// you’re reading...


Left-Wing Love Buttons: Tony Blair’s Legacy

from Totally Fushed, October 2007

[Fully footnoted version available]

Well, I wanted to write an article about Tony Blair’s legacy. And then Hal Braiter came along last issue and got there before me. The trouble is, Mr Braiter and I don’t really agree about TB. Thus, I am compelled to pen a response to his ‘The heart of Tony Blair’. A very long, rough, rambling response. It will probably go beyond dealing with the specific points in Braiter’s piece, to deal more generally with negative opinions of Blair and the war in Iraq, and to discuss broader political ideas; so, you might say, as well as dealing with the letter of the Braiter piece, I’m also trying to deal with the spirit of it – which is to present a negative view of Blair and his politics. Or, you might not say any of that. In fact, you might have stopped reading already. Ye dirty bastards. I must also apologise in case this article does occasionally not make sense… due to deadline issues, I’m just throwing points down as they come out of me, and I may not have time to contextualise them or even, I don’t know, make sure they’re written in English. That’s me – a crazy, spontaneous guy! SHUT UP, MUM, I SAID I’D DO THE LAUNDRY LATER! So – which of us knows the true heart of TB: the Braitergator or lil’ young me? Well, Mr Braiter managed to finish his article in fewer words, so, right off the bat, I’m saying he should win. Er, wait, no – I mean, I should win, because this is my article! Hey, come to think of it, this is my magazine – I order you to let me win! Yeah! 

Anyway, on with the criticising… And by the way – I’m about to get serious.
The War Prime Minister

Mr Braiter’s main complaint with Mr Blair is the war in Iraq. Yet Braiter spends an awful lot more time discussing American actions regarding the war than Tony Blair’s. Which may be fair enough, given that the British PM jumped aboard the US’s bandwagon. But it ignores the fact that Blair’s government had significant private disagreements with Bush’s and tried to ‘reign in’ the US in relation to some of the most idiotic post-invasion policies, such as de-Baathification.  You could ask then, ‘Well, if they had these private disagreements, why didn’t they make them public?’ Because Blair has always believed that the best way to make necessary changes is from inside the process rather than outside; it’s the same drive that brought Labour into government after eighteen years of drifting in the wilderness. And, I believe, it’s the same drive that led Blair to join Britain with America for the Iraq invasion in the first place. Apart from his own principled humanitarian reasons for going to war (he saw a dictator who was oppressing his people and should be removed from power), Blair made a strategic decision: As Braiter makes clear with the evidence he presents in his article, the US was going into Iraq regardless of whether any of its allies went with it. Blair decided that it was better to be with America, fighting alongside it, than on the outside, unable to influence the course of an invasion which would have consequences for the whole Middle East and the whole world. In the circumstances, Blair’s decision was the right decision: change can only ever be made from the inside. Given Britain’s inability to effect changes in US policy, you may say that Blair was naïve – perhaps he was; but his failure in this regard is more an indictment of the Bush administration’s stubbornness than TB’s efforts.

And regarding Blair’s principled humanitarian reasons for wanting to involve Britain in the Iraq war: they were sound ones. We can go round and round in circles about the ‘dodgy dossier’, WMD, and the ‘legal basis’ for the war. But here’s a simple fact. When you are making a case for something – in court, for example – you present the available evidence in such a way that it will make your argument seem strong. This is exactly what the British government did, and what one would expect them to have done, in the run-up to the war. And two independent inquiries – Hutton and Butler – as well as parliamentary investigations, have found that nobody in government lied or made up evidence that didn’t exist. Mr Braiter and I can argue over and over about whether the Hutton Report was a ‘whitewash’, but there is absolutely no point in doing this as one’s opinion will inevitably be influenced by one’s political persuasions. So, if you’re curious about why Blair’s government was vindicated, all the Hutton Inquiry evidence is still available online, along with the full report detailing exactly why Hutton came to the conclusions he did: www.the-hutton-inquiry.org.uk – go check it out. Hutton himself has said this: ‘If all the evidence at my inquiry was fairly taken into account, there was no reasonable basis on which my conclusion that the Government did not know that the 45 minutes claim was wrong and had not ordered the dossier to be sexed up could be described as a whitewash.’  You see, just because the evidence that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction turned out to be wrong, doesn’t mean that people lied about it. It is, of course, deeply disturbing that the intelligence community was so badly mistaken. But Saddam was a man who had used WMD in the past. In the 1988 Halabja massacre, he killed thousands of Iraqi Kurds – his own people! – with poison gas. It wasn’t as if there wasn’t reason to believe the worst about his destructive capabilities.

Mr Braiter mentions Dr David Kelly, the weapons expert who dealt with BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan. You know what? The government could probably have treated Dr Kelly better. But that doesn’t make him or BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan a hero of the truth. In fact, just to balance out what Braiter wrote about Kelly and Gilligan, allow me to re-present this extract from a 2003 article of mine on Blair and Hutton: ‘On May 29, 2003, a reporter alleged on BBC Radio One’s Today programme that Blair’s government had included, in its dossier on Saddam’s WMD, information which it knew was probably wrong. The reporter, Andrew Gilligan, cited ‘one of the senior officials in charge of drawing up that dossier’ as his source for such an allegation. The seniority of Gilligan’s source, Dr. David Kelly, has been disputed, though he was certainly involved in the creation of the dossier. However, on air, Gilligan exaggerated totally Dr. Kelly’s complaints to the point where Kelly was not even sure if he was the source Gilligan was citing! Gilligan’s own notes of his conversation with Kelly did not correspond to the accusations he made on air!’  It’s worth pointing out, as well, that Dr Kelly’s wife told the Hutton Inquiry that her husband ‘believed in’ the case for going to war with Iraq. 

Another issue that bugs me is when people go on about the so-called illegality of the Iraq war. War is not like murder or robbing a bank; it cannot be governed by normal laws agreed between citizens or even between countries; it is a great evil, which is sometimes necessary to support a greater good. So what if the UN didn’t give the go-ahead for the invasion of Iraq? What is the UN? A group of countries. What was the American-led coalition which invaded Iraq? A group of countries – democracies, fighting against a brutal dictatorship.  The 1999 Kosovo war was just as ‘illegal’ as the invasion of Iraq,  but you didn’t have hordes of lefties going on and on about its ‘illegality’ to the extent that you still have over the Iraq conflict. Why? Because liberals supported the idea of stopping Milosevic’s campaign of ethnic cleansing. In that case, even for lefties, the end justified the means.  But, by 2003, Saddam Hussein had done many, many things to rival the evil of Milosevic’s genocide. And yet, somehow, if the West decided to do anything about Saddam, it was being ‘illegal’.

Mr Braiter cynically uses a supposed Blair / Alastair Campbell quote as the subtitle of his article: ‘The joy on the faces of the children I met tells me we did the right thing.’ Hal must not think that improving the lives of children is a worthwhile goal for politicians to aspire to. Whether or not he saw them in Iraq, Mr Blair certainly saw the smiling faces of children freed from oppression in Kosovo, and Sierra Leone. In Kosovo after the NATO bombing campaign, Blair was ‘given a hero’s welcome… They were chanting his name: Tony, Tony, in a rhythm that got stronger as he walked through [the crowd], kids waving flags and running up to him with flowers. One man… took TB’s hands in both of his, and wouldn’t let go, just smiling and saying thank you.’  In Sierra Leone: ‘Tony Blair was given a true hero’s welcome as his convoy swept him into [a] tiny village of hovels… The signs hanging on fences around the centre of the village read: “We welcome you excellency the peace maker, we love and respect you, trust and support you.”’  So, all this would have been pretty powerful evidence for Blair that a policy of intervention works: you can use military force to stop murder and oppression and improve people’s lives. Would it not have been reasonable to assume he could do it again – in the case of Iraq?

And let’s look at what the Iraqis actually think of what has happened and what is happening in their country. In 2004, 49% of Iraqis thought it was ‘right’ that America invaded Iraq, compared with just 39% who thought it was ‘wrong’. What’s more, in ’04, 71% of Iraqis thought their lives would get better now that Saddam was gone; only 6% thought their lives would get worse. 78% thought attacks on coalition forces were ‘unacceptable’. Still today, more than half of Iraqis believe that coalition forces should remain in the country until security is restored, the Iraqi government is stronger, or the Iraqi security forces can operate on their own. More Iraqis blame al Qaeda and foreign jihadists for the violence in Iraq than blame coalition troops. And, a staggering 100% believe that attacks on their fellow citizens by ‘al Qaeda in Iraq’ are unacceptable.  How does all this tally with the lefty opinion of Iraq as a country being oppressed by an American Empire and a British Poodle? It doesn’t. What has fucked up Iraq, and what is still fucking up Iraq, is not the invasion. It is individuals who are prepared to kill themselves and others, in defiance of the democratic will of the Iraqi people, in order to realise their vision of what Iraq should be – an Islamic theocracy where women have no rights, and you can’t say or do anything unless it’s in praise of Allah. You think the Islamist groups fighting in Iraq are freedom fighters? On the contrary, they are fighting for the right to oppress. If they were simply fighting the occupation – why are Iraqis getting killed as they queue to join the police force? Why are civilians being targeted? Part of it, of course, is due to the ‘civil war’ element – Sunni vs Shia. But this again gives the lie to the view that those fighting are ‘freedom fighters’ – they are either Islamic radicals or sectarian thugs. Never forget, within months of the invasion, terrorists drove a truck bomb into the UN headquarters in Baghdad – the UN, which had opposed the invasion every step along the way! No, those fighting in Iraq are not fighting for freedom from an occupying force, they are fighting to impose their own evil ideals on the wider population. I believe in the principle of ‘you broke it, you fix it’ – America and Britain invaded Iraq, therefore it is absolutely their responsibility to rebuild what they destroyed, provide essential services and create a better life for the Iraqi people. The thing is, that is what they have been trying to do! But the security situation has made even the most basic stuff impossible, in some areas. You cannot provide water and electricity to a street where bombs are going off every day. The number of Iraqis who have died in the ongoing violence in Iraq is truly shocking; it is beyond words the suffering that has been caused. But who is doing the killing, and who is causing the suffering? Not British and American troops. Foreign fighters, former Saddam loyalists, and sectarian gangs. Of course, civilians died in the initial invasion, and nothing should ever take away from the tragedy of that – but that’s what happens in war. And of course, events like what happened at Abu Ghraib are a disgrace. But under Saddam, such events were celebrated. Now, they are condemned, and those responsible are punished. The fact that more Iraqis thought the invasion was ‘right’ than not says a lot about how much they wanted rid of their dictator. In fact, everything that’s happening in Iraq now says a lot about how much the Iraqis wanted rid of Saddam. What kind of oppression must the Iraqi people have been living under, that Saddam managed to crush such evident hatred between the different factions in his country? I was watching a news report a couple of weeks ago, which said that under Saddam, there were zero commercial television stations in Iraq. Now, there are over fifty. Common Ground is a TV show in which four Iraqis, two Shiite, two Sunni, discuss how the different denominations can better get along with one another. Twelve people at the station have already been murdered by insurgents. These four Iraqis have to broadcast their show from a bunker surrounded by US soldiers and tanks; they remain constantly under military protection. Whatever you thought of the invasion, whatever you think of Blair or Bush: What the insurgents are doing right now in Iraq is an immense evil, and what the US and UK troops are doing is something we should all be proud of. 

But… perhaps I’m just playing into Mr Braiter’s hands with all this. Isn’t that what these lefties want – to make us think that Blair’s political life is and will always be defined by Iraq? It’s funny. Immediately after the start of the war, BBC political correspondent Andrew Marr appeared on TV to say that Blair was now a stronger Prime Minister because of his stance on Iraq. The coalition won control of Baghdad in days. Then, of course, the insurgents got to work, and things started going to Hell. Tony Blair has always accepted that he bears the ultimate responsibility for taking Britain to war and for what has happened because of that decision, and so he should. But every time an insurgent straps on explosives and blows himself up in a busy Baghdad marketplace, where there are women, children, shoppers – he too makes a decision. Tony Blair made his decision hoping as few people as possible would be killed; the suicide bomber makes his hoping as many as possible will be killed. I know who I blame more for the current state of Iraq. In top-level international politics, there aren’t too many rulebooks you can consult – you see a situation and you have to call it one way or the other. Whatever decision you make, the consequences could be catastrophic. I’ve never really understood that saying about learning the lessons of history. Naturally, history has a lot to teach us – but the world changes so much every year, every decade: the lessons of history can only really teach us what worked and what didn’t in the past, not what might work or what won’t today. Our leaders must do what they think is right. And the beautiful thing is that, in a democracy, we get to kick them out if we don’t like their decisions. I want more people to live under the light of democracy. As Blair has said, when people anywhere are freely given the choice, it is how they choose to live. The war in Iraq may at least partly define Blair’s legacy in a negative way, but as a broader issue, his policy of intervention, or, as I like the to call it, the policy that People Deserve Not To Die, should be applauded. It’s that policy that saved and gave new hope to so many in Kosovo and Sierra Leone; it’s that policy that helped oust the Taliban, one of the most evil regimes in the history of the world; and, yes, it’s that policy that helped bring Saddam Hussein to justice and bring free elections and an elected government to Iraq. If Iraq had turned out more like Kosovo, we wouldn’t be having endless debates about how it ‘defines’ Blair’s legacy. But the Prime Minister saw a situation and made his call, and so he bears the burden.

Modern Man

But what about the rest of the Blair legacy? His commitment to Northern Ireland was utterly remarkable. The Northern Irish parties themselves took the steps toward peace, but only Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern could have guided them there, and they guided them expertly. Blair deserves huge credit for the current, much-improved state of NI. Indeed, he deserves huge credit for the current, much-improved state of the whole of the United Kingdom. Britain changed during the Blair years, transformed from an island intimidated by its past to an island embracing its future. And if that sounds like a line from a Blair speech, well, I’ll take it as a compliment! The truth is that Blair and ‘New Labour’ epitomised the new Britain, which was moving away from the harshness of the 1980s into an era when the good of the community would not be seen to be in conflict with the rights of the individual. These ‘ethereal’ things do matter, just as much as the detail of policies – because being a leader is about more policy detail; it’s about capturing the mood of a nation, or projecting the mood of that nation to the world, or reassuring the nation in times of crisis. Blair did this so well – whether he was calling Diana the People’s Princess, or standing shoulder to shoulder with America after September 11, or responding to the carnage of the 7/7 bombings. As well as being able to capture the national mood, Blair was also a Prime Minister so perfectly suited to his time – he acknowledged today’s celebrity culture, hosting all kinds of stars at Number 10; he embraced or at least knew he had to work with the twenty-four-hour media and the ‘new’ media. Go to the 10 Downing St website (www.number10.gov.uk), and you’ll still find a whole host of YouTube videos and podcasts featuring Blair (including a podcast of TB discussing Africa with Bob Geldof, and one of him talking about Northern Ireland with Bertie Ahern and Patrick Kielty). Blair was a thoroughly modern PM. And it was this embracing of modernity that helped transform Britain’s image; in particular, London is now seen as one of the trendiest cities in the world. And this isn’t just a matter of fluff; Blair’s government was instrumental in transforming London into a place worthy of hosting the 2012 Olympics, which will revitalise many areas of the city and create wealth and jobs. Blair’s embracing of modernity and the nature of today’s global economy has made London into what The Economist calls ‘the world’s leading international financial centre’;  foreign companies and foreign investment have made Britain better, thanks to the non-discriminatory economic policies of the Labour government: ‘If foreigners think they can manage British factories or finances better than the natives can, they are welcome.’

The List

The most interesting part of Hal Braiter’s article for me was his penultimate paragraph. As with the rest of his piece, Braiter does not so much make an argument with this paragraph as he does list things to which he assumes his readers will react negatively. He presses, as it were, all the left wing’s love buttons. Let’s deconstruct the paragraph, which supposedly lists many of the ‘right-wing’ actions of Blair’s government; I’m not going to address every point in it, as that would make this article even more unnecessarily long, but I’ll pick a few which I thought stood out.  

Firstly, Braiter uses the sentence, ‘Under the Labour Government the following things have happened, or at least been proposed.’ ?????? So – an idea suggested carries the same weight as one implemented? That seems to be a bizarre way of looking at things. But, of course: Braiter’s aim is not to comment on the effectiveness or otherwise of Blair’s government in tackling Britain’s problems, merely to demonstrate that the government was ‘right-wing’. Therefore, its ideas and not only its policies are up for grabs.

The first two naughty things which Braiter lists as having happened under Blair are ‘A slight rise in industrial production, but with a reduced workforce’ and ‘Retirement at 70’. These would seem to me to be responses to the nature of today’s economy; indeed, the first point describes the nature of the modern economy in certain parts of the West. Companies are using machines to do things that workers used to do. This is not something that can be controlled by governments; if a government tries to over-regulate how a company runs its business, that company will simply leave the country and set up shop elsewhere, where it will be more able to do as it likes. The issue of an older retirement age is indicative of another broader problem we face in the West. Governments simply don’t have the funds available to pay the pensions of all the people who are due to retire in their mid-60s.  You see, many liberals look at a situation and say ‘This is bad’, without actually considering the fact that certain forces may have made the situation inevitable, and now it is a question of how to deal with it. Of course, if you were hoping to retire at 65, and then you find out that you’ll actually have to work for another five years before you’re eligible for a pension, you’re not going to be happy about it. But the reality is that, unless you work for those extra five years, you may have to cope with no pension at all, or a significantly reduced pension – or, people coming up behind you may have to cope with these things. The government needs individuals to work and earn money, which it collects in taxes and then uses to pay for things like a health service, roads, pensions, etc. Naturally, the more money being earned, the more is available to be collected by the tax man. The classic lefty solution to any shortage in the government’s finances is simply to RAISE TAXES, specifically on the rich. But this does not always have the desired effect; in fact, it can often stifle innovation and make entrepreneurs and wealth-earners / job creators take their business elsewhere. During his time as US President, Ronald Reagan cut the top rate of personal income tax from 70% to 28%, and yet the amount of money collected in income taxes almost doubled between 1980 and 1990.  People will work harder if the rewards are greater – i.e. if they are allowed to keep more of the money they earn. This was something even Lenin came to realise; his New Economic Policy allowed farmers to – shock! – sell some of their own produce, and resulted in a major growth in agricultural production throughout the Soviet Union. ANYWAY, the point I’m trying to make, in a very roundabout way, is that certain economic factors may necessitate a raising of the retirement age, because the government doesn’t have enough money to pay for pensions, and so needs people to work longer so that it can collect more taxes and actually have the money for the pensions. But the good news is that the average life-expectancy for British men and women increased significantly under Blair; so, you may have to work a bit longer, but you’ll still have time to enjoy retirement!

All of the economic points above also relate to the third thing on Braiter’s list of ‘right-wing’ actions: ‘Student grants abolished’. This Braiter point, indeed, is not wholly truthful. Under Blair, the system of ‘top-up’ fees has been introduced, which abolishes up-front university fees for most students. Universities are allowed to charge students more for their courses, but the students will only have to pay once they graduate and start earning over a certain amount. The government will cover the cost of the courses initially. In addition, new student grants have been introduced for poorer families. As I wrote in a previous article, this system ‘rightly balances the responsibility for funding third-level education between the individuals who benefit directly from attending university, and the State, which always benefits from investing in people’. British universities need more money, and they weren’t going to get it under the status quo. Why does America have almost all the best universities in the world? Because those universities are loaded with money, thanks to exorbitant fees. We need people to attend university, and we want to open up the opportunity to attend university to people who have not had it in the past; but this must be balanced against the needs of the universities themselves: third-level institutions do vital work not only in education but in research into diseases and the arts and the state of our world today. They require money to do this work – and it is neither ethical nor practical that the taxpayer be asked to provide it all. Blair’s scheme should be commended for its innovation.

The key issue here is balance: balancing the needs of universities against the right of students to education, and the right of the wider public to have their taxes spent wisely. Government is a constant balancing act, taking into account different interests. Progress is most often made between the extremes – in every aspect of politics: whether it’s the Northern Irish peace process or any compromise bill negotiated in the House of Commons. Indeed, the realisation that progress is made between the extremes, at the centre, has, I believe, led to the current broad consensus in economic and social ideas between all the big political parties – on both sides of the Irish Sea. Many people complain that they can see no difference between, for example, Labour and the Conservatives. There is no longer a major ideological gap between the two parties – especially not now, with the Blairite David Cameron as Leader of the Opposition, and self-confessed Thatcher fan Gordon Brown as Prime Minister.  But I think this is terrific: it means the parties can get over their irrelevant ideological dogfights and only argue about policy detail and how best to serve the country. The great ideological battle of the last century was that between capitalism and socialism. But, at last, we seem to be recognising the falseness of this choice. Capitalism is the only economic system that goes hand in hand with a free society, a truly democratic society: people must be able to have their own ideas and make money off those ideas, to create and to innovate and to enjoy their successes. I thought the most revealing comment of Braiter’s penultimate paragraph was his simple statement that ‘A million millionaires in Britain’ is a bad thing. There was no explanation, no qualifier: for him, just the simple fact that people are able to get rich in a society is bad. But we need rich people: they create jobs and pay taxes to fund essential services. In America, the top 10% of households pay 70% of all taxes.  And what makes people rich anyway? We do! Think of a singer who has sold millions of albums – if you’ve bought one of them, you’ve helped make him rich. Most rich people are rich because other people have responded to what they’ve done with their lives: businesses only succeed because their products / services are useful to people or desired by people. Humans are selfish, and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing: it is tied to our instinct for survival. Building a fair society involves recognising this fact, and not only recognising it but working with it: those who work hard for themselves generate wealth which can be collected in taxes and used to benefit the whole community.

And this is where the ‘socialism’ element comes in. The free market can do many great and necessary things: it empowers people, encourages innovation, brings up standards and brings down prices through competition… But there are areas and people that the free market will leave behind. Let me use the practical and theoretical example of a city’s bus routes. If several bus companies are competing for passengers, there will be a profit-incentive for those companies to both keep prices low (so their passengers can afford to travel with them) and make sure their buses arrive on time (so their passengers don’t desert them and go to another company). However, in a fully private bus system, it is likely that some routes would not be serviced – there might be no bus from Kilmacanogue to Bray, for example, because not enough people would get the bus to make the route profitable. This is where the government can step in! It can make sure a too-lazy-to-learn-to-drive student like me (or, you know, someone more needy, like the proverbial little old lady) can get from Kilmacanogue to Bray, by servicing the non-profitable bus routes. Government companies don’t need to be run for profit, only in the public interest. And so, you see, through a public-private partnership, we can have cheap, on-time buses, and no holes in the service! This is why the choice between capitalism and socialism is a false one: we need capitalism, but if there is going to be social justice we also need a government that uses the fruits of capitalism to plug capitalism’s holes.

Both government and the free market can act in people’s best interests: the choice between individualism and collectivism is false, because the individual depends on the collective, and the collective on the individual. This is exactly what Blair, Brown, et al. realised when they created ‘New Labour’. Mr Braiter writes that ‘instead of helping Britain recover from Thatcher’s awful world, [Blair] has made it worse’. But the goal of New Labour was never to fundamentally reverse Thatcher’s economic reforms; as Blair’s lieutenant Peter Mandelson once said, ‘We are all Thatcherites now’. Rather, Blair’s goal was to take the wealth-creating benefits of Thatcherism and combine them with policies that would also be more socially equitable. Thatcher did many great and necessary things. Before she came to power, the top rate of tax was 83%. People who made more than £20,000 were only allowed to keep 17% of anything they made above that amount! Combined with a special added tax, this could go down as low as 2%! Whatever way you look at it, that’s just wrong. Thatcher’s policies lifted Britain out of stagnation and mediocrity. They also had a devastating social impact: unemployment tripled, the number of people living in poverty doubled… This is why, as Tony Blair has said, Labour should have been prepared to make Thatcher’s great and necessary changes in the 1980s: it should have been in government to make those changes, and also to address their social impact. But Labour wasn’t prepared to make the changes. Despite Neil Kinnock’s bold leadership, his party was still steeped in silly loyalties to stupid policies like ‘The Government Must Own All Industry’. The British public knew Labour wasn’t capable of running a country properly. And so, despite the social consequences of Thatcherism, they chose the Iron Lady – three elections in a row. But Mr Braiter is wrong to say that Blair’s government didn’t address the negative results of Thatcherism. His ‘A million millionaires’ comment neglects to mention that, under Blair, the bottom 20% of incomes rose comparatively more than the top 20%. Here are some of the other things Labour has achieved since 1997, which any progressive should be proud of: the lowest employment in thirty years; the lowest inflation in thirty years; the lowest tax burden on a working family since 1972; the introduction of a national minimum wage; the automatic right for every worker to join a trade union; an automatic right to four weeks’ paid holidays per year for all workers; equality with full-timers for part-time employees on pay, holidays and benefits; introducing the New Deal, which has helped over a million people into work; the biggest ever sustained increase in health spending; halving minimum waiting times for NHS operations; over 78,000 new nurses and over 24,000 new doctors; over 30,000 more teachers in English schools; record levels of literacy and numeracy; free nursery places for three- and four-year-olds throughout Britain; free fruit for all four- to six-year-olds at school (a long way from ‘Thatcher the Milk Snatcher’); lifting 700,000 children out of poverty; raising child benefit by 25%; setting up Sure Start, to help the most disadvantaged children in the most critical years of their lives; cutting long-term youth unemployment by 75%; cutting the number of rough sleepers by one third; cutting crime by 35%; record rises in the State pension; free local bus travel for over-60s; free TV licences for over-75s; free entry to all national museums and galleries; passing a Freedom of Information Act; a Welsh assembly and a Scottish parliament; removing the majority of hereditary peers from the House of Lords; passing a Human Rights Act; equalising the age of sexual consent for gay men; repealing Section 28, which prevented local authorities and schools from ‘promoting’ homosexuality, and had led to the closure throughout Britain of support groups for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students; introducing civil unions for gay / lesbian couples to give them equal rights with married heterosexual couples; changing the law on adoption to give gay couples the same rights as heterosexual couples and single people; removing the ban on homosexuals and bisexuals joining the armed forces; banning handguns; banning anti-personnel mines; banning fox hunting; banning fur farming and testing cosmetics on animals; the cleanest rivers, beaches, drinking water, and air since the Industrial Revolution; more than doubling the overseas aid budget; writing off 100% of the debts of many of the world’s poorest countries…  We can all play the ‘lists’ game.        

Other items on Braiter’s list of ‘bad things’ include Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (never mind that 82% of the public support the existence of ASBOs,  and police and local authorities consider them to be effective ), and Blair’s support for a new generation of nuclear power stations (never mind the fact that nuclear energy is now being advocated as a major energy source going into the future by environmentalists and former opponents,  because of huge improvements in safety, the need to do something about global warming NOW,  and the unreliability and inviability of renewables in many cases ). Hal also complains about the Labour government’s decision to renew Britain’s nuclear-weapons capabilities. Ah yes, another lefty favourite: WOULDN’T THE WORLD BE BETTER IF WE COULD JUST DISMANTLE ALL THE NUCLEAR BOMBS, MAN! Well, I don’t know, maybe it would. Or maybe countries like India and Pakistan would be at each other’s throats and killing each other’s citizens with conventional weapons much more often, without the risk of it escalating into a nuclear war and Mutually Assured Destruction. But I do know that there’s an ‘I-want-to-wipe-Jews-off-the-face-of-the-earth’ Hitler-wannabe in charge of Iran who’s trying to build nuclear weapons, and there’s an ‘I-like-to-watch-some-of-my-people-starve-while-I-brutalise-others’ madman in charge of North Korea who actually has nuclear weapons  – so, I want my team to have nuclear weapons too.

But perhaps the most intriguing item on Mr Braiter’s ‘right-wing’ list is his assertion that ‘Pre-natal detection of potential criminals’ has happened or been proposed under Blair. I presume this refers to the announcement in the final days of Blair’s premiership that the government would try to help pregnant women from socially disadvantaged areas. Hmm… ‘Pre-natal detection of potential criminals’ and ‘helping pregnant women from socially disadvantaged areas’. One would hardly think they could be the same thing! And yet they are. Blair’s idea was: ‘Hey, it’s pretty obvious that kids who grow up in poor communities and are raised by only one parent will be more inclined towards crime than other kids – so, why don’t we offer extra help to single-mums-to-be! That way, we’d not only be helping them, we’d be reducing the risk of their kids becoming criminals and wrecking their own lives and others’!’ And guess what? It is pretty obvious that kids who grow up poor and are raised by only one parent will, IN GENERAL, be more likely to turn to crime. A 2002 UK-based ‘Civitas’ report tells us that single mothers are twice as likely to live in poverty as two-parent families, that a child aged eleven-sixteen is 25% more likely to have committed a crime in the last year if he or she is from a single-parent family, and that young men are one and a half times more likely to be persistent offenders if they were raised by only one parent.  And: ‘The majority of [sociological] research has found consistently strong and significant evidence of a positive relationship between poverty, inequality, and crime rates.’  SO: Single mothers are more likely to live in poverty. Poverty is more likely to lead to crime. Shouldn’t it be a good thing that the government wants to help mothers and their children escape the crime / poverty trap? YES! But not for Mr Braiter. Oh, no. For him it’s all ‘pre-natal’ and ‘detection’ and other sinister big words.

The Al Qaeda Delusion

There is one final point on Braiter’s list which I must address. His statement that the July 7 bombings happened ‘under Blair’ brings with it the implication that Britain was somehow to blame for the attacks because of its involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. This, of course, is a commonly held position on the left: that if the West would stop terrorising the Middle East, Islamic militants would stop terrorising us. First off, let me say this, and I think Mr Braiter will agree with me: nothing ‘justifies’ actions like what happened on July 7, or September 11. But many may feel that Western involvement in the Middle East is the reason we are now suffering terrorist attacks. Believing Western involvement in the Middle East is the reason for the actions of the terrorists is different from justifying the actions of the terrorists. But it is still a myopic, dangerous thing to think. Here’s why. 

Let me deal specifically with the case of Afghanistan, Iraq, and the July 7 bombings. The people of Afghanistan voted in their new democracy. Human Rights Watch said the mood at polling stations was jubilant.  We all saw it on TV: women and men defying threats of violence as they, for the first time ever, had their say in their country’s future… The people of Iraq voted in their new democracy. Insurgents had pledged to wash the streets with ‘voters’ blood’,  but still women and men showed up in their millions to vote. As they stood at polling stations, people were blown to bits by insurgents’ bombs, and yet other people still queued for hours to cast their ballots. And you think Tony Blair is to blame for July 7? The people who blew themselves up on the London transport network are the same kind of people as those who murdered Iraqis as they peacefully queued to vote: their aims and their ideology are the same. They have no legitimate claim to be aggrieved at British involvement in Iraq or Afghanistan. They want to kill people in Iraq and Afghanistan who are choosing their own future! Would the July 7 bombings have happened if Britain hadn’t gone into Afghanistan or Iraq? I don’t know. But I do know that there would have been terrorists who wanted to commit such crimes anyway. All you have to do is look at the stated aims of an organisation like al Qaeda (which claimed official responsibility for the July 7 bombings). In a superb article, ‘Osama’s Big Lie’, senior terrorism analyst Daveed Gartenstein-Ross writes: ‘…some Westerners in positions of influence – such as Britain’s former Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam… [have] been pushing for negotiation with al-Qaeda… The position of these scholars rests on a key error: the conflation of al-Qaeda’s short-term grievances (such as the U.S. military presence in the Muslim world) with its long-term goals… Al-Qaeda’s objective is not limited to U.S. withdrawal from the Middle East. Rather, the network views this pull-out as a necessary prerequisite to the attainment of its ultimate goal: the establishment of an Islamist super-state ruled by the harshest version of Islamic law, primed to re-conquer formerly Muslim lands and pursue an aggressive expansionist agenda.’ Gartenstein-Ross quotes bin Laden’s 1996 declaration of war against America, in which the al Qaeda leader makes clear that all kinds of law are unacceptable except for shariah, the extreme Islamic law implemented under the Taliban. The terrorism analyst continues: ‘In the Taliban’s Afghanistan, the list of capital crimes included homosexuality, conversion out of Islam, and preaching non-Islamic faiths. Women had no rights under the Taliban’s governance, and men could be imprisoned if their beards were not long enough. Music and all forms of light entertainment were banned; the Taliban even forbade the use of paper bags lest the paper include recycled pages of the Qur’an… The Taliban also shocked the world by massacring the Hazaras (a Farsi-speaking Shiite group in northern Afghanistan) and blowing up two historic Buddha statues in Bamiyan Province… Al-Qaeda may, in fact, seek to implement a more repressive government than the Taliban’s. In the late 1990s, journalist Peter Bergen asked bin Laden’s London contact, Khaled al-Fawwaz, what present government most resembled his vision of an ideal Islamic state. Al-Fawwaz replied that the Taliban were “getting there.”’

Bin Laden’s ‘theological mentor’, Abdullah Azzam, believes that, in addition to what we think of as the modern Muslim world, the following formerly Muslim lands need to be re-conquered for the caliphate: ‘…Palestine [i.e. Israel], Bokhara, Lebanon, Chad, Eritrea, Somalia, the Philippines, Burma, Southern Yemen, Tashkent and Andalusia [in southern Spain]’.  I know I wrote that the lessons history can teach us are limited. But remember how Hitler claimed all he wanted was ‘living space’ for the wider German nation? Remember how many, including the Prime Minister of Britain at the time, thought this was a reasonable request – thought it was acceptable to consign millions to indefinite dictatorial rule, just so long as Hitler didn’t come after them? But, of course, Hitler did come after them, because his aim was not only to control ‘German’ lands but to bring the whole world under the rule of the Nazis… Similarly, al Qaeda’s goal is to bring the whole world under the rule of radical Islam. Bin Laden himself has stated that he is prepared to do battle with unbelievers in ‘every part of the world’.  In his 2002 ‘Letter to America’ he told the American people: ‘The first thing we are calling you to is Islam.’ He then went on to denounce American ‘immorality and debauchery’, calling on Americans to reject ‘fornication, homosexuality, intoxicants, gambling, and trading with interest’.  As my new best friend Daveed Gartenstein-Ross explains: ‘Only after bin Laden… outlines the many ways that the U.S. violates sharia law does he ask that America end its support for the governments of Israel, India, Russia, the Philippines and others.’ 

The pluralism of the West is the ideological opposite of the Islamism of Islamic extremists. For this reason, their goal is not simply ‘US Out Of The Middle East’, it is the complete and utter worldwide destruction of democracy, free speech, freedom of religion, the right to entertainment, the right to be what you can be. Gartenstein-Ross yet again: ‘The theologians influencing bin Laden have expressed views that further illuminate the perpetual conflict between the West and a potential al-Qaeda-sanctioned caliphate… Sheikh Abdullah bin Muhammad bin Humaid, publicly praised by bin Laden, argued in an essay entitled “The Call to Jihad in the Qur’an” that all Muslims are obligated to participate in a perpetual jihad against the non-Muslim world… [another] theologian whom bin Laden references is Sheikh Salman al-Auda… [who] has stated that… Muslims should engage in [jihad] “to bring about the certain fall of the West.”’

As an al Qaeda training manual states: ‘Islamic governments have never and will never be established through peaceful solutions and cooperative councils’; ‘The confrontation that we are calling for with the apostate regimes does not know Socratic debates…, Platonic ideals…, nor Aristotelian diplomacy. But it knows the dialogue of bullets, the ideals of assassination, bombing, and destruction, and the diplomacy of the cannon and machine-gun.’ 

Tony Blair was often attacked for not dealing with Islamic extremists the way he dealt with the IRA: through dialogue, diplomacy, compromise. But the IRA wanted something completely different from what al Qaeda wants. For all the suffering it caused, the IRA wanted a democratic Ireland, in which Irish people of whatever shade would be able to choose their own destinies, free from colonial oppression. Al Qaeda wants to eliminate democracy, eliminate freedom, and kill or convert all non-Muslims. You cannot negotiate with someone, when they believe that the sole reason for their existence is your destruction. Al Qaeda would leave the world alone if the West divorced itself totally from the Middle East? Please. As we see on our television screens every day, the people of Afghanistan and Iraq are far more often the victims of al Qaeda than we are. Al Qaeda is an evil, evil organisation, and we must do everything in our power to ensure that no part of the planet ever has to live under the oppression it would like to instate. Tony Blair was not Neville Chamberlain. He was not prepared to appease fascists. And so the ignorant hurled their stones.

None of this, however, is intended to excuse or take away from the horrors the West itself has committed in the Middle East: from the days of the British Empire to the twentieth century and some aspects of American foreign policy. I believe, as Tony Blair has stated, that the War on Terror must not only be a military conflict. If we are to defeat the extremists, we must bring the Muslim world with us. One of the most important steps in this regard is the founding of a Palestinian state, to stand proudly and peacefully alongside Israel. And Mr Blair’s current job, indeed, is to help found that state. We should always remember that the battle against Islamic extremism is also a battle for the rights of Muslims: for the right of moderate Muslims to worship as they believe their faith teaches them. For all the West’s mistakes – and they are many and great – for all the atrocities that have been committed in our name and no doubt will be committed in our name, I choose to believe that a system of government that has enshrined in its law the view that ‘all men are created equal’ is better than a government that says ‘all non-believers must be beheaded’. We should always remember that democracy and pluralism are not just two ideas about how society should be run competing against many others, having equal legitimacy with, but no more legitimacy than, the likes of shariah. Democracy and pluralism are the only systems which tell us that everyone has the right to live as he or she sees fit – as long as his or her choices don’t infringe on the rights of others. They are the only systems which embrace all religions, all skin colours, all shades of opinion – in short, all human life on this planet. Never forget the privileges we enjoy as denizens of democratic societies. And – I write this as I watch monks marching in Burma – never underestimate the hunger for democracy of those who do not live in democratic societies.

Changing the Nature of Politics

This is a wonderful and terrible world. Already in this new century, we face so many challenges; so many people will be denied the chance to achieve their potential. And yet, it is also a time for great optimism. More individual men and women possess more power and freedom today than at any point in human history. It is foolish to think we or our politicians can ever bring about utopia. There will always be challenges, problems, setbacks to the progress of human life. Indeed, these things are part of what it means to be human. All we can ask of our politicians is that they do what they believe to be right – knowing the best information available, taking into account the consequences of their actions. If an elected official does this, he can live with a clear conscience. I believe that, throughout his premiership, this is what Tony Blair did. Of course there are still problems in Britain. For a variety of reasons, the health and education systems have not improved as much as Labour would have liked. In many ways, providing good education and a good health service are the most important things government can do: to give people the best start in life, and to help them when they need it most. So, it is obviously a failure when health and education don’t come up to scratch. But you only have to look above to see the many great things that have happened under Blair. 

It’s strange to have him out of power. He became PM in the same month that this magazine began. For ten years, we were around and so was he. Now he’s gone – and we’re still here! But I wasn’t one of those saying he should go on and on. Gordon Brown has performed admirably since moving into Number 10. Though I’m a Blairite, I hope Brown becomes an even greater PM than Tony Blair – his success will be Britain’s success. Provided Labour is prepared to do what is necessary, I will always trust its instincts over the Conservatives’. 

Ten years of Tony Blair; ten years of this magazine. Over that time, I’ve seen my own political opinions evolve. I used to describe myself as ‘left wing’, then as ‘centre left’, now I suppose I’m a centrist, leaning right on some issues, left on others. I’ve become more conservative not because what I believe has changed, but because as I’ve seen more of the world and learned more about people, I’ve come to the view that many of the things I thought were ‘answers’ to the planet’s problems were in fact not answers but further problem-creators. But I do agree with my left-wing friends on at least one thing. Despite all of what I’ve said above about Iraq, I believe it is absolutely vital that a Democrat be elected to the White House in 2008. When you listen to the top Republican presidential candidates, it is clear that they have learnt nothing from the Bush years. They want to double the size of Guantanamo Bay and torture more people. These are not the solutions to terrorism. They lessen the essence of what America is in the War on Terror: the good guy. 

However, this article is not about the Democrats, but one of their ideological brethren: Tony Blair of the UK Labour Party. He was a strange phenomenon, transcending party boundaries to appeal to people who had never voted Labour before, and thus taking Labour into government for the first time in nearly two decades; indeed, ultimately, making Labour the now default party of government, a position held by the Conservatives for so long. Blair’s approval ratings reached record highs as well as record lows. But no leader is going to remain high in the opinion polls forever – except in a dictatorship, where fear will stop people saying what they really think. After ten years in power, after the Tories elected a reforming leader and seemed to get their act together, Labour is still poised to remain in government after the next election. And Blair has said he would consider a fourth Labour term his true legacy. 

Tony Blair has changed the nature of politics in Britain. Indeed, he has changed it throughout the world. During his premiership, certainly after Clinton left office, he was widely considered the world’s leading statesman. The new reformers in Europe, Angela Merkel in Germany and Nicolas Sarkozy in France, are among Blair’s heirs. The man has made – and continues to make, in his current role as the Quartet’s Middle East Envoy – a wonderful difference in the world. 

Good on ya, Tony!

And More

And another thing I don’t like about Mr Braiter is that he has sex with hamsters. And another thing I don’t like about him is…………………

Er – Hang on. I’ve just spent 9,000 words and the last week of my life responding to a two-and-a-half-page article that was published in a magazine that I run. I think I need to go to bed now or else find a psychiatrist of some kind to prescribe me things. MUM – WHAT WOULD HAPPEN IF I ATE RAT POISON?



Comments are disallowed for this post.

Comments are closed.


  • No categories