A Man With No Country
The vulgar political afterlife of Prime Minister Tony Blair.
LONDON – There are few second acts in political lives. This is a truth Tony Blair appears to be discovering the hard way. The former British prime minister, now most famous for being the most eloquent salesman for the American-led war against Saddam Hussein, has kept a low profile since he left Downing Street five years ago. Even his work as the Quartet’s representative to the Middle East has attracted little attention. Now, however, the word on the London Street is that Blair wants to "re-engage" with British politics.
This week, he testified before the Leveson Inquiry investigating the links — complicated and often humiliating — between the British media and political elites, a many-tentacled monster spawned by the News of the World scandal. It was a classic Blair performance: plausible and impressive, yet shameless too. No, he insisted, despite being godfather to one of Rupert Murdoch’s children, Blair was never that close to the English-speaking world’s most powerful media mogul. They only developed a more than "working" relationship after Blair left office. Believe that if you will. And if you do, perhaps you still believe that Iraq had mobile chemical weapons labs?
Meanwhile, behind the scenes, Blair has been meeting with the new Labour leader Ed Miliband and hosting small gatherings of freshmen Labour MPs at which he offers tactical and strategic advice on how best the party can take advantage of David Cameron’s weaknesses. Despite his years away from the fray, few doubt Blair’s instinctive ability to understand Middle England, but even so his return prompts an awkward question: What is Tony Blair for?
Like his old chum Bill Clinton, Blair entered office in his 40s. Like Clinton, he plainly misses the political fray. But while Clinton’s Global Initiative has partially solved the “What shall we do with Bill?” problem, Blair is still desperately seeking relevance. He has lost an empire but not yet found a role.
At one point he hoped he might become president of the European Council, an ambition that — given his past associations with George W. Bush (a man not thought of all that fondly in Brussels) and Britain’s ambivalent relationship with the European Union — always seemed a hopeless, even vainglorious, cause. So it proved: The job went to the comparatively little-known Belgian Herman von Rompuy instead.
The misadventure in Mesopotamia similarly doomed any hope Blair might have of earning a big-ticket United Nations job, while his lack of interest in economics ensured there’d be no assignment for him at the International Monetary Fund.
An admittedly unscientific survey of Guardian readers found that only one in three would welcome Blair’s return to British public life. For many on the left, Blair’s determination to remove Saddam Hussein from power makes him some kind of war criminal. The left expected no less, you see, from the man from Crawford, Texas, but Blair was supposed to be cut from better cloth. Thus this betrayal runs deep: Even his appearance at the Leveson Inquiry — almost a decade after the Iraq war began — was interrupted by a protestor demanding Blair be prosecuted for "war crimes."
His chief public duty, in the five years since he was ejected by a mutiny within his own party, has been acting as the Quartet’s representative in the Middle East. Even this, however, has been a part-time assignment. Though those who pay attention to these matters tend to agree that Blair has done good work, this endeavor has produced few tangible rewards.
If his work in the Middle East has been too humdrum for a bored press corps to bother covering (few Britons are exercised by worthy initiatives to stimulate the Palestinian economy) the same cannot be said of Blair’s other post-office existence. Much of this, as far as the British press is concerned, can be reduced to a simple question: How may I, Anthony Charles Lynton Blair, become properly filthy rich and how quickly can I do it?
Blair is hardly the first former British premier to cash in on his fame. Winston Churchill was a tireless self-propagandist, while Margaret Thatcher cashed in on the American lecture circuit before infirmity and dementia curtailed her public appearances. Blair’s predecessor, John Major, has made millions as European director of the Carlyle Group. But none of these former prime ministers attracted the opprobrium reserved for Blair.
Then again, none of them were portrayed as a vulgar, money-grubbing parvenu either. If Blair’s government always was, in the words of his confidante Peter Mandelson — "intensely relaxed" about the pursuit of money, the former prime minister has been no slouch in that matter either. No one quite knows how much money Blair has made since leaving Downing Street, but his offices in London’s Grosvenor Square (where his neighbors include the U.S. embassy) are reported to cost £550,000 a year to rent; his consultancy firm and other interests earned, according to their most recent accounts, £12 million last year. This includes, it is believed, £3 million from J.P. Morgan and hefty fees from foreign governments persuaded that Blair’s advice is worth yet more millions. Among Blair’s clients: the governments of countries such as Kuwait and Kazakhstan. No wonder, perhaps, that the British press calls this new man Blair, Inc.
Indeed, Blair’s reputation in his homeland is so battered that even ostensibly unimpeachable acts of charity are liable to be interpreted as the actions of a man with a guilty conscience. When he announced he was donating the £4 million he earned from his memoirs to the Royal British Legion (a charity for former soldiers), this was met by a barrage of cynicism on Fleet Street. One columnist in the left-wing Daily Mirror suggested this "pious, Bible-bashing hypocrite" should instead "amputate a limb and give that to the British Legion."
The world has changed since Blair left office. The era of Neoliberal Ascendancy has ended. The claim, oft-repeated by Blair and his chancellor (and successor) Gordon Brown that Labour had abolished the cycle of "boom and bust" now stands as a rusting totem to the hubris of a distant pre-austerity age whose pretensions to glory have long-since been stripped naked. Ed Miliband was elected Labour leader in large part because he was seen as the candidate least associated with the Blair era.
Even Blair’s electoral success — perhaps the chief weapon in his defenders’ arsenal — now looks less impressive than it seemed at the time. True, he won three elections, but the first was at the expense of an exhausted Conservative party that had been in power for 18 years, the second came in an economic boom, and the third was compromised by war-related controversy and by the understanding Blair would depart the stage sooner rather than later. Four million fewer Britons voted for Blair in 2005 than had done so in 1997. Labour won just 35 percent of the vote in Blair’s last election.
For that matter, a former prime minister on J.P. Morgan’s payroll is ill-placed to offer counsel in an age when capitalism’s previously unquestioned supremacy is now a matter of great controversy. As Europe tilts towards populism, Blair remains part of the international elite widely blamed (accurately or not) for the crisis that detonated a year after he left office. Even some of Blair’s supporters on the muscular wing of the British left are appalled by his recent record. Blair’s willingness to "advise" Central Asian dictators such as Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev compromises his standing among those liberals who stood by him even as his foreign policy choices made him a figure of hatred for much of the traditional left. Blair, who made arguments for liberal decency in Sierra Leone, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq, is now just another guy for hire — if the price is right.
Writing in the Observer last weekend, Nick Cohen offered this withering assessment of Blair’s recent record: "His love of money has brought down the worst fate that could have befallen him. He now has the manners and morals of his opponents. He has become a George Galloway with a Learjet at his disposal."
Being Tony Blair must be an odd and lonely existence. Money cures many ills but, at least in a liberal democracy, it does not always buy love. Blair made his name as a “regular kind of guy” who could extend Labour’s appeal into previously Tory, middle-class heartlands. Now, however, many of Blair’s previous supporters consider themselves duped by a great political chameleon or, as some have it, a charlatan for the ages. There is self-loathing mixed with Blair-hatred, too.
Nor can trips to Davos or Aspen or the other meetings of the global elite replicate the thrill of power. As many a sporting star has learned, you’re a long time retired. That applies to statesmen as well. Few people should be surprised that Tony Blair might miss the game, but there are few fans eager to see him return to the field of play. If they could only stop loathing him for a moment, Britons might even feel a pang of pity for Blair. He has become a man without a country anywhere, with a past that haunts him everywhere.