Tony Blair may be America’s favorite Briton, but his troubles at home continue to mount. During his warmly received address to Congress in July he said of the Iraq adventure, “history will forgive us,” which reminded me of Auden’s line that history “May say Alas but cannot help or pardon.” Someone should have warned Blair that Hitler, when he was on trial after his failed putsch in the 1920s, had preceded him in expecting the forgiveness of history. The distinguished historian Linda Colley wrote recently that it will not be “history” but miscellaneous historians who will make such judgments. As Colley puts it, historians are more likely to ask questions than bestow forgiveness: “Why and how, future historians will surely ask, did such a consummate politician, possessed of an impregnable parliamentary majority, as well as intelligence, industry, and fundamental decency, get himself into so much controversy and mess? What went wrong?” These are the kinds of questions that are usually raised in speculation about figures of the past, rather than of a national leader who is still only fifty, who led his party in two landslide electoral victories, and who recently became the longest-serving Labour prime minister, passing the record in the 1940s of the revered Clement Attlee.
Soon after Blair’s address to Congress, the news broke that a senior government scientist, David Kelly, a weapons expert and former member of the UN team in Iraq, had committed suicide. Kelly, it seems, was unhappy about the way an intelligence report had been doctored in order to enhance the apparent danger from Iraq-particularly the charge that it had weapons of mass destruction ready to deliver in forty-five minutes. Many people were skeptical about this claim when it was first made last year, and now nobody believes it. Kelly passed on his doubts to BBC reporters and the news got out. He was identified by government sources-allegedly at Blair’s instigation-and put under more pressure than he could take. Blair was deeply disconcerted at the news of Kelly’s death and ordered a judicial inquiry into the circumstances surrounding it. This inquiry, presided over by a senior judge, Lord Hutton, is underway as I write. He has wide powers to interview witnesses-including Blair, who responded to questions with his customary forensic skills-and to publish documents. The investigation has been a fascinating process, not least because of the light it has shed on the inner workings of the British state, which is at least as wedded to institutional secrecy as the Vatican. The proceedings are public but not televised or broadcast, so journalists have had to brush up their reportorial skills.
Hutton will take some time to produce his report, which may or may not give a satisfactory explanation for the death of Kelly. His terms of reference are precise and limited, and exclude the much larger question: why did Britain go to war with Iraq? That is the question which not only future historians but many British people here and now want answered. There was immense popular opposition to the war-about a million people demonstrated in London in February-and 139 Labour members voted against the war in the House of Commons, an unprecedented revolt in the ranks of a governing party. Blair got very reluctant support from the majority of his party by insisting that Iraqi weapons of mass destruction were a real and immediate threat. This issue was much more central in Britain than in the United States, where any reason to get rid of Saddam Hussein seems to have been good enough. The failure to find any such weapons in Iraq has been very damaging to Blair. He emphasizes how horrible the regime was, which nobody doubts, and what a good thing that it was overthrown. Yet the humanitarian aim was never put forward before the war as its principal objective (though it was invoked by some journalists and politicians on the left who supported the war).
British soldiers were killed in a war that Blair was responsible for launching, and they are still dying in the subsequent guerrilla campaign, which seems likely to be prolonged. Why he embarked on it is a puzzle. One response, rooted in realpolitik, is that Britain has no alternative but to side with the solitary superpower if it is to retain any place in the world. Yet in the 1960s, a Labour prime minister, Harold Wilson, who was accused of being as subservient to Lyndon Johnson as Blair now is to Bush, resisted American pressure to send British troops to Vietnam, if only because he knew it would be politically disastrous. Blair, though, seems reluctant to think in terms of realpolitik; he is the least cynical and Machiavellian of politicians, and claims always to be guided by what is right. “I’m a pretty straight sort of guy,” he once proclaimed. It is both his strength and his weakness to have no doubts that he is right. There is an air about him of the great Victorian Liberal leader W. E. Gladstone, of whom his Conservative opponent Disraeli said, “He could convince most people of most things and himself of almost anything.” Gladstone was strong on humanitarian causes, and it may be that this was Blair’s real motive, but he was ready to invoke the weapons option as more likely to sway opinion. If so, it went badly awry.
Blair, though politically weakened, is still in a strong position. He is less trusted than he was by the voters, but they are not very interested in foreign affairs and the niceties of political ethics. It has been a fine summer, which helps governments, and the economy is still prospering, if precariously; a feel-good sense persists. Meanwhile, the government is facing domestic difficulties. The trade unions, for the past few years grateful to have a Labour government in office and refraining from rocking the boat, are now becoming restive and demanding higher wages and a return to traditional social democratic policies, as opposed to Blair’s friendliness to business. The extent to which private capital should be involved in state education, health care, and transport, as Blair wants, is becoming a very contentious issue. Blair is still ahead in the polls, and it would be surprising if New Labour does not win the next election, due in a couple of years. The depleted Conservatives and their inept leader, the Catholic ex-officer Iain Duncan Smith, do not offer much of a threat. It is the Liberal Democrats, the descendants of Gladstone’s great party with about fifty seats in the Commons, who are now making the running. They opposed the Iraq war, and recently won a bye-election in a rundown area of northwest London, which previously was a solid Labour seat. It was a freak result on a very low turnout, but still nasty news for the government. The late Enoch Powell, a right-wing intellectual who was too much of a maverick to be contained within the Conservative Party, once delivered the somber dictum that all political careers end in failure. It is a thought that may intermittently trouble Blair, notwithstanding his abilities, his considerable political achievments, and his conviction of always being right. end