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

Page 5 of 17
Rather similarly, Peter Stothard's 30 Days, an account of the run-up to the second Iraq war, shows both the worst and the best of Blair. [[3]] He emerged from that book as an attractive man running perhaps the least attractive - and informal - government in history.

Almost all my admiration for Tony Blair flows from the peculiarity of his courage in his militarism. Throughout, he defended his record wholesale. He insisted he was right, as George Bush was right. And, crucially: "It's worse than you think. I believe in it. I am truly committed to dealing with this, irrespective of the position of America." [Link]

Blair might be bluffing us, or staring us down, for fear of worse. Still, I don't think he can be faulted in his demeanour in his conduct of the second Iraq war and its aftermath. And that remains true even if one supposes that he lied or was "disingenuous" so as to gain support for his war, which seems to be Lord Butler's influential view. [Link]And it remains true even if Blair was wrong as to the merits of the war. This isn't a question of whether he is being entirely honest with us, or was right. It's a matter of whether he has shown strength and dignity. The alternative to the view that he has deported himself well in this matter is to say he is either simply acting or is simply mad. I am inclined to reject those ideas.

Messiah Politics in practice
Mr Blair's Messiah Politics are most obvious in his status as two quite opposed figures: as campaigner and warrior, as I tried to show in the 2006 chapter, Messiah Politics in practice. Because so much has happened, I have re-written this chapter for this pamphlet. It is in three parts, dealing, respectively, with Blair's work on poverty in Africa, on global warming, and his "just wars".

Messiah Politics were nascent in Blair's earlier and lesser role as moderniser of the knackered and nasty Tory old Britain he pretended he had inherited. Deeply embarrassed by his own middle class origins, he pandered to the worst of the chippiness which still lurks in the British.

On global poverty, Africa and climate change, he has been as much a dissident campaigner as a statesman. On Afghanistan and Iraq, and even as the Prime Minister of a country that is being bombed by terrorists, he has been and remains a military leader.

In all these large areas, he has sought virtue as well as showmanship. As Peter Mandelson told Michael Cockerell, to understand Blair you have to see that in any given situation, "He first of all thinks of what is the right thing to do, and then the best way to communicate it". Private Eye was right to cast him as an ambitious vicar. The essence of this proposition is that Tony Blair has turned doing good and saving the world into a political mission. This was put best, I think, by John Lanchester in a 2003 London Review of Books piece, in which he wrote "&. Thatcher never claimed to be Good, just Right. Blair's political personality has always been predicated on the proposition 'I am good.' His dewy-eyed, slightly fumbling sincerity - his brilliantly articulate impersonation of earnest inarticulacy - has all along been tied to this self-projection as a Good Man." [Link]

But even an aspiration to virtue and sense of destiny don't quite make messianism. To be messianic is to flirt variously with heroism and martyrdom. Tony Blair has taken these two out on dates, even if he has not quite done the decent thing by them. But he is a politician, after all, and we are describing a messiah-lite, not the real thing.

However, his Messiah Politics were not merely theatrical or rhetorical. They were about power.

How to make power personal
Tony Blair undertook what was very nearly a democratic coup, as we explore in the 2006 chapter How to make power personal. Tony Blair's Messiah Politics would be an obvious enough affair if they were a matter of vision and aspiration. But his administration - his use of the levers of power - was also powerfully influenced by his Messiah Politics. He had various aspirations. He wanted to be transformative. He wanted to be theatrical. But he was determined, too, to be the font of power.

He had more of it than any previous Prime Minister. Many a President would envy the range of his authority. He had something of the monarch about him, and not least by running a court. Indeed, the real opposition to him came from the opposing court of his own Chancellor of the Exchequer. It is also true that Tony Blair would often retreat from any serious row with his own backbenchers, so there is a charge of political cowardice to be made against him. Blair was to some extent hemmed in, at least on the home front.

Tony Blair was not unique in keeping power close to his office, the den, in Number 10. He wasn't unique in moving party hacks close to the centre of the administration. But on all sides we have fascinating accounts, from dramatists as much as from official inquiries and serious commentators, that he took informality to new levels. A new term, Sofa Government, was invented to capture the phenomenon. This is important to the Messiah Politics thesis because it speaks to strengths and pitfalls of politics by personal passion and belief. If the leader is prone to messianism, his den will almost by definition be unable to provide the checks and balances we normally trust to produce good government. Geoffrey Wheatcroft again and again calls Blair's government a cabal, a junta and a regime. That seems ordinary knockabout stuff until one remembers that cabals, juntas and regimes exert power by force. In the case of Blair's Sofa Government nobody in Westminster or Whitehall seriously challenged the new absence of system.

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