Polling shows that Blair unites the public in revulsion. James Foley argues he has earned these feelings with both his domestic and foreign record.
If the question of justice asks how society distributes rewards and punishments, what does Tony Blair’s knighthood say about Britain? Our governing class has conferred Britain’s highest honour on a man that Archbishop Desmond Tutu, among others, would have indicted in the Hague for the most heinous crime imaginable – plotting a war of aggression. And it is not just some cabal of do-gooders who want Blair to face international law’s harshest punishments. Britain’s establishment knighted Blair knowing very well that the decision had no wider public legitimacy.
Blair might divide elite opinion, but, in wider society, to call him a “polarising” figure would be a charitable euphemism. Public attitudes are as close to unanimous as polling gets. Almost two-thirds believe the knighthood is undeserved; just 14 percent find it justified. Outside of FBPE diehards, the Labour leadership and the Windsors, Blair-fancying is a fringe eccentricity. The 14 percent who would have “Sir Tony” is not far off the 13 percent of Britain who approve of Prince Andrew. A much larger fraction considers him the modern incarnation of political evil and would have Blair in the Hague for war crimes.
What sets Blair apart is not just Iraq, or his post-leadership career servicing dictators, or his cavorting with the worst elements of the social elite, symbolised by an appearance in Jeffrey Epstein’s “little black book”. It is not just the scale of atrocities (although some estimates put the Iraqi death toll at a million), or the precedents set by plotting a war of aggression. What is truly appalling is that he did it while representing “our” side: Britain invaded Iraq not just in the name of soldiers and citizens, but in the name of a party built to represent working-class political aspirations.
Many fail to recognise the significance of this. Indeed, much of the liberal commentariat would treat Blair with greater leniency precisely because he represents “our” side. This strand of the left hold “their” leaders to higher standards than “ours”: the outrage would be double or triple in size if Boris Johnson got the knighthood, even though Johnson has done far less than Blair to deserve the invective.
If anything, the mainstream left is still too soft on Blair. Some may consider this counterintuitive, given that a million left-leaning citizens marched against the Iraq War. But sadly, it is measurable in public attitudes. 79 percent of Conservative voters oppose his knighthood, compared to just 56 percent of Labour and 46 percent of Lib Dem voters. Too many, seemingly, have concluded that his backhanded efforts to cancel a referendum somehow absolve his role in the biggest foreign policy disaster in modern British history.
Some counter that Blair’s foreign policy failures are balanced by less touted achievements on the domestic front. In truth, New Labour’s more lasting achievements (for instance, devolution and the Freedom of Information Act) were actively disowned by Blair himself. Any credit owing to Blair for the Gordon Brown-led accomplishments on poverty (much of it, in truth, a statistical fiction) has been cancelled out by Blair’s subsequent endorsement of austerity and welfare cuts. Indeed, Blair remarked that Conservative assaults on disability benefits were “the encapsulation of what New Labour is about”.
Blair’s true domestic accomplishment was to normalise the post-Thatcherite settlement. The beneficiaries, aside from the already wealthy capitalist class, were upwardly mobile members of the professional-managerial elite. Their gains have been permanently embedded in Britain’s social fabric.
Meanwhile, the collective political imagination was constrained within the tightest of ideological boundaries. Poor and peripheral Britain lost even the notional fiction of a party that might lobby for their interests, establishing the dynamics that would end in indyref, Brexit and the collapse of “Red Walls” in Scotland and Northern England.
Blair was the most fortunate British Prime Minister in memory. He benefitted from an economic boom which, leaving aside its shallow foundations in the debt economy and its subsequent collapse, lasted throughout his reign. Economically, Blair epitomised the babyboomer stereotype, living high on the hog, leaving a mess behind him. He also benefitted from unprecedented divisions on the other aisle that produced bantamweight “opponents” like William Hague, Michael Howard and Iain Duncan-Smith. He used these propitious circumstances for…very little of lasting importance, if one takes seriously Blair’s claims to represent society’s “progressive” bloc.
If Labour once stood for the working-class investment in democracy, this was vanishing long before Blair. But under Blair, according to Danny Dorling’s study, the benefits of voting Labour accrued to Conservative-voting constituencies, while the most loyal Labour seats barely saw any improvement in life expectancies, income and wealth. Voting “progressively” had ceased to bring rewards, arguably for the first time in British history.
Of course, there is one sense in which Blair “deserves” his knighthood. So far, I have assumed the fiction that knighthoods reward those who serve some (vaguely defined) public interest, as well as the equally fictious idea that Labour embodies social progress. More commonly, knighthoods award those who render services to (or simply flatter) some layer of the state elite (this “high honour” has also been awarded to Benito Mussolini, Fred Goodwin and Jimmy Saville).
By dragooning his party into fronting up the “anti-terrorist” alliance with America, Blair performed services for the arms industry, energy interests and (most importantly) the post-colonial aggrandisement of the state. He took the flack for what was the British elite’s collective vanity – the notion of Britain as a “pivotal power” in world affairs, or cheerleader in chief for America the global sheriff. The knighthood is doubtless his reward, and that is a stain on Britain’s character. But the fault lies just as much with the fabled “international community”, who, having failed to prosecute Blair and Bush, made it clear that international law would mean little but victor’s justice.