Chastened, haunted, defensive but defiant

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The Chilcot Inquiry has delivered on its promise. It has been uncompromising in its criticism of the conduct of Blair’s government and the individuals who comprised it. At a press conference this afternoon Tony Blair appeared chastened, haunted and defensive, but nevertheless defiant. I believe he made a disastrous and arrogant error, taking the country to war ‘in good faith’, without full discussion in cabinet, but it was brave of him to face his critics today. He will go down in history as a man who made a disastrous foreign policy judgement that has caused immense suffering and set back the cause of peace in the Middle East, just as Anthony Eden is remembered for Suez, and David Cameron will be remembered for the referendum.

In an implicit plea for sympathy, Tony Blair talked about how the decision to go to war in Iraq haunts him every single day, and that he goes over it again and again, obsessively, still certain that in the light of what he was told (who was he talking to?!), the decision was the right one. We all know what guilt feels like.

Historical judgement is rarely delivered as rapidly as in this case. Was there as through an investigation of the Falklands, or Suez? Though there has been angry complaint at the seven years it has taken Sir John Chilcot and his colleagues to research the causes, conduct and aftermath of the Iraq War, rigour was absolutely necessary. It took as long as it had to take, and its judgement is final.

The problem with Tony Blair was always ‘faith’, whether good faith or bad faith. So certain was he of his own moral compass that others’ opinions, or the weight of evidence, or the lack of it, held no sway at all. He looked for the evidence that would justify his moral intervention in the world, forgetting for more than a moment that politicians more often choose between evils, and that ‘doing good’ with military force is almost always bound to fail.

But he insists that he would make the same decision today, and to some extent that captures the arrogance of his approach to government. He ran government in a presidential manner, imposing his own will and ‘good faith’ on his colleagues. That’s what happens when you aright too much of the time, and powerful for far too long.

And how wonderful it is to know that Robin Cook, Charles Kennedy, and yes, Jeremy Corbyn, are vindicated, though only one of them lives to enjoy the moment.

 

 

I love Gordon Brown

Gordon Brown has intervened in the Brexit debate with an impressive and passionate speech made from the ruins of Coventry Cathedral (preserved as a memorial to the bomb damage of the Second World War – ‘Nazi’ bombing, he is careful to say, not ‘German’ bombing).

I love Gordon Brown, and was sorry that his premiership was such a disappointment. He is everything that Tony Blair is not – deeply clever, thoughtful, sincerely passionate on behalf of the dispossessed and disadvantaged, uninterested in material gain, and honest.

He was right about that ‘bigoted woman’, but his opinions, insecurities and passions too often got the better of him in situations where calm control would have been more effective, and his childish rivalry with Tony Blair damaged the last Labour Government. If it’s true that he flung his mobile phone at the wall whenever he was angry, then he was perhaps temperamentally unfit for the highest office.

He lacked the slick, sly PR skills of his predecessor, lacked the tact and political pragmatism that politics require and which win elections, and in the end he failed as Prime Minister, though he played a crucial role superbly during the financial crisis of 2008-2009. He might perhaps have made an excellent benign dictator. He could have got on with the job without having to pander to public opinion.

Since he lost the General Election in 2010 Gordon Brown has kept a low profile. But it might have been he who swung the vote towards Remain when Scotland was considering secession. In his late intervention he made a powerful, simple, persuasive case, as he does now in this EU Remain video:

 

What’s impressive is that he makes the POSITIVE arguments that the campaign has so far lacked. An audience laughed the other day when Cameron made the ‘World War Three’ claims, but the point about peace in Europe is an important one, and whereas Cameron made it ineptly, here in this video Gordon Brown makes it persuasively and movingly.

He doesn’t mention the economic case at all, as if it’s only a sideshow, despite the fact that as a former Chancellor you might expect that this would be his area of expertise, and he doesn’t once mention immigration.

Rather, he talks up Britain’s moral place in Europe – as the country that fought the Second World War to establish the kind of peace we now enjoy, as the country that established the human rights to which all members of the EU must subscribe, as the country that argued most strongly for the inclusion of the formerly oppressive states of Eastern Europe.

His outlook is international, not narrowly insular. Though he doesn’t use the term ‘European Values’ he unashamedly talks up the idea of a ‘community’ where we are interested in the rights of other peoples even if they live in faraway places. He shames us into accepting that it’s not only about benefits but about responsibilities – Britain, he says, will soon be the largest economy in Europe, and we have a duty to lead not to leave.

He is right.

Subversion and Incompetence – the Chilcot Inquiry

When Tony Blair’s embarrassingly titled memoir A Journey was published some years ago I was one of those who was delighted to find it in the Crime section of my favourite bookshops. The most ardent Stop the War campaigners would remove it from Biography or Politics and put it where it truly belonged.

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I was against the Iraq War. I’d read a number of books by weapons inspectors and was convinced, as were most of us, that the weapons of mass destruction claims, and the Al Quaida links claims, were nonsense. It also seemed very likely that whatever might follow would be at least as bad as Saddam Hussein’s regime. I therefore looked forward to the Chilcot Inquiry and was an avid spectator as the great and the good were hauled over the coals (sometimes rather gently) by John Chilcot and his team, which included the great historian Martin Gilbert, who, sadly, died before the Inquiry completed its work.

What was astonishing, though unsurprising, was how eloquently, articulately and unashamedly Tony Blair, and his colleagues, defended the Government and its decisions. I saw Blair perform at the Leveson Inquiry into Press Freedom too, and was equally impressed. The man was utterly convinced of his rightness. What is it that enables Great Leaders to fend off criticism so smoothly?

The answer is Zeal – than which there is nothing more dangerous in the world (putting aside the forces of nature).

The zealot rises above and beyond the evidence to promote his or her brand of faith, whether religious or political, or both. Righteousness and moral certainty, often impervious to evidence and doubt, are as dangerous as any weapons of mass destruction. Zealots live in another world. Indeed, so elevated is Blair’s state of mind that he is unaware that ‘It’s a journey’ is a cliché or that LOL means Laugh Out Loud, not Lots of Love. He has no sense of the ordinary.

There are three great political events this year which I look forward to with huge excitement – the EU Referendum, the US Presidential Election, and the publication, on July 6th of the Chilcot Inquiry Report. I sympathise with those who castigate John Chilcot for his tardiness, but it is much more important that the report be exhaustive, comprehensive, and invulnerable to accusations of sloppiness, than that it should be rushed into print. The report will run to two and a half million words. That’s a modest tome after seven years of work.. It would only take me around  four additional years to blog the same number of words (650 words daily every day of the year).

Like many others, I have feared that the mandarins would preside over a whitewash, but if yesterday’s leaks are anything to go by, the Inquiry will deliver stinging rebukes to Tony Blair, Jack Straw (former Foreign Secretary) and Richard Dearlove (former head of MI6) in particular. The first for subverting Cabinet Government and going to war with buddy George without good cause, the second for Straw’s incompetent management of the aftermath, and the last for Dearlove’s failure to stop Blair’s Government from publishing the highly misleading dodgy dossier, which made the case for war on the basis of unsubstantiated claims that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and could use them against Britain in 45 minutes. It’s probably Blair’s subversion that has rankled most with the mandarins. The Butler report also took him to task for his presidential style of government.

Let’s hope the leaks are not themselves misleading. If they are not Mr Blair, the worst part of your journey has yet to come.