Tony Blair is innocent. He did what any ambitious, thrusting politician with a crushing majority would do…bestride the world stage and play up to the great powers, embracing the power lure of igniting war. Here was a man so popular, so representative of the country the UK wanted to be, he could do anything (that Gordon Brown let him). He didn’t need career public servants and plummy generals, could ignore the know-nothings in Cabinet. Tony could live out his fantasy – the post-war hip hero in the world’s auto focus, Justified Intervention papers in one hand, guitar in the other. When challenged, the hurt voice croaked: Look. I’m an honest guy.
The issue for me isn’t that he spiralled out of control in the rarefied air of Downing Street – they all do that. It isn’t that the former CND adherent and devout Christian turned out to be unprincipled and dangerously vain. Nor that he was prone to subvert the system of government.
The real problem is that he could get away with it. As we have seen outlined in Chilcot, there is nothing in the British constitution or in the rules of government to constrain a leader hell-bent on a course of action. If he cuts out his colleagues except a trusted few, how do they call him to account? If he ignores civil service advice, can they stymie him?
If his lieutenant and propagandist has more authority than his Defence Secretary, can a complaint stop him? If a million people march against him, does he have no obligation to stop and reconsider?
Eh, no. Tony Blair became de facto the government. One man with his own weaknesses and desires was allowed to twist the entire system until it fitted his pre-determined requirements. If that meant milking the internet for alarmist claims and stating with certainty that which was plainly qualified in order to win a vote, so be it. This last point, of overstating intelligence, is a grave crime in the world of espionage and information assessment. It is like relying on gossip in an environment aloud with false friends and whispered confidences. The function of the professionals is to interrogate every claim and evaluate each statement – not to delude themselves and the country because the information matches the expectation of the boss. We now know that much of the WMD claims came from a fantasist. Ironic, isn’t it? One fantasist feeding another.
For Iraq, the consequences that Blair himself spelled out to Bush beforehand of internecine conflict post-invasion, is a catastrophe of random violence, religious division once subdued but now aflame, of physical destruction, lawlessness, mass death and human displacement in the millions.
No one could foresee all of this, it’s true, and we all look sagely in the rear view mirror. But the warnings were there. They rained in from sources around the world of diplomacy, academia, politics and the genuine objection from, well, from people. For those who didn’t predict the breakdown of all society after the invasion, there was the question of legitimacy. Many of us could have been persuaded to remove the revolting, murdering tyrant Saddam with explicit UN support demonstrating a broad international, legally-founded case and a multi-national restoration plan. This of course was Blair’s original aim. One he didn’t stick to. I spent the war in a BBC studio listening to John Reid first explain how there would be a second resolution and then, when it didn’t come, say it was never needed. I was told, if I objected to invasion, I was a friend of Saddam. Reid, another of the Scottish former socialists now smoozing as a jumped-up lord, was Blair’s wriggle-meister – there was no contortion he wouldn’t perform for his master. Chilcot points to the military failure of the decision to stretch forces into Afghanistan – this over-reach was larded by Reid with the notorious waffle: We’re in the south to help and protect the Afghan people to reconstruct their economy and democracy. We would be perfectly happy to leave in three years time without firing one shot.
But what was a man like John Reid thinking? Where were his faculties? Was all subjugated to pleasing Tony, to career prospects?
I return to the theme. Where in the system is the check and where the balance to call to account a leader forcing a doomed path? Did no one, except Cook and Short, see the looming dangers? I have never understood how Darling, a trained lawyer and at the time an advocate, didn’t demand to see a full written exposition of the legal case for war. Was he afraid to ask? What is the point of a collective leadership that fails in its fundamental duty?
Imagine you are facing a decision to send troops to war. You shrug and tell yourself you can trust Tony to do the right thing. You don’t need to account to the bereaved parents or the legless returnee, right? If this was the most difficult decision Blair had to make, what does it say about his internal agonies that he breezed to Bush: Whatever…we’re with you?
Britain today is a global joke. There is a Monty Python theme of upper class, self serving idiocy about this self-aggrandising island, effectively bankrupt, run by public school boys, rejecting multi culturalism and partnership but afraid to push the EU eject button, rushing to upgrade the nuclear arsenal and sending to their death the young without the decency of a plan.
I wonder what remains of the Britain our parents fought for that keeps so many Unionist Scots in thrall. When you survey the all-pervasive mess that is constitutional politics in Britain and the looming damage to our economy, it’s hard not to conclude that some people must truly despise Scotland in order still to resist self-government. What part of the crumbling edifice of ever-right leaning Britain convinces some to express their proud Scot feelings by holding the UK closer?
There is, I suppose a retro war-time element to thinking that, whatever happens, we’ll be alright. Britain will bounce back. The Bank of England will be proved wrong and the economy will grow. The Americans are lying – we won’t be at the back of the trade deal queue. We’re not really rejecting immigration. Even Labour will revive, eventually.
Maybe. But it seems something has gone very wrong with a country pushing away its friends and demonising its overseas workforce. Blair’s contempt for accountability and transparency over Iraq and his toe-curling plea that it was still the right thing that he would do all over again, shows how deluded our elite is.
We can’t insure against electing people with vaulting ambition or unstoppable arrogance but we can construct processes to limit their adventurism. A requirement before military intervention in another country should be UN consultation at the very minimum, making it impossible to brush aside inconvenient judgments.
The scariest part is remembering that our parliament voted to support Blair when Labour and the Tories combined to defeat the SNP and the Liberals. If there had been effective scrutiny of the case and full disclosure, would they still have voted that way?
(On another matter, I’m pleased to announce my appointment to Ruth Davidson’s Commission on Brexit in which capacity I’ll be working with Adam Tomkins on a plan for the economy after we depart the EU. I’m a big admirer of Adam despite our spats on this blog and I regret calling him a twat. To this end I’ll be conducting hands-on research on how a small country deals with poverty during a prolonged tour of Portugal)by