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Benighted Blair

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On New Year’s Day, millions of Britons experienced disgust on hearing the news that former Prime Minister, sociopath, money grubber and warmonger Tony Blair had received a knighthood.  After all, the British honours system had previously only ever rewarded the most upstanding citizens for selfless service to the community.  Warmongers had never previously been knighted.  And honours had never been given in exchange for anything so sordid as making large donations to governing parties.   The kind of corporate psychopath whose abuse of the banking system could literally bring the global economy to a standstill would never have received a knighthood.  Nor had the honours system been allowed to become little more than a pat on the back for civil servants and charity managers who did no more – and often considerably less – than perform the work they were employed to do anyway.  The honours system of course, rewards all of these things.  So why is anyone surprised that Bliar – the man who cemented the neoliberal consensus into place before going off to destabilise the Middle East – has received a knighthood?

Those of us old enough to have been around at the time, well remember the night of 1-2 May 1997 as one of elation.  After 18 years of Tory misrule, Britain was set to elect its first Labour government since 1974.  What an election it turned out to be.  For all of Blair’s reported fears, Labour was elected by a landslide.  And in the course of the night, we were treated to the delicious sight of Tory cabinet ministers losing their seats, as constituencies – including mine – which had been Tory forever, flipped to Labour.  With 418 seats – a majority of 179 – Blair had become the most successful Labour leader ever.  The Tories, meanwhile, had been reduced to a rump, with no seats in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, less than 1 in 5 of the seats in London, and just 17 seats in the north of England.

It was the scale of the victory and the hopes of a generation – I had been 18 when Thatcher first came to power, I was 36 when Blair was elected.  With that majority, Labour could have done anything.  Renationalising the railways – which had been sold off the previous year – would have been a start.  Rebalancing the economy in favour of domestic industry and away from reliance on banking and fossil fuels could have been front and centre of a five-to-ten-year economic plan.  Increased taxes on the very rich and the corporations might have helped repair the many holes the Tories had left in the social security safety net.  Healthcare could have been renationalised and expanded too.  But none of that was to happen.

Blair’s meeting with Thatcher just days after the election showed which way the political wind was blowing.  Soon after, Mandelson announced that Labour was “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich…” even as extortionate private finance deals were being used to saddle the NHS and local authorities with massive debt burdens in exchange for the short-term benefit of some new hospitals and schools.  None of the privatised infrastructure was returned to the public even when – as is obviously the case with water and railways – there is no discernible public benefit from private investment.

The 2001 general election can be seen as an even bigger victory for Blair.  Although Labour lost six seats and saw its majority drop to 167, the Tories had failed to gain ground, raising their tally of seats by just one.  Unbeknown to us at the time, Britain had reached the acceleration point of the oil-backed, debt-based boom.  Unemployment had fallen, incomes were rising, interest rates were low, and people’s houses were beginning to earn more than they did.  Nobody was about to gamble their apparent fortunes on a return of the Tories.

But Blair’s 2001-05 administration was even more disappointing.  The authoritarian streak which brought us ASBOs – which could result in people being jailed without trial – and various new thought – aka “hate” – crimes continued; most notably in Blunkett’s attempt to use new mental health legislation to incarcerate paedophiles in mental health facilities which were already unable to meet the needs of people with mental illness.  Blair’s response to concerns about the illiberal nature of the legislation he was passing was “hey, you can trust me.  I’m a good guy.”  This was what Labour peer and barrister Helena Kennedy called “government without wing mirrors.”  Even if Blair was a good guy – and by 2005 far fewer of us would still be buying this – how would the new legislation be used by the government after next?

Iraq though, would be the indelible stain.  Thatcher’s career had been saved by her war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands.  And imperialist wisdom held that every British Prime Minister needs his war to cement his position in the history books.  Against this, Anthony Eden’s disastrous intervention in Egypt ended his career, while in the 1960s, Harold Wilson had used all of his political skills to avoid the UK – but not Australia – from being embroiled in America’s war in Vietnam.  Faced with the inevitable American call to arms after the attack on the World Trade Centre, would Blair follow Wilson’s or Thatcher’s lead?

It didn’t help that while Osama Bin Laden was in Pakistan, Bush and Cheyney were set on repeating the Soviet Union’s mistake of invading Afghanistan – which just happens to hold untapped mineral reserves – and Iraq – which coincidentally was sat on top of the world’s last major, untapped oil reserves.  Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had also committed the cardinal sin of trading oil for euros – a practice which, if widely repeated, could halve the value of the US dollar.  As a cover for this imperialist resource grab, the weapons of mass destruction fairy tale was created.  And to bring the UK into the war, Blair lied to parliament and the British people.  Worse still, his role in the death of whistle-blower David Kelly, who exposed Bliar’s dodgy dossier, remains a matter of contention.

By the end of the Parliament, Blair had become so unpopular that he was forced to announce that, if elected again, he would not serve a full term.  Indeed, throughout the 2005 general election campaign, Blair and his heir apparent, Gordon Brown, were joined at the hip – the subtext being that in reality we would be voting for the supposedly left-leaning Brown.

Labour won in 2005… sort of.  Labour won just 35.2 percent of the popular vote – relying on the electoral geography of the first-past-the-post system.  This was the smallest percentage ever recorded by a winning party.  Labour were left with a majority of just 66 over the other parties.  The Tories – led by the somewhat creepy Michael Howard – had failed to capitalise on Blair’s growing unpopularity.  Nevertheless, they managed to win the vote – but not the seat count – in England.  The LibDems were the main beneficiaries of the main parties’ unpopularity, securing 62 seats – the highest tally by a third party since 1923.

Gordon Brown took over in 2007, failed to call an early election which he would probably have won, then presided over the 2008 crash.  Although the Tories emerged as the largest party in the 2010 general election, they fell short of a majority.  But Brown proved unable to secure a “rainbow coalition” with the smaller parties.  Five days after the election, the Tories formed a coalition with the LibDems.  The Blair/New Labour years were over. 

Perhaps the final blow to Labour fortunes was that 2010 would be the last general election in which Labour held enough seats in ex-industrial Scotland to hope to win a UK election outright.  In 2015, the Scottish National Party swept away all but one of Labour’s seats in Scotland.  And despite winning a few seats back under Corbyn in 2017, the 2019 general election showed once again that Scotland is a Labour-free zone.  Nor was it just Labour seats in Scotland that were lost.  Almost every seat held by prominent Blairites during the New Labour years – including Blair’s own Sedgefield constituency – is now held by an opposition party.  And most notably, of course, the return of the Blairite-leaning Starmer in 2019 proved the final straw for voters across Labour’s supposedly safe “red wall,” making a future Labour majority government almost impossible.

During a series of focus groups prior to the 2010 general election, behavioural psychologists conducted one of those annoying managerial tests designed to uncover hidden views and beliefs.  In the test, participants were each given a piece of plasticine, and asked to form it into a shape which best fitted the various parties.  When it came to Labour, the most common shape to emerge had been that of a ring… promising much, but ultimately hollow at the core.  This, perhaps, is why Blair is still described as “the turd that refuses to flush.”  Every time he emerges from his crypt to pontificate about the issues of the day, we are reminded of just how much potential to do good he arrived with in 1997, and just how much of that potential had been squandered by the time he left office.

The reason we begrudge him his honour is not because it tarnishes an honours system which was discredited long before Blair even became Prime Minister – the best of us turn the honours down.  Rather, it is because his knighthood looks like a reward for not doing the many things that a different and more left-leaning – in the old-fashioned sense of that term – leader might have achieved.  At least when they finally erect a Blair statue, the country can unite behind the view that, once again, the pigeons are right.

As you made it to the end…

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