New Labour is a mixed legacy. A massive liberalisation in terms of devolution, freedom of information and equalities legislation (Johann Hari once said at a Queer Up North debate that Tony Blair has done everything for gay people ‘except take it up the arse himself’) coupled with an assault on civil liberties: terror laws, laws against free assembly, ID cards (amazingly Blair still defends ID in the book that I got round to reading over Christmas). There was stealthy and well targeted redistribution of wealth. There was huge investment in public services although too much cash was skimmed off by consultants, professional managers and general public sector corporate greed.
New Labour was basically lashed together out of the bourgoisie and the working class. Where this worked it worked well. There was an Old Labour tendency to celebrate the poor for being poor, whereas Blair understood that most working class people would rather be middle class. Would you rather work twelve hours in a hazardous warehouse environment and go home to a council house on a sink estate, or do eight hours in an office and go home to a mortgaged property in a good area? The answer is obvious, and so is the solution.
Another New Labour success was crime. The right thought that crime was the fault of the individual and prescribed punishment, the left said crime was caused by environment and prescribed redistribution. As Blair says, the answer is a combination of both and in the meantime there is nothing leftwing about letting entire areas be tyrannised by a few name families. What was left wing about allowing the strong to dominate the weak? Note, too, that Ken Clarke is now arguing for violent recidivists to be let out of jail ostensibly on rehabilitation grounds, but really to save on costs. The Tories are good at law and order grandstanding, but they can afford private security coverage and are happy for the working class to kill each other as long as it’s kept out of the city centre.
There’s of course a flipside to this kind of thinking. Blair, throughout the memoir, is spellbound by the capitalist elite and in thrall to the ideology of meritocracy: it never seems to occur to him that it’s the shit, as well as the cream, that rises, that the game is rigged in a million ways, and that (to quote Calvin Coolidge) nothing is more common than unsuccessful men and women with talent. He was also too keen to govern on middle class and working class prejudices rather than their needs, aspirations and cares. Don’t like the lone parent at number nine? Fine, we’ll cut her benefits. Don’t like the smell of tobacco smoke on your clothes? Don’t worry, we’ll ban smoking. Don’t like Mr Khan at number eleven? Great, we’ll deport him. Government by anecdote began with New Labour.
Blair united his constituency against him when he invaded Iraq. At the time I was a twenty-one year old undergraduate. I was against the war, so were all my friends, we went down to London in February ’03 and saw other people from other cities we’d known. If I’d thought about it – at twenty-one I didn’t think much about anything – I would have realised that a lot of my arguments were about as credible as the Blair forty-five minutes claim.
Saddam has no weapons – but there were inspection reports saying he was actively working on a weapons programme. The war is illegal – but the UN resolutions Saddam had broken guaranteed military force in the event of noncompliance. There is no Saddam/al-Qaeda link – but Saddam paid money to the families of suicide bombers and bin Laden’s number two, al-Zarqawi, had established a presence in Iraq by October 2002. Iraqis do not want the war – but Iraqi migrants and exiles were lobbying MPs to vote for the war, entirely because they wanted to get rid of Saddam. A lot of things said as part of the case against weren’t so much arguments but articles of faith that have coalesced into the silo nation rhetoric that now passes for radical principles: people in the Middle East want to be governed by priests and dictators, there is a moral equivalence between elected Western governments and theocratic regimes, the West should not ‘impose’ ‘our’ idea of ‘democracy’…
Okay, some of us conceded (many people weren’t prepared to concede even that) Saddam is a monster who has reduced a great country to a kingdom of pain. Still, but, the facts are… From A Journey: ‘I recall a few weeks ago talking to an Iraqi exile and saying to her that I understood how grim it must be under the lash of Saddam. ‘But you don’t,’ she replied. ‘You cannot. You do not know what it is like to live in perpetual fear.”
Still the antiwar case has a visceral appeal. The number of dead has been estimated as a million. It’s been argued, rightly in my view, that the more convincing figure is the Iraq Body Count tally of 100,000, the majority killed by vicious sectarians, Islamists and ex-Ba’athists taking advantage of the power vacuum. But such bickering over bodycounts is ghoulish and just serves to emphasise our distance from these realities of life and death. It can’t beat the instinctive loathing of the politician who sends the young and poor out to die. Iraq could become a peaceful, thriving democracy, or a Somalia-style bloodbath – it’s all in the balance, history is still being lived and made – and these men and women will be no less dead.
To Blair’s credit, he knows this:
I am now beyond the mere expression of compassion. I feel words of condolence and sympathy to be entirely inadequate. They have died and I, the decision-maker in the circumstances that led to their deaths, still live.
I still keep in my desk a letter from an Iraqi woman who came to see me before the war began. She told me of the appalling torture and death her family had experienced having fallen foul of Saddam’s son. She begged me to act. After the fall of Saddam she returned to Iraq. She was murdered by sectarians a few months later. What would she say to me now?