Monday, 28 May 2012

Boiling over

… and not just because it's unseasonably warm.

Today is Tony Blair's turn to give evidence to the Leveson Inquiry. Perspicacious as Mr Leveson and Mr Jay are, I hold out no hope at all of honest or clear answers from the former Prime Minister. Tony Blair is an enigma, one of the most unpleasant and dangerous public figures of recent years.

I have no doubt that if he'd seen an opportunity in the Liberal or Conservative parties in the early 80s, he'd have joined them. Ideologically, he is the ultimate zipless politician, to adapt Erica Jong's phrase. His ideology stretches as far as allowing the rich and powerful - in business and in politics (and since he left office, himself) - untrammelled freedom. Never has it been truly said of anyone that Blair never met a rich man he didn't like. As last week's revelation that he believed middle incomes to be £50-60k per year and preferred his intuition to facts showed, he is not any kind of democrat.

His politics is entirely personal: he appealed to the public to trust his intuition; to trust him because he was 'a pretty straight kind of guy' and to replace social justice with verbless aspirations: 'equality of opportunity', 'education, education, education', 'your NHS safe in our hands': slogans which assumed that every citizen was a pushy confident bourgeois, and which opened up the public sector we voted for to the depredations of free market capital.

Blair's appeal was a kind of Teflon postmodernity: being a 'nice guy' replaced gritty political hard work; shiny corporations were automatically better than tired public services; financial speculation was better than hard work; dissenters would be punished with ASBOs and benefit cuts (at home) and bombed into submission (abroad). A general disposition towards social progressivism (such as being 'cool' with homosexuality, something I of course favour) replaced a serious social determination to rebuild Britain's social structures in favour of equality - hence the massively widened social and economic gap between the rich and poor, and the indifference towards life's losers.

Nick Cohen, a formerly leftwing war-hawk, famously supported Blair's wars on the basis that democracy is a universal right which can and should be imposed by force of arms. His Observer column this week, 'Blair's Moral Decline and Fall Is Now Complete', Cohen finally admits that Blair's massively profitable (and 'tax-efficient', as they say) work on behalf of Kazakhstan's foul dictatorship is the end of Blair's moral superiority.

Nick: what kept you? I always distrusted Blair's hard-right moralism, which seemed calculated to please The Sun (and let's not even go into Blair's craven regard for Murdoch). More specifically, I and anyone with a brain saw the Iraq war not as a democratic necessity to liberate that country's oppressed citizens, but as the reflex action of a man who knows which way the wind blows. Cohen quotes Blair to demonstrate why the Prime Minister had his support:
Blair: "There is global struggle in which we need a policy based on democracy, on freedom and on justice…" 

Blair replied in admirably plain language. His commitment to democracy and human rights was absolute. Moreover, it was universal: if free elections are good enough for Britain, they are good enough for Iran and no weasel words about theocrats having their "own" version of democracy can be allowed to pass uncontested.

By necessity, Blair was also an internationalist, because, as he said in his Chicago speech of 1999, which was by some measure his finest: "We are all internationalists now, whether we like it or not… we cannot turn our backs on conflicts and the violation of human rights within other countries if we want still to be secure." 
Fine words. But a highly-paid political columnist really should have a little more nous. Blair's commitment to 'democracy and human rights' is not and never was 'absolute'. Next to Iraq is Saudi Arabia. This is the country which forbids women to appear in public without a male relative. Women can't drive or vote. Some men have recently been given the chance to vote for a pointless assembly. Religious belief is harshly policed. There are no rights pertaining to democracy: no political campaigns, no freedom of speech, no freedom of assembly, no union rights. Torture is the state's major tool to maintain the status quo.

By any standards, Saudi Arabia was worse than Iraq and approached the condition of North Korea. I was personally inspired by Tony Blair's commitment to universal democracy and human rights. So I wrote to my New Labour MP, Rob Marris, asking him to let me know when the invasion of Saudi Arabia was scheduled, explaining my concerns about the country and my hopes for a democratic future. His reply consisted of two lines, the salient words being 'totally different', though he failed to explain why.

I know why. Saudi Arabia has a lot of oil. We depend on it. In return, they buy a lot of British weapons (mainly for show, but partly to use against their citizens), and they don't get too upset about western support for Israel, despite their obsessive anti-Semitism. Democracy is for our enemies - many of whom were our friends when their human rights abuses were less important than their preference for NATO bribes over Soviet Union ones: Saddam Hussein is a case in point.

This is Blair's 'absolute' commitment to democracy: it disappears when money and geo-politics appear, both in office and out. None of this should be a surprise. Nobody's shocked when a Tory enunciates the brutality of realpolitik. The point about Blair is that he moved the political debate away from substance towards appearance: his carefully-constructed persona was that of the modern, cool guy at ease with celebrity culture and lifestyle politics, but his few political instincts were as hard-right as any Tory. Global hegemony and casino capitalism formed the bedrock of his beliefs - anything else was negotiable. The origins and purpose of his party were embarrassing relics, quickly discarded. As he repeatedly demonstrated, 'newness' was the only signifier which mattered to him - he would constantly attack 'the forces of conservatism', by which he meant the civil service, his own party members and those they represented - not on any serious structural level, but because they were in the way of his autocratic sense that he should be able to ordain a new order without discussion, consultation or objection. Democracy at home was, to him, a drag on wealth creation and political leadership: his massive self-belief led him to assume that his every instinct (as in the average wage anecdote) was correct and any alternative view was simply obstructive for the sake of it. This is why - as his testimony at Leveson admirably demonstrates - his linguistic discourse consists of 'look' and 'y'know': he cannot and never could take scrutiny: such quirks are signs of his frustration at being questioned on anything.

Cosying up to the Murdochs of this world wasn't a burden: it was a pleasure for him, because the only people who mattered were life's winners, however they got there.

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