The decline of Tony Blair

Published : Aug 15, 2003 00:00 IST

The promise of greatness that was visible when he took over as British Prime Minister appears distant now.

THERE is a picture one has of the British Prime Minister Tony Blair some years ago - young, boyishly good-looking, smiling that charming smile of his, and talking with the eagerness of a debater in the Oxford Union. Among the rather ponderous, jowly, and rather jaded MPs in the House of Commons his youthful and committed statements seemed to bring in a sense of newness, of anticipation. Cool Britannia was what he represented in himself rather than in the things happening in that country at that time.

Contrast that to the Tony Blair of today - harried, face lined and grim, hair beginning to thin, its dark sheen gone. And what he says sounds strained, as if he himself does not believe what he is saying. Is it only because of the passing of time, the responsibilities of his job? To an extent it must be, but one suspects that there is a little more to it. The changes have become noticeable ever since the run-up to the attack on Iraq.

I think Blair is a basically decent man. He has the welfare of his country at heart and has been doing what he thinks will make it a better place, richer not only in the economic sense but also in terms of education, science, research and different fields of endeavour. He has been doing that, but it looks as if in recent times he has wandered off from all that and placed rather more emphasis on keeping the Americans - or, more precisely, George W. Bush - happy. Bush has been obsessed with Iraq and its destruction, with killing Saddam Hussein, for a variety of reasons that are not relevant here, however cold-blooded and barbaric they may be.

Surely, Tony Blair, who is by no means unintelligent, would have seen through the charade that the U.S. President enacted to get his armed forces to attack that country; yet, not only did he not seem to see through it, he actively took part in the charade, became, in fact, a very vigorous participant.

He was loud in his declarations that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, something that the rest of the world found ludicrous, except of course the Americans, a sizable number of whom would believe the earth was flat if their President and the Pentagon, backed by the media which, on the whole, generally backs up the establishment, told them that it was. He alienated his neighbours in Europe, France and Germany among them; he divided his party and the British people in a manner they have rarely been divided before on any issue.

Two of his Cabinet Ministers have resigned and led a bitter attack on what he has been doing to drag Britain into an attack on a country which clearly has no weapons of mass destruction, accusing him of justifying the attack with lies and deceit, killing thousands of Iraqi men, women and children, maiming even more.

On a recent visit to Britain, I was amazed at the polarisation of opinion that had taken place about Tony Blair. Even in forums where he had earlier been a sort of latter day St. George, he was referred to in terms which were bitter, dejected. There was, one noticed, a deep sense of anger and shame at what had happened in Iraq, at what Britain had been more or less talked into being a part of. The father of a British soldier who had been killed in Iraq, who had himself served in the Royal Navy for over 24 years and seen action in the Falklands War, said publicly that he held the government accountable for his son's death, for having taken the country into attacking another country which it should never have done. Some of that was obviously a result of his grief but, given his own background, it was not only that. And Blair's opponents within the party and outside it have had a field day. He has been called everything - a Prime Minister who has sold out Britain as no one before has, George Bush's pet poodle, and so on.

WHY did Tony Blair do it? What did he think Britain would gain out of the messy and cruel invasion of another country? Oil? Because the North Sea reserves are dwindling, and a new source of oil was essential? It seems so ridiculous; surely he could have bargained with a number of oil-producing countries for oil, as others are doing. He did not have to go to war for it. France and Germany have little or no access to oilfields of their own; they have not thought of attacking a Third World country like, say, Brunei, to get at its oil. That clearly cannot be a serious reason.

Perhaps, it was the anxiety to keep the U.S. happy, and since opinion polls showed that George Bush had the support of a large majority of Americans post 9/11, it seemed necessary to go along with his plans, however hare-brained and cruel they may have been. After all, in the final analysis, he must have reasoned, or been advised by his advisers, that one can rely only on the Americans, not on the other European countries. But rely on them for what? For better or worse, Britain's future is inextricably tied up with the rest of Europe, and he knows that, it is what he has been saying himself. Economically, socially, culturally, Britain is European, even though it shares a language with the Americans.

And as if the sharp divisions within his country were not enough, he got involved in a public and terrible row with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). Alistair Campbell, his media adviser or public relations chief, started it off with a violent attack on the BBC for biased reporting, in particular for saying that the government had `sexed up' a dossier which gave their justifications for attacking Iraq. He demanded an apology from the BBC and Blair, instead of keeping away from this, joined in. He himself did not actually ask for an apology, true, but he said that BBC ought to retract what it had said, since its report had been proved to be incorrect.

The BBC refused to apologise, stood by its story, which it said came from a well-placed source in Whitehall who had given the facts to their correspondent Andrew Gilligan. Blair, egged on no doubt by the frenzied Alistair Campbell, then had the Ministry of Defence identify the person who had spoken to Gilligan, and, after having assured him they would keep his name confidential, gave it to the BBC and other media organisations.

The Times carried a story on July 20 which said that the person concerned, a weapons scientist, David Kelly, was told by the Ministry of Defence that his name was being made public, and he told The Sunday Times : "I am shocked. I was told the whole thing would be confidential." The next day all the newspapers carried his name as the BBC's mole, and he was asked to appear before a Parliamentary Committee, which questioned him for four days. A few days later, Kelly died. Apparently, he killed himself.

Does Blair not see even now where he is heading? Macbeth said:

"I am in blood/ Stepp'd in so far that, should I wade no more,/ Returning were as tedious as go o'er."

Blair has not reached that stage yet, but he is perilously close. In his early years as Prime Minister, he seemed to have the promise of greatness; that promise appears distant now, and that he has much to answer for over this increasingly sordid business. But, however distant, the promise is there, if only he would realise that it is.

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