Two weeks ago I said he could not return to British politics. There you go.
It takes chutzpah. But then, he has that. We never doubted it.
There has been plenty of hostility. The pro-Brexit press was red-eyed at the weekend. Boris – Boris! – accused him of insulting the intelligence of the electorate. It is not possible to defend his record on Iraq, and although the good things he did should be remembered – the Good Friday Agreement was a singular feat of statesmanship, which Brexit threatens to shipwreck – that war shadows him still. It is not just that he led us into it on false pretences. It is also what happened when the war stopped: the looting of Iraq’s national treasures, the torture at Abu Ghraib, the turning of the occupation into a money-machine for giant corporations, the economic devastation….. The list of horrors goes on and gets lost in the sands.
Then there was what happened after that. What exactly was he doing in the Middle East as the Envoy for Something-or-Other? Making a lot of money, it was unkindly suggested. The rumours went on for longer than anyone with a skin of normal thickness could have borne. Then, one day, there was ISIS, the Iraq war’s psychopathic godchild. He had nothing to say about it, any more than he’d had anything to say about anything else.
“Never apologise, never explain.” But people don’t forget. It’s hard to forgive without an apology. It’s harder still in the absence of an acknowledgement that there might be anything to forgive.
Now back he comes. And how he has timed it! There seems to be no-one in the country capable of leading a movement against the looming catastrophe that is Brexit. The voices raised in protest are isolated and not unanimous. MPs have allowed themselves to be castrated by a mind-numbing chant about the will of the people, the Leader of the Opposition is not a leader and the Opposition is not an opposition. Remainers’ need of an effective leader is desperate, and in desperate situations one cannot be choosy.
It’s a hard one to swallow, and some people will not be able to swallow it. They have hated him for fourteen years, they would like to see him in the dock of the ICC, and they will not sup with him if they have a spoon a hundred miles long. It’s very likely they stopped voting Labour because of him, and it’s partly on that account that the Labour party is now incapable of mounting a coherent opposition to anything. This is why Blair’s intervention could be a disaster for the Europhile camp: it will split it further, and set up a perfect target for its detractors.
That is the political argument against him. The other is the moral argument. Can he be trusted? A generation decided he couldn’t. “Bliar.” “Teflon Tony.” He aroused a hatred as visceral as Thatcher did, and a moral condemnation even more profound. Can he be trusted now? Can he be forgiven? Should he be forgiven?
There has still been no apology, no real acknowledgement.
And that suggests that there is still no self-knowledge, no humility.
Is there perhaps something flawed in him? In Lord Jim, Conrad’s tale of a disgraced ship’s officer, the narrator, Marlow, brilliantly alludes to the “subtle unsoundness of the man.” This exactly catches the widespread sense of something adrift in the very building blocks of Blair’s psyche. “There was not the thickness of a sheet of paper between the right and wrong of the affair,” ruminates Jim, trying to unpick the calamitous moment of his cowardice. Tony Blair has been assuring us of just this for many years.
The speech he gave on 17 February to Open Britain was a superb one. It said everything that needed to be said about Brexit, and said it lucidly and with passion. Such a speech has not so far been made on this tortured subject in this riven and intimidated island, and it was needed like rain in a drought.
His sincerity need not be doubted. You may say that nevertheless he is using the issue as a way of getting back into mainstream politics; to which I reply that there is no contradiction between that motive and sincerity, and do we want a saint?
I will go further and say that the last thing we want is a saint. It is just possible (for they come in all guises) that in Jeremy Corbyn we have a saint, and Jeremy Corbyn is for all practical purposes useless. We want a politician. An experienced, canny politician who believes in his cause and can argue it fiercely. Well, here is one.
It would help if he apologised for Iraq. But he can’t. What he did, the almost unthinkable magnitude of it with all its still-unfolding consequences… what form of words would be adequate? It is so terrible and so enormous that only a howl would do. But that is not really the point: it is so terrible and so enormous that he cannot think about it at all. This is what all his behaviour since 2003 indicates. It exists in a locked room of his skull. He cannot go there.
Nevertheless, here is the speech, and it calls on us to “rise up.” This is an odd choice of words, conjuring memories of John Major on a soapbox croaking “Wake up!” at shoppers before a General Election. It evokes barricades, and, however awful Theresa May’s Government, this is not yet Tsarist Russia.
What do we do? If we accept the message but condemn the one who bears it, isn’t this going to set up a clamour in the head which most people cannot live with for any length of time? Is it even possible, realistically, to make the distinction? Isn’t the message contaminated by the messenger? The Roman Catholic Church teaches that the sacrament is unimpaired by the moral condition of the priest who administers it. Clearly it must say that, or chaos would ensue; and it is talking about salvation, not politics. Nevertheless it is essentially the same distinction, and is not generally cavilled at, as far as I’m aware.
But this is politics, and in politics character is all. Profumo. Thorpe. Aitken. None of them recovered politically. None of them tried to, and this is yet another mud-pie to be flung at Blair. How dare he? He should have gone into the wilderness and stayed there.
He would say he is trying to serve his country. It is probably true. Some would say that he is doing it the greatest disservice possible. That may be true, too.
It is very difficult and it may turn out to be very important. Are we being offered a chance or an illusion? Should the decision be a moral or a pragmatic one? If it’s moral, the moral choice is unclear. If it’s pragmatic, it’s worse than unclear: it’s impenetrable.
“My enemy’s enemy is my friend”, that ultimate piece of pragmatism, can turn out well or ruinously. Alliance with Stalin enabled Britain to emerge on the winning side in World War II. Alliance with a band of Spanish adventurers against the Aztecs in1519 caused the Tlascalans to deliver the whole of Mexico, Central and Southern America into the hands of Spain and Portugal.
Yet Blair is surely right in that only a rising-up of some kind will stem our lemming-rush to the edge. And, once a certain amount of rising-up has taken place, the resemblance to Tsarist Russia is likely to increase exponentially.
John Major won that election.