Tony Blair sought to return to frontline politics last week with a speech to the Open Britain movement, in which he called on those of us who voted to remain in the European Union not to accept a hard Brexit as inevitable, and even suggested that last year’s referendum decision might yet be reversed. His speech was not well received. This was not surprising. Blair is yesterday’s man”or even the day before yesterday’s”and he is probably the most reviled politician in the United Kingdom.
Few prime ministers have seen their reputation plummet as quickly and steeply as Tony Blair. Anthony Eden’s reputation was destroyed by his unsuccessful Suez war in 1956. The architects of appeasement in the “30s, Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain, were branded as “Guilty Men” in 1940, though Chamberlain had been rapturously acclaimed as the man who had saved us from war on his return from Munich in 1938.
Yet Blair’s fall has been even more complete, so complete that it is hard even to remember how popular he once was, or even that he was in electoral terms by far the most successful leader the Labour Party has ever had, winning elections in 1997, 2001, and 2005. Moreover, for most of that time Blair and his government could be considered a success. What sank him was the Iraq War and his close relationship with President George W. Bush.
There are myths about the Iraq War. People forget that it was supported by the Conservative opposition, support that ensured a handsome majority in the House of Commons. It was opposed by the left wing of Blair’s own Labour Party, by the Liberal Democrats and the nationalist parties in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. The country itself was more or less evenly divided.
The second myth is that Blair took the country to war on what he knew was a false prospectus”the so-called “dodgy dossier.” One hesitates just now to use the word “fact”; nevertheless the fact is that the intelligence agencies in the U.S. and Britain believed that Saddam Hussein did indeed have these “weapons of mass destruction.” So indeed did the French intelligence service, even though President Chirac declined to commit France to war.
That war is now generally seen as disastrous”with good reason, it may be said”and Blair is condemned as the man who dishonestly led the country into a war widely regarded as illegal. (He continues to believe he acted rightly.)
His reputation has been further damaged by his behavior since leaving office””money-grubbing” is the most polite term applied to the activities that have made him a very rich man”and, of course, he was quite sharply criticized in the Chilcot report into the Iraq War.
Accordingly the harsh reception of his speech was to be expected. The man is damaged goods, and the message he gave was not likely to be judged on its merits. The Leave camp is in the ascendancy and it’s full steam”or fairly full steam”for Brexit. Nobody really believes it can be checked or the decision of the referendum reversed. Even fully committed Remainers accept that this was a democratic decision that must, however reluctantly, be accepted. Any criticism of the government’s march to Brexit is met with the question “What part of the word “Leave” don”t you understand?” Fair enough, you may say.
Yet Blair made some good points. First, though there was a majority for Brexit, 48 percent of those who voted, more than 16 million people, were opposed to it. Are their objections, doubts, hesitations simply to be set aside as of no account?