The Greasy Pole column from the May 2017 issue of the Socialist Standard
It was some years ago when Tony Blair finally surrendered to the ambitions of Gordon Brown so that his abusive deputy could take over as Prime Minister, leaving Blair to devote appropriate attention to matters of raising his promising offspring, fostering his wife’s career as a legal eagle, making piles of money through dealing in expensive houses and presenting his version of recent history in speeches and writing. In the beginning that seemed enough, satisfactory for so long a resident of Number Ten Downing Street. But recently there has been an evident change, encouraging Blair to emerge from those lucrative shadows and give voice to some different intentions, to the extent that the more nervous observers of the political scene began to question whether he might be considering a re-occupation of those House of Commons benches. We were warned of the possibility of such a change when Blair recently spoke up at a meeting he had arranged to a group calling itself Open Britain (in itself suspicious of what was planned to follow) under the banner of the Bloomberg Institute which manages its disappointment at the Brexit-triumphant Tories by campaigning for another Referendum about British membership of Europe.
Towards the end of his term as Prime Minister Blair had a spell presiding over the European Council of Ministers, an experience which he remembered as ‘. . . a simple issue. It was to do with the modern world . . . Britain needed Europe in order to exert influence and advance its interests. It wasn’t complicated. It wasn’t a psychiatric issue . . . I regarded anti-Europe feeling as hopelessly, absurdly out of date and unrealistic… the product of a dangerous insularity, a myopia about the world . . . a kind of post-empire delusion’. Which made it inevitable that when Blair was confronted with the prospect of a National Referendum on the matter he would hope that the result would have been for Britain to Remain in the Union, if possible more secure and comfortable than ever. And if it did not turn out that way the whole episode would be regarded as a hopelessly unrealistic psychiatric case, enough to arouse an out-dated political trickster to sound off with some colourful responses.
In late February – some months before the Referendum – there were two parliamentary by-elections in what had been safe Labour seats, both due to the calculated withdrawal from politics of the MP in question. In the case of Stoke on Trent Central the Labour candidate survived with a reduced majority but in the other seat – Copeland – the Tory won by 2147 votes. This was a constituency which was traditionally strong for the Labour Party but the evidence was that there was considerable anxiety over the future of the nuclear power station there coupled with Jeremy Corbyn’s opposition to the Trident nuclear submarine. But in Stoke there was also concern about the threat from UKIP, in spite of the fact that their candidate, their new chairman Paul Nuttall, made himself notable for what might go down in history as some ill-advisedly bizarre statements. At the vote there was little to choose between UKIP and the Tory candidate, which indicated that the voters were influenced by doubts – to some degree prejudice – over the issue of what Blair had once described as ‘the immigration tinder box’ and the stress this had exerted on him as Prime Minister and which persisted as a major issue during the Referendum.
So it was that in January this year Blair announced his ‘mission’ to set up an ‘institute’ – not a ‘think tank’ but a ‘policy unit’ to be financed from his own resources to encourage a re-think about Europe on the grounds that the British people had voted in the Referendum without knowing enough about Brexit and its real-term inevitable consequences; ‘I don’t know if we can succeed. But I do know we will suffer a rancorous verdict from future generations if we do not try. This is not the time for retreat, indifference or despair, but the time to rise up in defence of what we believe’. This was a sentence likely to provoke some uneasy memories of leaders who urged their followers to confuse their freedom and safety – even their lives – in a cause which only the leader was aware of or had any interest in. It can never be a refreshing experience to allow that Boris Johnson has spoken appropriate and constructive words on an issue but it was not a time to disagree with him when he accused Blair, after his ‘rise up’ speech, of having ‘contempt’ for the voters; and encouraged them to rise only to turn off the TV the next time the discredited ex-leader of the Labour Party comes on with his ‘condescending campaign’.
Except that Blair does not need such advice, particularly from a buffoon such as Johnson. After all, when Blair was at his peak he was careful to dissuade his followers from rising up, however desperate the provocation they were subjected to from his government’s repressive and exploitative policies: ‘I learned how to disarm an opponent as well as blast them. They get angry; you get mild. They go over the top; you become a soothing voice of reason. They insult you; you look at them not with resentment, but with pity. Under attack, you have to look directly at them, study their faces, your eyes fixed on theirs rather than rolling with anxiety’. When he exploded with his rallying cry about rising up Blair was at a meeting in a hall where, appropriately, David Cameron had originally announced that the European Referendum was planned to go ahead in July. It was a far cry from the day when he informed the House of Commons, in his maiden speech as the new Member for Sedgefield that ‘I am a socialist… because it stands for equality’. Perhaps he is aware of the fragile irony of these words. Towards the end of his time in power and even more so since then, it was common for angry demonstrators to show their opinion of him by displaying posters with the two middle vowels in his name transposed. For he is one of the most persistent examples of leaders who have flourished into world class riches after a career of condemning millions of others to regimes of cruellest poverty. And to mass destruction in military conflicts. He has made it impossible to estimate the true scale of his riches. And of the damage he has done to the people of the world.