The Iraq war is rightly seen as a defining low point in Blair's career, but the damage he did does not stop there.
Zoe Williams wants us to get nostalgic about Blairism. But in her attempt to defend Tony Blair's record she badly misjudges the significance of the Iraq war. By any standards, Iraq was a catastrophe. The most recent study suggests nearly half a million people were killed as a result of a western military operation that tore up the fabric of a modern society and divided its people. By rights, no politician intimately responsible for such a cataclysm should survive with any kind of reputation intact. A criminal process is entirely appropriate.
But the Iraq war was more than a disaster in itself. It was a signifier of new and disturbing times. It wasn't an isolated blunder; it marked the moment when the wider population became fully aware of a new foreign policy posture, developed in Washington, enabled and encouraged by Blair himself. The parody of Blair as US poodle diminishes his role in history. He chafed at Bill Clinton's hesitancy to bomb Serbia in 1999 and secretly reassured the Bush administration that it would not be alone in the illegal pursuit of regime change in Iraq as early as May 2002. The attack on Libya in 2011, government enthusiasm for a new bombing campaign against Syria last year, and the current sabre rattling against Russia show that the spirit of the ethics-led aggression Blair championed lives on. Thankfully, it is a deeply unpopular impulse, with substantial majorities calling for an end to foreign military adventures and massive defence spending.
Just as importantly, the Iraq war dramatised a huge divergence between the values of the political elite, and what most people want and expect from politicians. The war policy was unpopular in itself, but the way it was introduced was inflammatory. However the endlessly delayed Chilcot report is framed, there is ample evidence in the public domain that Blair deceived the cabinet, let alone parliament and people, in his enthusiastic pursuit of an attack on Iraq. To make matters worse, he has refused to apologise and periodically pops up to argue that he was right all along.
I doubt I am alone in taking issue with Williams' view that Blair has been "so quiet" since quitting office. Given his record, what is striking is the fact that his opinion and advice are regularly sought and given on key matters of foreign policy. Meanwhile, despite popular rejection of his philosophy, he shows no sign of unease about making large amounts of money as an international relations adviser, speechmaker and even a "peace envoy" in the Middle East. It is exactly this combination of contempt for public opinion and addiction to personal gain that so many people find repellant about British public life.
If, for most people, Iraq dominates Blair's legacy, it is because they rightly see it as a defining low point in his career. But his contribution to the democratic deficit doesn't end there. Despite the promise of change, Blair's accession in 1997 marked the moment when Labour embraced the principles of the free market. His first act was the symbolic surrender of control of interest rates to the Bank of England. His record on social issues may look mild compared with the carnage we are now experiencing, but in fact he helped normalise the equation of the word "reform" with "deregulation". He introduced tuition fees for students, he pursued private finance initiatives across public services, and generally set about "freeing up business" by any means necessary.
The perception that Blair was a toxic influence on the body politic is not mainly generated from within the Labour party. Polls are unequivocal that this is a popular sentiment. It should be an encouragement to progressives that Blair's combination of aggression overseas, pro-market policies at home and deception in general has made him a pariah. The left doesn't need to try to salvage scraps from the wreckage of a failed political project. What is needed is open campaigning that can mobilise popular aspirations for an end to rampant inequality, cutbacks, corruption and serial wars.
From The Guardian
Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.
More articles from this author
- Ten days that shook America
- 5 things the Cummings crisis teaches us which make the country virtually ungovernable - CounterBlast 28 May
- The China syndrome: why Trump’s obsession could lead to war – long read
- Contagion revisited: how Hollywood got its pandemic prediction upside down
- Fight to fund health, not war
- Who pays? Socialists and state intervention part 2 – long read
- Who pays? Socialists and state intervention part 1 – long read