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Blair's sorry journey of self-justification

Guy Aitchison
1 September 2010

Most of the time the Daily Mail gets it very wrong, but like a broken clock that's right twice a day there are times when they are spot on. The paper's frontpage today, in response to the publication of Tony Blair's, A Journey, and the former PM's lack of contrition on Iraq, is one such occasion. I haven't read Blair's book (which originally went by the even more self-aggrandising title, The Journey) but I have read the extracts in the Guardian and the rather fawning interview by Martin Kettle. These are some first impressions.

Iraq

Although Blair saw the "disaster" of Gordon Brown coming, he informs us that he did not foresee disaster in Iraq following the US-British invasion. From what I can tell, the suggestion seems to be that this is a perspective only reached with hindsight, despite the many expert warnings of the potential for bloody resistance and ethnic conflict at the time and the judgement of the UK intelligence services that invasion would increase the threat of terrorism.

Blair admits some measure of responsibility, but is quick to remind us who the true villains are:

I can say that never did I guess the nightmare that unfolded, and that too is part of the responsibility. The truth is we did not anticipate the role of al-Qaida or Iran. 

Of course, Blair seems to conveniently pass over the fact "al-Qaida" had no presence in Iraq and were the mortal enemies of Saddam's regime before the invasion.

Whilst justifying one "nightmare" war, he shameless bangs the drum for another. He tells Kettle that "I would not take a risk of Iran getting nuclear weapons capability. I wouldn't take it" without a flicker of recognition that Iran has become far more paranoid and belligerent and intent on developing nuclear weapons as a direct result of our invading its neighbour.

This is an acceptance of responsibility of sorts, I suppose, but it is equivalent to that of an arsonist who burns down a house and then tells you he must burn down the neighbour's house too in case the fire spreads.

Of the grieving families and opponents, he writes:

Do they really suppose I don't care, don't feel, don't regret with every fibre of my being the loss of those who died.

This is classic Blair; as though his sincerity and strength of feeling is sufficient compensation for the catastrophic political judgement he displayed and his moral - and, yes, legal - culpability in taking us to war.

He justifies his bold and unrepentant performance in front of Chilcot who had the effrontery to ask him the "headline" question of whether he had any "regrets". He admits that the intelligence on WMD "turned out to be incorrect", but seemingly glosses over the role his office, and specifically Alasdair Campbell, played in manipulating and exaggerating the intelligence to sell the war, turning the Joint Intelligence Committee into a war propaganda unit. 

Civil liberties

So much for Iraq. But what of his government's recklessness on civil liberties and fondness for arbitrary state power, another legacy of the "war on terror". Does he now regret it?

Not a bit of it! He labels arguments against ID cards "absurd" and says one of his chief regrets is passing the Freedom of Information Act which he declares to be "not practical" for good government.

FOI was delivered in Labour's first term as part of a package of constitutional reforms which included devolution, removing the herediatries from the Lords and the Human Rights Act. Blair never really believed in these reforms (which he inherited as a debt from John Smith) and it's telling he now regrets a law which opened up the workings of the state to public scrutiny and which many judge to be one of his government's greatest achievements.

New Labour

With voting on the Labour leadership contest beginning, it's worth reflecting on Blair's analysis of Brown's premiership in light of his coded warnings to Ed Miliband and Ed Balls not to stray from his legacy.

Blair blames his rival's failure on his refusal to continue his market reforms of public services and the fact the party "stopped being New Labour". This is nonsense, frankly.

Although voters may think public services could do with "reform", they largely do not want private companies taking over provision. As has been noted in the leadership contest, between 1997 and 2010 Labour lost 5 million votes, with only 1 million going to the Tories. So the idea that not carrying out enough privatization is what did it for Brown just doesn't add up.  

It shouldn't be forgotten that Brown enjoyed a brief surge in popularity when he took over in 2007 when it looked like he was different from his predecessor. The arm's length press conference with George Bush on his first visit to Washington; the measured response to the terrorist attacks on Glasgow airports - all the body language suggested a new direction.

Brown's popularity started to tank when he bottled an October election. It plummeted even further with the fiasco over the 10p tax rate which displayed the worst triangulating instincts of New Labour. Meanwhile the determination to continue with ID cards, and the push for 42 days detention without charge, all signaled that authoritarianism was still alive and well in No 10. The country was hungry for change: what it got with Brown was Blairism minus the shine and polish of Tony Blair. 

With Blair's "re-entry" onto the political scene, the Labour candidates would do well to learn the right lessons from his premiership.

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