Remembering Tony Blair

by Barendina Smedley

I only ever saw Tony Blair twice.

The second time — less interesting, more easily summarised — took place standing next to the push-chair occupied by my long-suffering two-year old son. We were coming home from the sandpit in St James’s Park, and I needed to get back soon for a Cadogan Tate delivery, but it was the day on which Tony Blair, who as prime minister had won four elections and served ten years, was going to the Palace to resign. How often does it happen that one can elect to be present for a (relatively benign) moment of history, just by delaying a journey back from the sandpit? So I stood in a little huddle of press photographers, bemused tourists and politics geeks. In time we were rewarded by the onrush of the sleek black car, the glimpse of a familiar face, our own tiny crumb snatched from beneath the table of world-historical significance. My son doesn’t remember it, of course, but he claims to be glad that he was there.

The first time mattered more.

The date eludes me, but it must have been quite early in Tony Blair’s premiership. But someone could, I suppose, work it out, because it had to have been a year when 11 November fell on a Saturday. I was down in Westminster and, on a whim, went to take part in what was, at the time, a fairly low-key observance at the Cenotaph.

This was back in the day when observing the actual anniversary of the Armistice was very much a niche activity, the near-exclusive domain of ex-military types, their friends and relatives. As expected, there could not have been more than a hundred people present, probably fewer, gathered around the Cenotaph. There was no security presence, either, at least not obviously so.

But a few minutes before the silence, an odd thing happened, which was that a flurry of activity took place to the left of where I was standing, and looking over, just a few feet behind me, who should I see but the prime minister? He had turned up, without any fanfare, not a formal participant in the ceremony — not there for the cameras, either, because there were no cameras, and this was also long before the days of omnipresent camera-phones — but rather, to all appearances, there on a whim, exactly as I was. From what I remember, he had a nice smile, was taller and marginally less elfin-looking than I expected, shook a few hands then vanished immediately once the action was over, which in retrospect is exactly what one would expect of any proper prime minister.

It’s a small memory, at some level, and unremarkable — but at the time, it made quite an impression on me.

The past is full of jarringly unlikely things. To be honest, when Labour came to power in 1997, as a lifelong Tory, I was genuinely very sad, and also — and I know this sounds mad, but I read it in anyway, just for the record — also seriously alarmed. Well, you can laugh now, but you then you enjoy the multitudinous benefits of hindsight. Who knew that trade unions would not menace the land, that bodies would not lie unburied in the streets, that no one would go after the kulaks, in short that life as we knew it at the time would be allowed to continue? I didn’t.

So to see a Labour leader doing what was, to me, not a just ‘normal’ thing, but actually quite a patriotic and serious thing, made quite a difference. Not least, the whole lack of Cool Britannia glamour, the absence of star quality, the willingness to engage in something not for the cameras, but apparently from an actual genuine desire to commemorate the dead of our recent wars, told me something about Tony Blair that I had not known before.

Did I like Blair more after that? Of course I did. Again, as a life-long Tory, this did not, of course, translate into any urgent desire to vote Labour, ever, under any circumstances. But I freely admit that it opened my eyes to something, which was that Tony Blair might possibly be about more than the insubstantial creature of focus groups, shallow attempts to garner or consolidate popular approval, and that terrible knowing corrosive cynicism that blighted so much in popular culture in the 1990s.

Looking back, it’s a poignant memory, for all the obvious reasons. I now live in a world where a whole generation has grown up — a generation increasingly making its presence felt in popular culture, the media, in politics itself — to whom Blair is nothing but a war criminal, David Kelly’s murderer, a morally cankered monster more egregious than Saddam, Gaddafi and George W. Bush all mingled in together and marinaded in the blood of innocent legions. So it is interesting, to me, to remember how different things once looked, what a surprise it once was to see the leader of the Labour Party — hitherto assumed to be the preserve of CND, white poppies and Troops Out — commemorating Britain’s war dead.

Fast forward a couple of decades, and the Labour Party have elected as their leader Jeremy Corbyn, no stranger to CND, white poppies and Troops out — just to select a few of his more wholesome affiliations.

On one hand, as an outsider — a Tory — I don’t have much to say about the whole situation, except to point out that at least a few of us quite like the sort of general election in which all the major candidates are, at a push, people one could imagine governing Britain with a degree of obvious competence.

On the other hand, though, I am thrown back on my memories of Tony Blair. Here, after all, was a man who managed to bring out not only the traditional Labour vote, but also to secure not only the votes, but also the very public and enthusiastic allegiance, of quite a number of my ex-Tory or previously apathetic friends. Here was a man who won four general elections.

No, I’m not an uncritical fan of Blair myself — I still deplore his completely pointless vandalism of the hereditary House of Lords, his ill-starred tinkering with the mechanisms of the Union, his willingness to suspend the rule of law in order to simulate a showy, doubtless quite satisfying at the time but ultimately rather dubious ‘peace’ in Northern Ireland.

But all the same, I am just about mature enough to acknowledge some of the things he rather well, including, first and foremost, his success in making Labour seem like a plausible party of government. Just to pick a few Tory moments, he was quick to rise to the novel challenges thrown up by the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, his partnership with a talented but difficult chancellor, and, up to a point, the enormity of 9/11. We take for granted now that this must have been the case, but the fact that we do so is, in a way, a left-handed tribute to Blair’s abilities — and, I suppose, to the team around him, including the enigmatic, never less than fascinating Alastair Campbell, whose published diaries read, again with hindsight, like a Maurice Cowling joke transcribed at length by a very competent 1980s tabloid journalist. (For the avoidance of doubt, by the way, this is a Good Thing.) And if I were a Labour supporter, which I am not, this isn’t a legacy I’d be desperate to jettison whatever the cost.

Of course, not everyone of my generation feels the same. Indeed, some of my Corbyn supporting friends are considerably older than I am — no less observant, either. I suppose we all just watched the 1990s and the decade that followed from importantly different vantage points, with different levels of engagement. Well, as someone who hadn’t voted for Blair, I had less at stake. New Labour euphoria never worked for me. On the other hand, expecting a flawed and human politician rather than the Messiah, perhaps in the long run I was happier with what I got.

My Corbyn supporting friends feel that Corbyn was ‘right’ on all sorts of things in the past, and hope on this basis that he will be ‘right’ on all sorts of things in the future, too. This is not an unreasonable line of argument, although it hangs heavily on that fragile word ‘right’. So perhaps we might examine, for a moment, what ‘right’ means in the context of the most important point on which Corbyn is seen to be ‘right’ — and, by inference, the demon king Blair is seen to be ‘wrong’ — which is, of course, the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Iraq, now, is such a simple, binary issue. In Iraq, military intervention was ‘wrong’. That huge, unruly, unforgettable march to stop the war was ‘right’. The people who took part in that march were ‘right’, even when they marched under banners implying more concern with the notional evils of the Zionist state than e.g. the future of Iraqi minority groups, or if they were anarchists in masks who mostly just wanted to smash things up. By inference, then, I guess, the two people whom I knew at the time who were in receipt of privy council level briefings, both of whom ended up sort of grudgingly supporting the war as the least worst option, were ‘wrong’, as was another friend, who had dealings with GCHQ, and on that basis thought that Saddam genuinely posed a threat that Britain needed to address. And all the MPs of all parties who voted for the war were ‘wrong’, just as all the normal citizens who watch the news, support their armed forces and hence ended up thinking that war against Iraq probably made sense, were also somehow ‘wrong’.

Well, there was a lot of wrongness about in 2003. How fortunate, then, that this wrongness doesn’t adhere to any of the rest of us, and is purely the fault of Tony Blair, Alastair Campbell and anyone else who ever bopped along, and was then captured like an insect in amber for all the ages by that omnipresent media, to ‘Things Can Only Get Better’. Also, it saves us all the hard work of trying to understand, with hindsight, how better planning for the post-war situation might have fostered better outcomes. It saves us from painful, honest grapples with contingency, in which we rarely emerge as winners, although it’s fascinating when anyone tries that sort of exercise, e.g. here. Best of all, it saves us from having to think about the future. Indeed, he (or she) who did not know politics before 1997 cannot truly grasp the concept of irony.

The oddity, of course, is that the very same people who can give chapter and verse on the wrongness of 2003 are less certain when it comes to Kosovo, Sierra Leone, even Afghanistan. They are less certain when it comes to the military action that, in time, coaxed the IRA and other terrorist groups into accepting talks as a worthwhile option. They are less certain about whether there is ever, under any circumstance, a case for military intervention, or a role for private sector initiative, or a valid place for clear conservative voices. Indeed, some of them are notably vague when it comes to the central point here, which is whether it is better to be able to exercise power and get the answers slightly wrong, as opposed to being right about everything while having the power to do nothing. But when it comes to this last question, at least, their vote now stakes out their position.

Other Labour friends, by the way, see Corbyn’s victory as a potentially healthy thing. According to their narrative, Labour needs time to recover from the horrible jolt of the 2015 election, to take stock, and most of all, to learn what can be salvaged from their own tangled memories of Blair, the inchoate churned-up detritus of his triumphs and disasters. Doing this, however, will require a degree of unsqueamish honesty not always obvious in the narratives attached to Corbyn by his acolytes. And it will also require deep understanding of an adult, tedious, unglamorous truth, which is that even with the best intentions, things don’t always go to plan, and that the best response to that truth involves understanding and acceptance more often than it does censure and oblivion.

And me? For some reason, Corbyn always reminds me of Auden’s poem ‘Spain’, although not in the obvious sense of being left-wing, intelligent yet prone to the odd almost unforgivably dodgy bit of phrasing. (To be fair, though, that ‘necessary murder’ line is someone one could well imagine Corbyn saying, in that sort of context.) No, I think part of what Auden was trying to say about Spain is that, whatever Civil War era Spain may once have been, once the war started, its significance was suddenly whatever anyone else anywhere wished to project upon it — all given an awful (in the strict sense) reality by the fact that these projections were now being played out in earnest, with real lives, and real consequences.

Blair, with hindsight, turned out to be a good deal more than the sum of the fantasies and hopes projected upon him. Not everyone, in the end, was pleased to find that this was the case. Will it be the same with Corbyn? Time, as ever, will tell.