W.G. Runciman

Now that Tony Blair has almost stopped hanging around the office poisoning the chalice for his inevitable successor, the season for political obituaries is wide open. Not that it hadn’t already started, with a raft of more and less uncharitable interim biographies and Alan Franks, in the Times magazine of 31 March, talking of Blake Morrison’s South of the River coming out ‘just as Blair contemplates his awful decline from resourceful young bushytail to mangy endgame quarry’. But however much future historians may discover which is unknown to the commentators of the present day, and however right or wrong Blair may be in believing that they will be kind to him, it is unlikely that either his committed admirers or his committed detractors will be led to change their views. To his admirers, his ten-year tenure as prime minister is evidence in itself of his success in satisfying the expectations and wishes of the British electorate. To his detractors, this success has been achieved through a systematic betrayal of the ideals for which the Labour Party was once thought to stand. But if there is one characteristic which in the verdict of history will distinguish him from any of his predecessors, it must surely be his own remarkable brand of naivety – a term which in his case can be stretched to encompass an unwavering air of innocence, combined with an evident capacity for self-delusion and, when it suited him, ruthlessness. Naivety is neither good nor bad in itself, and many famous politicians have had their share of it. But unless Blair, far from being the regular guy as which he likes to project himself, is a hypocrite of astonishing mendacity, the most plausible explanation of both the style and the substance of his prime ministership is that he has remained wilfully blind to how the world outside Parliament and the Labour Party actually works.

As was widely remarked at the time, no prime minister has come to office with so little experience of government or anything else. Fettes, St John’s College, Oxford, Lincoln’s Inn and a few years on the opposition benches in the House of Commons are a preparation of limited value for going into the ring in the world of lies and violence with the likes of Dick Cheney, Gerry Adams, Vladimir Putin, Jacques Chirac or Robert Mugabe, none of whom has anything to learn from anyone about the uses of power. Advisers are always at hand. But Blair has chosen on the whole to be surrounded by trusted acolytes rather than disinterested experts. This may have done less harm to his popularity than one might have expected. But whoever he was or wasn’t listening to over the past decade, he appears to have no deeper an understanding at the end of it than he had when he first became prime minister of the workings of the central institutions of British society. It is hard to believe that he ever knew what was really going on inside the Home Office, or the armed forces, or the City of London, or the countryside, or the weapons industry, or NHS hospitals, or inner-city classrooms, or prisons, or PFI projects, or the boardrooms of multinational corporations. It might be said that he didn’t need to know, provided that the right things were being done by those who did. But then he seriously thought of himself as a reforming prime minister. The result, in a brilliant image which I owe to a long-serving backbench MP, is that the government was led by a political water-spider, flitting from place to place across the surface of the lake. You couldn’t help watching each movement – here another eye-catching initiative, there another hasty promise, here another sudden U-turn, there another heartfelt platitude. High-sounding objectives were set, missed and reset, ministers (with one clunking exception) shuffled and reshuffled, and one piece of hastily drafted legislation after another put before Parliament. But the world went on much as before – except, that is, for the presence of British forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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