Adios, Mr. Blair

The British prime minister gave a stirring speech. He declared that the “special relationship” between Britain and the United States had come to be based on, “the [American] President taking exactly what he wants, and casually ignoring all those things that really matter to Britain.”  The assembled press core was shocked.

The above, of course, never happened. It is a scene from the movie “Love Actually.” The speech was delivered by Hugh Grant, who, though better looking, bears a striking resemblance to Tony Blair, the outgoing British prime minister.

But the actor’s lines are scripted. So different from the politician, who is bound to think clearly about what he believes to be best for the country, and to say and do it. Or so maybe it was for Churchill, or, come to think of it, even for Chamberlain. “Peace with honour,” insipid and wrong as it was, remains a more cogent phrase than any Mr. Blair has uttered.

We are in an age where politicians can no longer be admired; they are not leaders, but highly visible salesmen--they sell themselves to campaign donors to raise money for advertisements with which they can sell themselves to the public. If this process is less advanced in Britain than the United States, it is no fault of Mr. Blair’s. He took the modern, American style of politics to Britain, imbued it with a fluency that it lacked across the Atlantic, and used it to bring Labour back to power after long absence.

He did this with a marketing slogan: “The Third Way.” It’s hard to say what the third way is, except that it meanders. It might best be summed up as--enough to get by. After Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979, the center-left Labour party was doomed to wander the wilderness. Say what you will about Ms. Thatcher, she had ideas. The British public liked those ideas more than the opposition’s, and the Conservatives rode them to 18 years in power. Laissez-faire sounded good, and so did nationalism— from the Falklands’ war onwards.

What Mr. Blair did was to take those ideas and water them down sufficiently to make them palatable to Labour’s base of support -- unions and the rest of the traditional left. That is why, though he was a phenomenally successful politician, he was never loved -- he figured out how to be tolerated by a wide spectrum of the British public, but no amount of spin suffices to inspire.

This culminated in Mr. Blair’s support for the Iraq war. He is an abler speaker than any of his American contemporaries— there is enough left in the British system (for instance, the requirement that the Prime Minister submit to weekly, public questions from Parliament) that he had to be articulate. But this didn’t mean he had to be substantive. Though millions took to the streets of London to protest the war before it started, he defended it with vacuous arguments.

The Conservative party, Mr. Blair’s principal political opponent, was naturally inclined to support the war; it was his own party who would have been war’s main opponents. The war’s natural opponents were kept in check because it was their own leader who beat the drums, leaving no strong, political voice to oppose the war.

“A friend who bullies us,” Mr. Grant said in his film, “is no longer a friend.” But Mr. Blair didn’t need to be bullied into joining America’s misguided war in Iraq; he went willingly. For that, his other achievements— helping to bring peace to Northern Ireland, working to modernise social services— will be forgotten. The most apt analogy might be to Lyndon Johnson, of whom it can be said that the most memorable thing about his Great Society was that he sent its sons to die in Vietnam.

Mr. Blair led Britain to a misguided war, having manipulated his country into it in the same manner that he manipulated his way to the Prime Minister’s office. His resignation, long-expected (indeed he announced it even as the last electoral campaign was underway, giving him the rare distinction of having won office only by promising to leave it) now leaves Gordon Brown, his finance minister and likely successor, to pick up the pieces.

Konstantin Kakaes has been a journalist in Mexico since 2005; before that he lived in London, and in the United States. The opinions expressed in this article are his own.

 

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