Dispatch

Everybody Hates Tony

How Britain's golden boy lost his luster.

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During a visit to Kosovo this summer, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his wife Cherie met with a remarkable group of children. The young Kosovar boys had each been born soon after NATO’s bombing campaign successfully drove Serbian forces from the province in 1999. More significantly, each child was named Tonibler in Blair’s honor.

As one of the boys’ mothers put it: “I hope to God that he grows up to be like Tony Blair or just a fraction like him.”

The curiously touching scene was a reminder that reputation is a matter of perspective. In Kosovo, Blair’s leadership of the campaign to oust Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic has made him a hero; in Britain his determination to deal with Saddam Hussein has had the opposite effect. You’re not likely to find many young British boys named after Anthony Charles Lynton Blair.

These days, Blair’s name is mud on the eastern side of the Atlantic. The former prime minister has been entirely disowned. He stands accused of selling his soul and, worse, his judgment to a cowboy American president and, worse still, doing it on the cheap. But three years after his ignominious departure from public office, the most successful politician of his generation is back, touting his memoirs ahead of Wednesday’s publishing date. In so doing, Blair has reopened some old wounds and reignited some restive quarrels. The process has also inspired a strange resurgence of what one might call “Blair Derangement Syndrome”: an absolute and disproportionate hatred for the former prime minister, shared only by a certain group of Britons and found somewhat inexplicable by the rest of the planet.

In Iraq-war-era Washington, Blair was a beloved figure for interventionists both liberal and conservative, a proponent for their views who could be trusted — unlike America’s then-president. If the British prime minister — so eloquent, so passionate, so persuasive, so British — was convinced Saddam had to be confronted, then the case for pre-emptive action couldn’t be so flimsy as it now, with chastened hindsight, seems. Even Republicans admitted that Blair was often more convincing than anyone in George W. Bush’s administration. Not since the Beatles had a Briton been so popular in the United States.

Then came Blair’s fall. The failure to discover the promised Iraqi weapons of mass destruction destroyed Blair’s credibility in Britain. Meanwhile, the government was bitterly split between Blair’s supporters and Gordon Brown’s claque of resentful followers. Brown spent the best part of a decade harassing Blair, demanding that the prime minister resign and hand over power to his jealous chancellor of the Exchequer. The result was a broken government that, in its later years, achieved much less than it could or should have.

The Labour Party — which Blair led to three historic, crushing election victories — is now embarrassed by the most successful leader in its history. None of the candidates to succeed Brown have claimed the mantle of Blairism. To do so would invite scorn and mockery.

In fact, Blair Derangement Syndrome is especially strong among the Labour-supporting chattering classes. Reading the Guardian — the house paper for right-thinking, respectable progressives — you’d gain the impression that Blair was a greater villain than Saddam Hussein.

An instructive measure of Britain’s irrational hatred was the reaction to Blair’s decision to donate to charity all revenues — advance and royalties alike — from his memoirs. The Royal British Legion, which assists former and current servicemen, is the beneficiary of Blair’s generosity.

The British media met Blair’s expensive gesture with its own customary lack of charity. “‘Guilty’ Blair gives £5m book cash to troops” was how one tabloid greeted the news. Relatives of the war dead were asked to condemn this “blood money,” and many duly obliged. One liberal-to-her-bootstraps columnist declared the donation “both cynical and provocative — as if money wipes this dark episode clean and redeems him. Call it chequebook expiation, kill and pay: it clearly works.” Another, writing in the left-wing Daily Mirror, suggested that Blair “should amputate a limb and give that to the British Legion,” adding that “boys will be in wheelchairs for the rest of their lives because of this pious, Bible-bashing hypocrite.”

These bouts of outrage confirmed what we already knew: Blair has been exiled from polite and right-thinking discourse in Britain. He, much more than Bush, is beyond the pale; he is the man of whom we do not speak. Bush, the fashionable line insists, was an ignoramus, but Blair should have known better.

But the idea, widely accepted in Britain, that Blair was “Bush’s poodle” could scarcely be more misplaced. If anything, the boot was on the other foot. Blair may have been acutely conscious that London was Washington’s junior partner, but he, not Bush, acted the part of elder statesman. It was Blair whose foreign-policy credentials had been forged by wars in Kosovo and by intervening to stop a particularly nasty civil war in Sierra Leone. It was Blair who decided that he would offer unconditional support to the U.S. president in exchange for the chance to lead Bush through the perilous diplomatic waters of the post-9/11 environment. Blair effectively bought himself private influence — though he had not calculated that its cost would be the appearance of public weakness.

There should be no doubt that if Bush hadn’t turned to Saddam, Blair would have. He had been convinced for years, at least since his famous 1999 “Doctrine of International Community” speech in Chicago, that there would eventually be a reckoning with the Iraqi dictator. None of the Blair-orchestrated interventions that followed should have surprised anyone who was paying attention.

In that way, Blair remains a historic center-left statesman, singularly representative of contemporary liberal interventionism, its climax and denouement at once. His critics never forget Iraq; his few remaining defenders demand that Kosovo, Sierra Leone, and Afghanistan be added to the balance sheet.

Of course, though Blair may still be more popular in the United States than in the United Kingdom, his reputation has been tarnished in Washington, too. The Democratic Party has moved on from the Clinton-Blair era. Transatlantic confabs addressing the “Third Way” are relics of a long-gone political age. Washington’s neoliberal policy shops, such as the Democratic Leadership Council, have seen their influence wane, and President Barack Obama has no discernible interest in the broader international left.

Still, Blair himself remains a committed partisan in the dispute over his legacy, a party of one valiantly trying to shape the historical record. This was especially evident in his elegiac and defiant valedictory speech in the House of Commons in 2007, announcing his resignation as prime minister after a decade’s service. “I did what I thought was right,” he said then, and nothing has happened since to change his mind. It is this certainty, this refusal to apologize for his actions (for he sees nothin
g for which to apologize) and the awareness that he cares nothing for their opinion that so infuriates Blair’s many domestic critics.

Indeed, as he prepares to publish his case, Blair is a curiously stateless statesman: a leader disowned by his own party and people, cast out into the lucrative wilderness of speechmaking and consultancy reserved for retired international figures. There are worse fates. And if nothing else, the Albanian translation of his memoirs is sure to be a best-seller.

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