A former Prime Minister steps forward. Fresh from attempting to bring peace and prosperity to a war-torn and poverty-stricken region, he now passionately and eloquently defends the record of his party’s current leader and lands compelling blows on the competence and prospects of their political opponents. But he’s not done yet- he reveals he is donating over £100,000 to help in the 106 most marginal fights his party is facing: a party that is cash strapped both through the loss of major institutional supporters and the prospect of having to run at least one and most probably two major election campaigns over the coming political year.
What would one expect from the party? If not boisterous adulation, at the very least a grateful acceptance of the ex-PM’s generosity and dignified acknowledgement not only of his admirable ten year premiership, but also of his unparalleled electoral record. But, of course, the party being Labour and the former leader Tony Blair, the reaction could scarcely have been more different. Pantomime like, Labour activists and MPs booed and hissed across the national press; indeed, many Prospective Parliamentary Candidates went as far as to reject Blair’s donated funds. There does indeed appear to be something of the pantomime villain about the way Blair is perceived and represented in modern day Britain. In the press he is frequently awarded the epithet ‘polarising’, but even this seems inaccurate: it is extremely difficult to find anyone who has a positive word to say about Blair, let alone go so far as to declare they are on the “approval pole”.
Perhaps the most compelling parallel is with that of (Sir) John Major. Major left office as one of the most unpopular Prime Ministers on record, was subsequently revealed to have had a four year adulterous affair (a hypocrisy that could scarcely have clashed more strongly with his family value based ‘Back to Basics’ governmental programme) -and yet now appears to have transcended even elder statesmen prestige to be adopted as a national treasure, based seemingly on little more than a fondness for cricket and an affinity with Radio 4. Major’s post-premiership financial affairs are far more shady and lucrative than Blair’s, yet they receive a fraction of the media attention that Blair’s consultancies attract. While Sir John receded into the handsomely paid speaking circle and the smoky boardroom, Blair, with keen moral purpose and a fierce wish to act and change, consciously sought a role on the world stage. Nonetheless, it is Blair whose work after leaving office has attracted by far the most acrimony.
What is particularly frustrating is the bizarre, Orwellian terms in which Blair is discussed. The two narratives used about the former leader are fundamentally in tension. The first alleges that Blair was the ultimate politician, a sponge like moral vacuum, fed on spin and polish and seeking only approval; the second that Blair was a militaristic quasi-dictator who neither heeded public approval nor obeyed the basic decencies of Cabinet government. While I would strongly refute both arguments, what is certain is that Blair’s critics cannot have it both ways. The inconsistencies becomes particularly galling in relation to the Iraq war. Perhaps the supreme politician of his generation is portrayed as- for no clear reason- being entirely in hoc to President George W. Bush, at the expense of Cabinet, parliamentary and popular opinion. This is simply not credible. Whatever your beliefs about the war, it is wildly implausible that Blair did not wholeheartedly support the invasion; if he hadn’t, the costs in party and public unpopularity would have been far too high. The fact that few highlight the tension between the two discourses speaks volumes about the media and popular narrative that surrounds Blair.
This blinkered approach to Blair- an angry refusal to permit him any positive legacy- is particularly strong within Miliband’s Labour party. It was exemplified by the petty refusal to accept his generous donation. A thoroughly decent man, who loved his country, steered it through an existentially dangerous time and cared deeply about his principles, Blair deserves better than this. If nothing else, it speaks volumes about the immaturity of Miliband’s party that they are shutting out Labour’s longest serving and most electorally successful Prime Minister. In an era of coalition politics, it is time for Britain’s political class to reconsider the legacy of our country’s ultimate centrist.