate is based on a reasonable attitude towards the numbers.

So by about the autumn of 1997, I was pretty much the only person I knew who thought, or at any rate said that I thought, Blair was au fond a good thing – or at least (a slightly different point) the best thing we were likely to see elected Prime Minister. I had three main reasons for sticking by my fellow used Johnny.

1. Tory vileness. I’ve been amazed by how quick to forget people seem to be: specifically, how quick to forget the human and political ghastliness of the Party which ruled us for 18 years. I don’t just mean Thatcher and the joke monsters like Hamilton, but the day-in, day-out ignominy of being ruled by men like Kenneth Baker and Norman Fowler, John Wakeham and Michael Howard; of turning on your TV to see Michael Heseltine in a combat jacket, or Ann Widdecombe waving a pair of handcuffs, or Michael Portillo talking about ‘three letters which send a chill down the spine of the enemy: SAS’, or John Selwyn Gummer over-energetically feeding his daughter a beefburger. Think of all the ways in which the Tories made Britain seem mean-spirited, aggressively materialistic, philistine, corrupt and xenophobic; then think that they were in power for just under two decades; then bear in mind Blair’s point that the choice isn’t between this Labour Government and some ideal other Labour government, but between this Labour Government and the Tories. (Actually, this doesn’t follow quite as seamlessly as Blair thinks it does – but let that pass.) To me, Blair on his worst day is preferable to that galère at its best.

2. Policy. Although Blair sounds like a Tory more often than not, his Government’s policies – which perhaps means Gordon Brown’s policies – have been more redistributive than they admit to being. Yes, too much of this money is raised through indirect taxation; and the Government is storing up trouble for itself by refusing to make the case for higher income tax, instead doing things by stealth and relying on the electorate to be thick about noticing this; but still, the general trend is positive. Ditto for the belated increases in public sector spending (targeted to kick in properly from about 2004, just as our Gordon is about to become Prime Minister – but that’s another story). In one area I have seen at first hand, primary education, there has been a marked improvement; secondary schools and hospitals are harder to fix, but still, throwing money at them is a good way to start. As for foreign policy . . . here we come to the nub of the anti-Blair problem. Blair’s support for the Nato policy on Kosovo was a mad act of Bonapartist adventurism, bound to end in failure, ignominy, thousands of civilian deaths and Milosevic in power for ever. That was the consensus on the left – until, whoops! the regime collapses and Milosevic is on trial at the Hague. Surely if the prognostications were bad, then the outcome, which was the opposite of the prognostications, was, I don’t know how to put this, but, you know, good? Similarly, with the dislodgement of the Taliban. After a couple of weeks the war was going to be a ‘quagmire’, featuring among other things ‘up to’ six million deaths from hunger and cold in the upcoming winter. But the quagmire didn’t happen, nor did the six million deaths from starvation – so surely that outcome was a good thing? Apparently not, since many of the voices predicting catastrophe immediately segued to declaring that the situation in Afghanistan was, or would be, just as bad as it had been. The troubling fact, for many on the left, was that in Kosovo and Afghanistan and Sierra Leone, Blair took an unpopular position, predicated on a claim about the outcome of intervention, and was proved right. (I should say that I had serious doubts about what the Government did in Kosovo and Afghanistan, and regard myself as having been proved wrong.) The reluctance of his critics to admit this leads me to:

3. The reluctance of the Western democratic Left to be actually in power. We prefer oppositional politics; we would rather ‘speak truth to power’ (as we self-praisingly call it; am I the only person whom that phrase nauseates?) than exercise it. We are always against force; we are always quick to denounce a compromise, declare a sell-out, announce an apostasy. At the bottom of this there is, I think, the fact that most left activity has an anti-authoritarian impetus which is in some sense Oedipal. Power is authority, and the rejection of authority is what, in a deep and dark way, is at the heart of much left politics. The frenzied criticism on the left of figures like Blair stems from the fact that, in some secret part of ourselves, we would prefer to be uncompromisedly out of office than compromisingly, muddyingly, stainedly in it.

I mention all this not because my view of Blair is a matter of world-historical importance, but to establish my credentials as someone who has for years been basically pro him. Many of the people who are rounding on Blair over the Strange Case of the Missing WMD are enemies and grudge-holders, and are using the issue in an opportunistic way. Blair’s problem, however, isn’t with them, but with the large part of the population who don’t love or hate him, but who do want to know why we went to war, and want the reasons for it to have been satisfactorily explained in advance, rather than dredged up afterwards. War is not supposed to be a form of performance art, where the reasons things happen are vague and indeterminate and occur to you only later, if at all. This is particularly the case when our Government goes to such inventive lengths to frighten us, not just by the tanks-at-Heathrow gimmick (a stunt which the British tourist industry estimates will cost £1 billion in lost business) but by the steady drip of leaks, all of them designed to increase fear over the issue of WMD. Leaked information about the ordering of anthrax vaccine, leaked information about plans to quarantine attacked cities, leaked information about scary Cobra briefings – all designed to wind us up, and all setting a tone entirely different from the one which was adopted during the decades of IRA bombing, when civilians in this country really were at risk from terrorist action. In the course of an entirely sedentary life in London I’ve twice been within a hundred yards of a terrorist bomb, at Clapham Junction in 1993 and the Strand in 1996. Many, many other Britons could say the same. The message during the IRA years was keep calm, or we are helping the terrorists to win. So why is the message now so different? During the attempt to frighten us into supporting the war on Iraq, Blunkett even talked about the advisability of hoarding, something which governments never encourage – in fact, you can tell when a government is genuinely thinking about the issue of hoarding, because that’s when it tells you not to. People don’t like being frightened, and they don’t like it when their government is frightening them on purpose, and they especially don’t like it when their government is frightening them as a way of drumming up support for some other risky, unpopular thing they are planning to do.

It’s as a well-wisher of Blair’s, therefore, that I say, in all balance and fairness, that the issue of Iraq’s missing WMD has Blair in the deepest shit of his political life. He is especially in the shit because he seems to think that the subject is duckable or fudgeable, and that he can somehow point to the existence of mass graves in Iraq as a retrospective justification for the war, like a game-show host offering a consolation prize. Saddam was, or is, a terrible man, a genuine monster, and the people of Iraq are vastly better off without him (though Baghdadis will be better off still once they manage to get reliable access to some drinking water free of excrement). But that’s not why we went to war. We know it’s not why we went to war because Tony Blair said so in the House of Commons. The reason we went to war was to disarm Iraq. ‘Our purpose is disarmament,’ Blair told the Commons on 24 September. Not much wiggle room there.

Or at least, that’s what he said at the time. In fact, we went to war because the US was going to war: Blair’s choice was a second-order decision, not about whether or not there would be a war (there would, because Bush had decided so) but about whether or not we would join America. That was the real choice, and the specific rationalisations to do with WMD/Saddam as monster/VX gas being released on the Tube/sanctions being flouted/those poor Iraqis – gosh, it must have felt like a buffet, where it all looks so tasty you sometimes don’t know what to have. What was really on offer, however, was a set menu, and the only choice was yes or no.

I should at this point say that I was a reluctant supporter of the war, on the grounds that – I know many LRB readers will be laughing – I believed what Blair said in his Commons statement of 24 September. Saddam’s ‘chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programme is not a historic leftover from 1998 . . . His WMD programme is active, detailed and growing.’ The now famous Intelligence dossier concluded that ‘Saddam has . . . existing and active military plans for the use of chemical and biological weapons, which could be activated within 45 minutes, and that he is actively trying to acquire nuclear weapons capability’. So Saddam had WMD, and these constituted a threat to the United Kingdom. Saddam + al-Qaida = possible dirty bomb attack on London = legitimate casus belli. (I know about the elisions in this thinking, by the way.) My reading on the subject, especially Kenneth Pollack’s patient and methodical The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq,[*] which is all the more persuasive for being written by someone who is clearly no hawk, more or less convinced me. No one I knew of who had studied Iraq thought that Saddam did not have WMD. Pollack sees it as self-evident that he did. And indeed, it makes no sense that Saddam did not have these weapons, since he spent so long energetically trying to acquire them, and then went to such self-destructive lengths to stop the UN from looking for them. But as Robin Cook put it in his resignation statement, it does seem that he had ‘no weapons of mass destruction in the generally agreed sense’. Cook was seeing the same Intelligence data that Blair was, so those data must have been at least ambiguous. But Blair decided that the stuff must be there, evidently on the grounds that it made no sense for Saddam not to have WMD. It is hugely surprising – dumbfounding – that he didn’t. But it seems that he didn’t, and that means that we went to war on the basis of either a mistake or a lie.

That Blair seems not to understand the gravity of his situation is surprising at first glance, then less so. He seems to be expecting the electorate to think, in the words of one Labour minister, ‘you got rid of a bad bloke, well done.’ He genuinely doesn’t seem to understand the damage done to his credibility by the fact that the justification for war has changed ex post facto. But although we might as an electorate be thick and supine, we aren’t that thick and supine. We went to war to disarm Iraq, and if Iraq turns out not to have been armed in the first place, none of the people whose tendency was to believe Blair will ever believe him again. I know because I am one of them. The WMD affair damages Blair so badly because he seems not to understand its seriousness. I think we went to war because of a mistake, rather than as part of a criminal conspiracy; but Blair must be seen to be taking this issue to heart, and not just ill-temperedly assure us that the evidence will turn up – since the evidence merely turning up in that way would provide precise and complete retrospective justification for everybody (i.e. the rest of the world) who wanted to give the weapons inspectors more time.

The key issue for Blair seems to be his own sincerity. He is desperate to convince us that he believes in the rightness of his actions. This has been a faultline in his personality from the very beginning. It’s instructive, in this context, to consider the ways in which he differs from Thatcher. Her psychological and political make-up was based on the proposition ‘I am right.’ She relished disagreement and opposition, and the feeling that she was saying things that people did not want to hear but secretly knew were true. When she slipped into madness, or if not madness then something close to it, she did so with the wattage of her blazing-eyed rectitude higher than ever. But Thatcher never claimed to be Good, just Right. Blair’s political personality has always been predicated on the proposition ‘I am good.’ His dewy-eyed, slightly fumbling sincerity – his brilliantly articulate impersonation of earnest inarticulacy – has all along been tied to this self-projection as a Good Man. He is careful about not touting his religion in public, but he doesn’t need to, since the conviction of his own goodness is imprinted in everything he says and does. It is one of the things he has in common with the party he leads, and one of the reasons people are wrong when they say that Blair is a natural Tory. Thatcher’s sense of being right fits into the Tory Party’s self-image as the home of unpopular and uncomfortable truths. Blair’s sense of being good fits the Labour self-image as the party of virtue: the party we would all vote for if we were less selfish and greedy.

Blair seems to want this sense of himself to override all the boring factual details about things like why we went to war, the legal basis of war, whether Saddam had WMD, whether he in point of fact posed any risk to the UK, whether MI6 are incompetent or merely ill-used or both; Blair just wants us to take his word for all of it. Inside the Downing Street Wolfsschanze, all this is seen as an issue for the ‘chattering classes’ – a phrase as beloved of New Labour as it was of the Tories and one which would have caused Goebbels a snicker of professional respect. This world-view means that the Government doesn’t have to listen to a word said by its critics since all our arguments come pre-dismissed. It is exactly analogous to the point Thatcher got to when her sense of her own rightness began to override her sense of external reality. It may be too simple to say, as Clare Short said, quoting an unnamed Tory, that ‘no one ever leaves Downing Street entirely sane.’ But there is a moment in most premierships when it is clear that the external world no longer counts quite as much in the Prime Minister’s deliberations as it once did; a point where we no longer believe them, and they no longer much care what we think. That boyish figure rushing down the corridor to the LRB’s offices has travelled a long way.

[*] Random House, 528 pp., $25.95, September 2002, 0 375 50928 3.