When Barbara Castle told Harold Wilson that renegotiating Britain’s membership of Europe would end in ‘a messy middle-of-the-road muddle’, Wilson replied that he felt ‘at his best in a messy middle-of-the-road muddle’. This from Wilson’s official biographer, Philip Ziegler. Wilson had one or two good jokes, unlike Callaghan or poor Attlee, so often the butt of other people’s. Tony Blair is not much given to joking. The three memorable gags of his career have come as it nears its end. It’s interesting, in a person who likes to look serious even when he smiles, that they take him to the brink of buffoonery.

The assertions, after the 7 July bombings, that Iraq had nothing to do with what had happened weren’t all that funny (‘Let us expose the obscenity of these people saying it is concern for Iraq that drives them to terrorism’ etc). Yet people talked about them as a ‘joke’. By the end of the year Blair had been contradicted by almost everybody, including the home secretary’s Muslim advisers and the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre, yet the no-connection routine has been given a new lease of life with the alleged airline bomb plot. This time it’s been taken up by a range of ministers, holidaying or not holidaying – ‘not holidaying’ has been the thrill of a lifetime for John Reid – and endorsed by Clinton. All this makes it easy to refuse calls for an inquiry, just as it was after 7 July. The joke is wearing thin.

Blair’s second running gag has been to portray himself as a man with profound convictions about the need for justice in Palestine – yo – and to speak openly of his wish to settle a conflict he’s driven further into the blood and mire than anyone could have imagined. His remorse-ridden, all-or-nothing application in July for top billing in a new Middle East tour was the punchline, but even Washington failed to crack a smile. It’s an awkward moment when the comedy falls flat or feels too dangerous – wanting to play the saviour of the Middle East while failing to call for a halt to the bombing of Lebanon, or for restraint in Gaza, is close to the bone.

The third rib-tickler was Blair’s silly season quip in August about global warming. He had finally changed the light bulbs at Number Ten – how many prime ministers does it take to do this? – for low-energy models. The idea was to set an example in energy conservation. Then he got on a plane to Barbados: a normal return flight from the UK on a normal carrier generates about 1.5 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions per passenger but what the hell, you can plant a tree.

Summer is over, the deckchairs are being stacked on the Platinum Coast and as things get back to normal we can begin to see what these stunts have been about. Each in its way is a little starter pack for those who wish to understand the character of the PM. First, the refusal to link Iraq with the threat of terrorism: a useful illustration of Blair’s deep but troubled sense of responsibility. He is nearly always willing to take responsibility for his decisions, but very rarely for their consequences. This is a person who believes profoundly in the power of his own gestures. Everything else is observed at a mysterious distance, through a glass darkly – in the place that other people call the world – decoupled from his best intentions and to that extent meaningless.

The tardy urge to reconcile the protagonists in the Middle East is surely part of the same problem. Blair always meant to get around to it earlier – about the time of the Iraq war, for instance, but a troublesome series of misfortunes in the field ruled this out. Blair can do nothing for the Middle East. His lack of even-handedness has been a curse on the lives of many thousands of people in the region. He will never take responsibility for that, but he is ready to stand tall about the need for another round of gestures.

It is strange to keep stumbling on the politics of abdication in a figure who’s so committed to certain ideas and such an ardent legislator at home. But a blindness to consequences is one, very pronounced, form of abdication. It is also the meaning of his light-bulb joke, which announces that global warming is a problem for individuals, not governments. This is the libertarian drift of the man, at odds with his other instincts, yet consistent to the extent that libertarianism always seeks to reduce the spectrum of responsibility: I’ll change my light bulbs and maybe you’ll change yours, but let’s not legislate on this issue yet.

There must be plenty of people who feel, like Blair, that they should move to energy-saving lifestyles – light bulbs and, who knows, fewer holidays in the Caribbean. But Blair’s reluctance to tackle environmental questions seriously makes a nonsense of efforts by ordinary people to reduce their contribution to climate change. The paradoxical effect of individuals aiming at better CO2 hygiene in the absence of government planning and legislation is explained by Jim Hansen, director of the Nasa Goddard Institute at Columbia, in a recent New York Review of Books (13 July): ‘Without [government] leadership and comprehensive economic policies, conservation of energy by individuals merely reduces demands for fuel, thus lowering prices and ultimately promoting the wasteful use of energy.’ We can be sure that Blair will be taking absolute responsibility for the light in his downstairs loo, but he will never accept that his lack of a tough environmental policy makes that gesture rather empty.

To sift through David Miliband’s cheerful blog at Defra (www.davidmiliband.defra.gov.uk) is to know that someone in this administration is taking the risks of climate disaster as seriously as they deserve to be taken. In a lecture to the Audit Commission in July, Miliband put his weight behind a study for a household carbon exchange scheme known as Domestic Tradable Quotas, carried out by the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research (www.tyndall.ac.uk). DTQ is not unlike international emissions trading, but it is scaled down to UK households. Horrendously complicated and expensive, liable to produce a range of perverse effects, it may nonetheless be a rational way of achieving a national ceiling on greenhouse gas emissions.

Blair seems to like the idea of a household audit, but he’s unwilling to talk about real changes in the way we live. Sooner or later the whole lifestyle, including Barbados, has to go into the pot. Non-libertarian certainly, but this structured sense of how we’re supposed to renegotiate our living arrangements, from Shanghai to Penzance, could be the prelude to an extraordinary wave of economic activity, driven by the race to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. Government could hang back and act as a fiscal predator if the dream came true, or it could wake from an obscure dream of its own and stagger out of the bedroom. Blair is too deep in the nightmare of war and redemption to do much more than ruffle the duvet.

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Vol. 28 No. 18 · 21 September 2006

Perhaps it doesn’t appear on the road signs that Patrick Wright sees on his way through Rutland to Nottingham (‘where I teach’) from wherever it is he lives (LRB, 7 September), but England’s smallest county has a motto that dovetails with Douglas Goldring’s view of Little England: ‘multum in parvo’. It is printed in suitably small type on the signs that greet drivers hurtling along the A1. Incidentally, reading Jeremy Harding’s Short Cuts – inset on Wright’s piece – about the glowing example set by the prime minister when it comes to trimming carbon emissions, I couldn’t help wondering whether Wright shouldn’t do his bit for the atmosphere by moving across Rutland permanently to live a little closer to his place of work?

Anthony Chadwick

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