Had the Labour Party he led borne even a passing resemblance to the Labour Party we thought we had elected into government in 1997, we would not have had to endure the unnecessary and insulting performance that Tony Blair put on last week in the uterine comfort of his constituency in the North-East: that other Labour Party could never have followed him so slavishly wherever he chose to take them in the wake of George Bush, would have known it needed at all costs to replace him for its own long-term good, let alone ours, and so never allowed him the chance of fixing as he very theatrically has the mise-en-scène of a voluntary resignation. And a resignation like no other, date-stamped as it is: we have to gaze on an only half-empty stage for the six weeks between now and 27 June while Blair plays the role of our first ever ex-prime minister-in-waiting.
His Sedgefield address will not go down in history, unless the quality of political discourse in this country is corroded even further in years to come or political historians lose the plot altogether. It was, as we might have known it would be, an intolerably narcissistic exercise in which the repeated proclamations of the speaker’s sincerity sat more than a little awkwardly with the programmed slickness of their presentation. Back in 1997, we word-watchers found Blair something of a shot in the arm, when we realised that his syntax was more shapely and his vocabulary more enterprising than what we’d become gloomily used to in the leaden or fragmented speech patterns that pass as standard among the political elite. Blair’s fluency was sufficiently striking to make me wonder whether, when John Prescott eventually lumbered into view, he hadn’t been elevated against all the odds into high office simply in order to enhance his leader’s elocutionary merits by some desperate and close-to-home contrast. But the effect of Blair’s delivery when what he is saying is unscripted is very different when, as last week in Sedgefield, the text we are listening to is one whose every rhetorical move has been calculated and whose delivery has been planned and rehearsed ahead of the event.
What Blair said can be read on the Labour Party website. The text is punctuated there in the main only by full stops, for fear that an audience of voters might become rattled by having to take in what sounds like a subordinate clause. Hardly is he underway before he is laying his rhetorical cards on the table: ‘It is difficult to know how to make this speech today. There is a judgment to be made on my premiership. And in the end that is for you, the people to make. I can only describe what I think has been done over these last ten years and perhaps more important why.’ There was no call for Blair to make this pre-resignation speech in the first place, nor to make it a business-jet flight away up in Durham rather than at Westminster, and the pretence that he had found it somehow difficult to get the speech right is a first index to the botched demagoguery of so much that follows. Blair is inviting us all, yet once more, to follow him where we don’t belong and have no wish to be: in among the harped-on ‘convictions’ which, he insists on our knowing, have led him to act as he has over these past ten years. Whatever judgment ‘the people’ may come to, any history worth the name records as fact only what has been done; it may if it wants speculate as to why what was done was done, but only drawing a careful line between the deed and the possible motive. For Blair to suggest that the hidden reasons why he took the actions he did are ‘perhaps more important’ than the actions themselves is a scandal; it would require a degree of self-absorption beyond even him to be unaware that no motive at all can any longer seem sufficient as a justification measured against the consequences that his actions have helped to bring about in Iraq.
The lowest point of this prolonged and empty charade of self-justification came near the end of the speech, when Blair scaled new heights of either shamelessness or self-delusion: ‘But I ask you to accept one thing. Hand on heart, I did what I thought was right. I may have been wrong. That’s your call.’ It’s comforting up to a point to know that someone this capable of persevering in a belief that the jury might still be out on Iraq, or that an appropriate jury might be the surviving Labour faithful in Sedgefield, will soon be ready to head off and market his unacceptable convictions on the US lecture circuit.