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Mr Blair's Messiah Politics: A story of inspired government, 1997-2007

Page 15 of 17

Should Blair have accepted that in the Middle East and the Muslim world in general dictators are necessary to keep unruly, undemocratic, totalitarian theocrats under control? Were we taking a mad gamble on Iraq's people, and lost? Or is there an even crueller realist insight? Namely that the rulers of Middle East and Muslim countries always know that the US will be an irresolute policeman. Do they know, in short, that whatever the merits of their rule, or of the US's interventions, they have stronger resolve than the West? One suspects that President Bush, even in early 2007 and in spite of much advice to the contrary, believes that a strong and determined US can achieve a good deal. Tony Blair is not letting us know whether he agrees. But then he never did, or could, altogether take us into his confidence..

Blair the resolute
Blair's wars, and especially the Iraq war, showed his people a Tony Blair we did not previously know was there, though we had seen something of this side to him in the former Yugoslavia. In this one field - military operations - he seemed to be capable of discerning what he thought was right, steamrollering it through his own supporters and the opposition, and then contemplating all the horrors of military action with a coolness that could look heartless. He avoided gush and therapy-speak. He didn't affect to feel people's pain. Indeed, it was noteworthy that he was not seen visiting the bedsides of wounded soldiers; not filmed watching military coffins carried off aeroplanes, and succouring the bereaved. Perhaps he did these things in private. Perhaps he has suddenly discovered a dislike of the mawkish and vulgar. Perhaps he could not face them, and who cares if he could not?

Odder, though, is the boldness and the fierceness with which he defended his actions, and stared down his critics. He even told the party he had discovered that his job was to be unpopular. As a pronouncement, this was shocking only in how late on it came: it revealed how absurd his view of leadership must have been until then. But it was amazing the degree to which, having come to that conclusion, he got on with being blindingly unpopular. He set to it with a will.

It is tempting to argue that it was a young egotist and moralist who arrived at 10 Downing Street in 1997, determined to be vastly popular and to transform his sad old country in all sorts of ways. He wanted to do good. Bit by bit, he came to realise that this country's strengths were, remarkably, just as the conservatives had always said: it was, by turns, old, unfussed, therapy-proof, scruffy, stalwart, edgy and muscular. The British are proof against orthodoxy and reform, unless they are absolutely necessary. Tony Blair was still keen on doing the Right Thing, if one could discern it, and - more difficult - be seen to deliver it, but there were remarkably few candidates for this work. Politics and economics determined that there was little room for the luminously virtuous. He doesn't seem to have gone looking for good to do overseas, but when it came along, it found a ready recognition and response in him. That there was good to be done in the former Yugoslavia and Sierra Leone was clear to Tony Blair, and it was clear to him, too, that this was one sphere of activity in which he had a relatively free hand. For a start, Gordon Brown did not have his own "big clunking fist" on the relevant levers of power. Secondly, the British are always more up for a good war than they are, say, for even higher taxes or a smaller welfare state. And thirdly, in military affairs a Prime Minister has if not absolute power at least the initiative. In Blair's case especially, Parliament, insofar as it mattered, could be managed.

It is possible, and probably true, that Mr Blair found something dizzying and exciting about rushing around the world as a statesman; here was a stage on which he could perform. He could be tired, bold, hated, lonely, popular, unpopular - whatever. They were all great roles.

It is wholly unclear whether Tony Blair became genuinely noble as he helped fight the West's wars. His behaviour had the makings of nobility - and the appearance of it. However, the saint is always open to the charge of self-delusion. The hero is open to the charge of seeking fame. The martyr is open to the charge of ultimate self-aggrandisement. Tony Blair may have been little more than egotistical when he sent British troops to war. Or he may have been much more manly than it is given to most of us to be. The question arises with any leader, but especially with Tony Blair because we are pretty sure that he is a man who loves acting and applause. He has devoted a vast amount of his ministry's energy to creating certain effects. It is inevitable that when we see him at work, we are watching for smoke and mirrors - and that this is all the more true when we see him as a spotlit figure in the fog of battle.

It is possible though that he was a man who wanted to do right and the opportunity at last came along in a form he was uniquely equipped to respond to. It is at least a reasonable reading of his personality and his politics that this was one of the few good effects of Mr Blair's Messiah Politics.

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