Diary

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.

For what personal impressions are worth, I haven’t changed mine since meeting Blair when he was shadow home secretary and I was chairing the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice in England and Wales (the one, if you remember, which led to the setting up of an independent body with the power to review possible miscarriages of justice). Blair showed, to my surprise, no interest in talking about anything to do with the criminal justice system. But he was open, friendly and refreshingly unpompous – lightweight, perhaps, but neither foolish nor doctrinaire. My next sight of him was at a private meeting which he was addressing as leader of the opposition, and the impression left on me and others present was of someone almost embarrassingly eager to be liked. When he became prime minister, I wrote him a letter expressing the hope that he would soon reform the House of Lords and received a prompt ‘Dear Garry … Yours ever, Tony’ reply (with which I entirely agreed) saying that he was unconvinced by arguments that the hereditary peers were representative of ‘the common man’. The next time, however, that I had reason to write to him, it was another story. I thought – naively, perhaps – that he might like to accept an invitation to be the speaker at the centenary dinner of the British Academy, of which I was then the president, in order to be able to say publicly that Britain is still holding its own internationally in the humanities and social sciences no less than in the physical and biological sciences which are the province of the Royal Society. I was first answered by an underling saying that the prime minister couldn’t make any commitments until after the general election. But the letter I received after he had won it was a brusque refusal signed by a yet more junior underling who in addition got my name wrong. I’d like to think that was deliberate, but I expect it reflects nothing more than the degree of Blair’s indifference to the whole area of British intellectual life which lies between applied science on one side and rock bands on the other. He did subsequently accept an invitation from Neil MacGregor to speak at the British Museum, which was the last occasion on which I observed him close to (it was the day Saddam Hussein had been captured, which may explain why he was looking so cheerful). But having heard what he thought it appropriate to say on that occasion, I was rather less disappointed than I had been that he had refused to speak at the British Academy’s dinner.

The most obvious symptom of Blair’s apparent naivety is his faith in his own rhetoric. When he announced that British troops in Afghanistan would be supplied with ‘anything they need’, he can’t have been unaware that the Ministry of Defence was incapable of fulfilling his pledge, and yet he didn’t stop himself from making it. When he asserted his belief in the importance of ‘parent power’, he contrived to forget that his own Local Government Bill was about to abolish the commission that he had set up to enhance parent power three years before. When he dismissed the fears voiced by objectors to super-casinos, he closed his eyes to the harm they would do to the indebted and vulnerable. When he announced that his City Academy programme was ‘delivering’ for poor and disadvantaged children, he was able to reconcile this with results that might more readily be thought to suggest the opposite. When he said that ‘any reasonable person looking at our healthcare system today would see exactly where the money is going,’ he appeared not to realise that many of the people entrusted with the money had no idea where it was going until the system was discovered to be more than half a billion pounds in the red. And he would no doubt have been nonplussed if, at the time when he was proclaiming the merits of his so-called Third Way, he had known what would be the plaintive question asked in 2005 by the head of a visiting delegation from the Chinese Academy of Sciences: ‘Why when we ask about Third Way, everybody laugh or smile?’

To many of his critics, and even some of his supporters, what was most irritating about Blair was not his seeming naivety but his sanctimoniousness. How could a prime minister who proclaimed that his administration would be ‘whiter than white’ then behave as he did? But since he firmly believes himself to be an honourable and decent person, it follows that it must be all right for him to do what it mightn’t be if he weren’t. When he exempted Formula One from the ban on tobacco advertising a week before Bernie Ecclestone’s £1 million donation to Labour was made public, or released market-sensitive information which was still embargoed, or commented publicly on a court case which was still sub judice, it couldn’t be wrong because he knew that his heart was pure. Why shouldn’t he take his family on holiday where and with whom he chooses? Why shouldn’t he bestow peerages on businessmen who are willing to give or lend money to the Labour Party which it badly needs? Come to that, why are the chattering classes so uncool about ‘spin’ when, as every smooth-tongued barrister knows as well as he, it is an advocate’s duty to present the client’s case in as favourable as possible a light?

How much importance should be attached to the holier-than-thou aspect of Blair’s character is a matter about which different people will have more and less sanctimonious opinions of their own. But in the making of government policy, Blair time and again took decisions whose consequences he had failed to think through. You might expect, after the fiasco of the Millennium Dome, that he would have satisfied himself about the funding implications of his eagerness for the Olympic Games of 2012 to come to London, but he clearly chose not to. His unquenchable enthusiasm for targets and performance indicators in hospitals and schools betrayed an ingrained unawareness of the unintended consequences which they were bound to produce. Did he not realise the extent to which the players would manipulate to their perceived advantage the rules imposed on them, and outcomes be distorted as a result? Did he seriously expect (this time, surely, he can’t have done) that his anti-hunting bill would be enforceable? Did he believe that on-the-spot fines would actually be paid by more than a minority of those targeted by the police? Did he really think that inviting John Birt into Downing Street to do ‘blue skies’ thinking on topics that Birt knew little or nothing about would produce novel and practical solutions to familiar problems? There is no evidence that he foresaw what the longer-term consequences of either Welsh or Scottish devolution would be, or that he anticipated his humiliation at the hands of Ken Livingstone over the mayoralty of London. His reform of the House of Lords is stalled, after long vacillation, in a worst of all worlds: a minority of persons of genuine distinction in a sea of chosen cronies, placemen (and women), a rump of self-elected hereditaries, still no mechanism for evicting convicted criminals, and a clutch of ‘people’s peers’ who are no more the choice of the people than the bishops are. He decided to abolish the office of lord chancellor before even a pretence of consultation without its occurring to him that it wasn’t constitutionally possible to do this by simply announcing it from the Downing Street sofa. Criminal justice bills followed one another in a manner that has invited the obvious jibe about moving the deckchairs on the Titanic. Yet he has gone on to the end making pronouncements about what needs to be done, as if he hadn’t had ten years in office in which to do it.

When it comes to foreign policy, there is no reason to disbelieve him when he insists that he was doing what he believed to be right. But there can no longer be much doubt that future historians will find him to have been duplicitous about Iraq. His impressive rhetorical and histrionic skills were, as his admirers and detractors both agree, displayed to the full in securing the acquiescence of his backbenchers and ministerial colleagues in his determination to go to war. If you believe that he deliberately misled Parliament about a decision he had already taken in full knowledge of the weakness of the evidence he had caused to be assembled in order to justify it, then you will presumably be all the more admiring, however reluctantly, of his unscrupulous cunning. But it emerged pretty clearly from the Hutton and Butler Reports that he had persuaded himself of both the practicality and the virtuousness of what he had made up his mind to do and had then arranged to be sheltered from any information that might have given him pause. (Alastair Campbell to John Scarlett, 17.9.02: ‘He is not exactly a “don’t know” on the issue.’) He could therefore genuinely believe in the existence of threatening weapons of mass destruction, just as he could genuinely believe that the invasion would be welcomed by the Iraqi people when there was no lack of seriously well-informed people in the universities as well as the Foreign Office who were able to warn him that the removal of Saddam Hussein would set the Sunnis and Shia at each other’s throats and turn the population against the invaders into the bargain. I do not see how he can disavow direct responsibility for the deaths of the British soldiers who have been killed in Iraq, since the Americans would have invaded anyway and Britain was under no pressure to join them. Although career soldiers all accept that they must put their lives at risk where and when they are ordered into combat, their families could be excused for thinking that there are better causes to die for than helping Tony Blair to present himself as a crusader in shining armour for what he and his admirers call ‘liberal interventionism’ and his detractors ‘neoconservative imperialism’. And if he seriously believed that his actions weren’t going to heighten the risk of Islamic acts of terrorism being carried out in Britain, that must be the biggest delusion of all.

It was bad luck for him that the ‘Yo, Blair!’ episode exposed so clearly the reality of his relationship with George W. Bush. Nobody who saw the expressions on their two faces during that exchange can do other than blush for Blair. But why had he been so naive as to think that he could have any influence in changing Bush’s mind about anything? Had he been a different person, there might have been reason to hope (or suspect) that a backstairs deal had been done about which Parliament would not be told but which would have secured a quid pro quo serving Britain’s own national interest. But nowhere has there been a whiff of a pay-off. It looks as if Blair just didn’t realise that he was dealing with a country whose governments are, and always have been, brutally single-minded in their pursuit of what they conceive to be good for America at the expense of anyone else. Did it cross Blair’s mind, when he agreed the terms of extradition for British citizens suspected of criminal offences by the American prosecuting authorities, that he had failed to ensure that it would be genuinely reciprocal, and that the Americans would use it for purposes of their own that had nothing to do with combating terrorism? He may have thought it unfair of the media to portray him as Bush’s poodle to the extent that they so enjoyed doing. But if he seriously believed that he would have such limited influence with George Bush as Margaret Thatcher had had with Ronald Reagan, he should have realised that he would, as the saying goes, have another think coming.

Yet there he was at Number Ten for all those years. Politics is supposed to be a rough game, Blair is supposed to be a nice guy, and in rough games nice guys are supposed to finish last. How then to account for his electoral success? His detractors will say that re-election under a set of rules that allowed him to retain a strong parliamentary majority after less than a quarter of eligible voters had voted for him ought not to be called a ‘success’. But winning is what it’s about. Blair was fortunate in the Conservative Party’s choice of leaders, but the most important reason for his electoral success is that, as it was candidly put by Hilary Benn in December last year, ‘the achievement of the past ten years has been the success of the economy.’ And whose success is that, if not the rival for his job whom Blair has held at bay for all these years? There has been nothing naive about the methods that Blair and his acolytes have employed for that purpose. But he is being very naive if he believes that it is not to his thwarted rival’s skill that credit for Labour’s economic record and therefore electoral success has largely been due. Brown, indeed, had no choice, if he was not to be branded as disloyal to the party, but to help Blair into a third term of office by loosening the purse-strings to an extent that he might not otherwise have thought it prudent to do.

A more effective parliamentary opposition mounted by a less demoralised and divided Conservative Party would no doubt have made a difference. The degree to which John Major’s administration had forfeited the electorate’s respect gave Blair an initial advantage which must have seemed like an answer to prayer. But what would have happened if the Conservatives had, as at one moment they could have, united behind Kenneth Clarke and accepted whatever Clarke’s terms might have been for leading them? Of Clarke, my personal impressions are of a presence no less solid and forceful than my personal impressions of Brown. I had dealings with Clarke twice – once when he was home secretary, and once when he was chancellor – and on both occasions found him realistic, forthright, and totally free of bullshit. If he really wanted to lead the Conservative Party (which maybe he didn’t), he could have kept his views about Europe to himself and his options open. But once he was out of the game, the opposition had thrown away the trump card which he would have held in his fist. Quite apart from their chosen leaders’ lack of both experience and machismo relative to his, the Tories couldn’t hammer home as Clarke could have done the point lying ready to hand that the reason for Labour’s success was that Brown’s economic policies were a direct continuation of his.

David Cameron may have been right when he said that he didn’t need to attack the Labour Party since it was already destroying itself. But Blair got off more lightly than he might. David Remnick of the New Yorker, who was allowed to cover Blair’s hilarious performance with Little Ant and Little Dec (and is thus aware that Blair doesn’t do dignified any more than he does sorry), disagrees. Remnick was surprised that Blair was ‘whacked around so mercilessly’. But Blair never had to face the kind of all-out, bare-knuckled, negative campaigning to which American politicians are subjected. He was never, by analogy with Lyndon Johnson and the chant of ‘Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?’, confronted with placards of dead Iraqi civilians and a chant of ‘Hey, hey Tony B, how many more do you want to see?’ ‘Blair the Bliar’ wasn’t worked to the limit on every occasion that offered. ‘Whiter than white’ was turned into something of a joke instead of being thrown in his teeth day after day and week after week. He has been fortunate again in that neither the Conservatives nor, come to that, the Liberal Democrats have been well placed to claim the high moral ground. You wouldn’t need to be Alastair Campbell, if the gloves came off, to vilify the Lib Dems as the party which covered up for a drunk who was bankrolled by a crook. But political debate in this country is still conducted in what passes for relatively gentlemanly terms. It is interesting to speculate whether Blair would have stood up as successfully as Clinton to treatment of the kind meted out to Clinton by his enemies. Perhaps he would, but we shall never know.

All that is yesterday’s business. Big Gordon will shortly be stepping into the shoes vacated by Teflon Tony, and not even Gordon’s most vehement critics are going to liken him to a water-spider. He is unquestionably more serious-minded, as well as more formidably intelligent, than his predecessor. On the other hand, big beasts can do more harm as well as more good than little beasts. Brown may turn out to be heading for a fall just as painful as Blair’s, whether he deserves to or not, and it may come on the day that the votes are counted at the next general election. If Cameron is, as is being said, modelling his style on Blair’s, perhaps the voters will prove him right to do so. They may want another water-spider at Number Ten, and they may be going to get one.