slow drip – perhaps that should be slow poison – of Tony’s
tribulations have become such a regular feature of life that we take
them for granted. The ersatz grin, the swirl of spin, ah yes, we remember
them well. As Blair’s dismal decade draws to its demise, there’s
all the more need for us to be reminded of their impact. This little
book performs a good job of doing so.
Taking President Bush’s infamous greeting as a symbol of Blair’s status and nature, Wheatcroft outlines the main charge against his stewardship as Prime Minister – his form of support for American Middle-Eastern policy. Wheatcroft points out – correctly – that after 9/11, no American president could have remained in office without taking military action, but that a short sharp shock attack against Al-Qaeda would have been a better bet. Each step on the murky path to war is clearly, chillingly illuminated. The scale of the resulting disaster is clear for all to see. Wheatcroft includes a useful list of American books highly criticial of what has happened in Iraq, and he quotes the American Lieutenant-General William Odom’s summing-up of what the United States should do now: ‘Cut and Run? You Bet’. Blair supported America in order to keep her from acting unilaterally – a case of ‘Their country right or wrong’ – but there may have been another reason for this: to deflect attention from the failure of his policies at home.
Although Blair was not the sharpest tool in the box (you don’t have to be an Aquinas or Ayer to spot the philosophical flaw in his declaration, ‘I only know what I believe’), he was considered to be the man who could fulfil what it was felt that Middle England wanted, that is ‘market economics powdered with caring rhetoric’. However his verbal drubbing from the Women’s Institute would suggest that this programme appealed more to the middle-classes from the Islington/Notting Hill/Westminster triangle who had benefitted from the Thatcher years but felt guilty from having committed the sin of getting Too Much Money rather than to those from the Home Counties and beyond: jam and Jerusalem had more attraction than ciabatta and chinos. But his attempts to fulfil this programme – the famous ‘Project’ – were a continuous string of dismal failures, for ‘Blair was always trying to say too many things to too many different people, to square circles and reconcile the irreconcilable’. Blair ‘is not a liar but a man with no grasp at all of the distinction between objective truth and falsehood’. He ‘never really understood the failure of state socialism...never intellectually grasped the case for the competitive market economy. He just loves the rich’. Some might claim that the voter apathy which exists today is proof that most people are happy with Tony’s ten years, but Wheatcroft reminds us that large parts of the country are 'as Macaulay said of eighteenth-century Ireland "tranquil with the ghastly tranquility of exhaustion and despair"'.
But is all this Blair’s fault? Has his rule lacked anything good? Has it highlighted – however unintentionally – any long-standing policy or institutional defects? These are things that should have been considered by Wheatcroft, but weren’t. Several examples spring to mind. Target culture and the cult of managerialism – the twin curses of public sector administration and reform – were inherited by Blair from the Tories. Blair’s planning failures exemplify a perennial British fault where those in charge of reorganisation were chosen because they were good chaps, due to fill Buggins’ turn, or because their faces fitted – all dismal comparisons with the post-war planning successes of France and West Germany where fully-trained professionals were used. Perhaps Blair’s attempts to dragoon the arts, charities and other independent bodies into the ‘Project’ will act as a necessary wake-up call, enabling them to re-discover their own unique values and contributions rather than acting as shock-troops for Blair’s vision. And can the risk-averse, emotionally correct ethos both pandered-to and encouraged by the Blair regime (remember Diana’s death?) help build up the sort of tough, resolute spirit required if – as we have been led to believe – the ‘war on terror’ is set to last for several generations? Keep the home fires burning – but only if they conform to the correct health and safety regulations – is hardly a remedy for success.
Wheatcroft reminds us that Blair is worried about the preservation of his legacy. Tony’s domestic front failures are well-known, and who knows what further blunders lie in wait between now and the time when Blair steps down? How does he appear in the United States? Not terribly well, despite such cringing gestures as declaring that only America stood with Britain during the Blitz (which took place in 1940, a year before the United States entered the war). Senior State Department analyst Kendall Myers points out that Blair reaped a poor reward for his support of American policy: ‘There was nothing. There was no payback, no sense of reciprocity’. When America needs European sponsorship for a UN resolution, it seeks it from France which – unlike Britain – is seen as an independent nation, not an American satellite. When it needs to work with a serious European leader it turns to Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor. ‘Special Relationship?’ Well, that’s one description of this humiliating one-sided arrangement!
strength of Wheatcroft’s book is the way its author remembers
that polemic loses its force if it descends into a pub rant. The explosions
in this book are all controlled ones. The targets are chosen carefully,
not hit with scatter-gun blind luck. And there are two legacies here.
There’s Blair’s one, which is devastating: as Wheatcroft
says ‘what looks more and more the most dishonest and disastrous
prime ministership of modern times’. He avoids speculation about
Blair’s future, but it seems that all he can do is go on the rubber
chicken circuit (he could return to the Bar but it’s not very
lucrative and, after his failures, would anyone up before the break
want him acting as ‘M’learned Friend’?). But there’s
also Wheatcroft’s legacy – for future historians –
of a short but almost perfectly-formed record of a disastrous era.