Tuesday 23 January 2007

The hand of history

He’s felt the hand of history on his shoulder, and now it’s breathing hotly on his neck. Mr Blair’s quest for a legacy increasingly resembles the frantic scrabbling of man in an airport departure lounge who has comprehensively mislaid his passport and boarding card. As he searches, the tannoy keeps repeating his name and even the dozy bloke on passport control is finally twigging that it sounds vaguely familiar, and wondering whether he shouldn’t check it against the long list of master criminals that the Home Office sent through (by second class post) only last week. It’s not a happy scenario.

The real cause for wonder is why Mr Blair apparently cares so much for the verdict of history. For one thing, he’s patently never read any of it, or he would have known that invading Afghanistan and Iraq is always a seriously bad idea. For another, surely a man who really cared about posterity would have used his massive Parliamentary majority to do something truly earth-shattering ten years ago, rather than remaining in thrall to his beloved focus groups?

It’s a puzzle, and one I am not well placed to solve, given my own political prejudices. So I convened a lunch with three people who are far to the left of me, out of the 40 million or so who occupy that position in England alone. What, I asked, has Tony ever done for us?

After some thought, one of them suggested that a ten year run without plunging Britain into an economic crisis was a pretty remarkable achievement. True. It’s a unique one for a Labour government, and would be a source of pride and wonder to any other party that has held power in the last century. But if that were the verdict of history on the Blair era, I suggested, wouldn’t the dignity of the court be somewhat compromised by a Mr G. Brown from Fife being noisily ejected from the public gallery, protesting that it was all down to him?

They conceded that point and moved on to Northern Ireland. The fact that people were no longer killing each other there definitely constituted statesmanship of a very high order. Well, up to a point. The foundations were firmly laid by Thatcher and Major, and wasn’t the key really 9/11 and Americans’ sudden realisation that funding terrorism maybe wasn’t such a neat idea after all?

They struggled a bit after that. Yes, “ordinary people” have by and large got better off since 1997, though their pleasure in that has doubtless been mitigated by awareness of the vastly greater pay increases enjoyed by top managers, “wealth creators” and assorted City spivs (whose bonuses have got even me reaching for that word so beloved of 1970s trade unionists: obscene).

Vast sums of money have been ploughed into the National Health Service, without making the slightest impact on the number one British malaise: moaning about the NHS. Education too has enjoyed something of a bonanza, without kids getting obviously cleverer or their parents more satisfied.

Perhaps the time has come for Mr Blair to accept that he has blown his chance, and to reflect how small a difference even the real titans of the past made on a 50-year view. Churchill’s principal war aim was the preservation of the British Empire, yet it had all but vanished by the time he died in 1965. We may still be speaking English rather than German, but every important decision on our lives is now made in Brussels, and all around us we see being assembled the apparatus of an authoritarian surveillance state.

Face it, Tony: all political lives end in failure. Even yours. Though as I write that, I’m conscious of a feeling I would not have thought possible. It was the same when I saw that dreadful film of Saddam Hussein being hanged. I’m beginning to feel sorry for the man.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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