Tuesday 10 July 2007

Was it all some ghastly dream?

Perhaps the most striking thing in last week’s gruesome BBC documentary about Mrs Blair was her account of how the former Prime Minister proposed. Traditionally, it’s the man who gets down on one knee. In the Blairs’ case, Cherie was already on both of hers as she cleaned the lavatory of a villa in Tuscany at the end of their summer holiday. It wasn’t that unappealing vision which really got to me, though, but her weary revelation that they had had to “drive all the way there” because Tony in those days was “terrified of flying”.

This raised the interesting question of when he developed this phobia. Clearly it must have been after the teenage Blair claims to have tried to stow away on an admittedly non-existent flight from Newcastle to the Bahamas. About the time that he used to stand on the Kop at Newcastle Wanderers’ famous St John’s Park, and watch the long-retired Jackie Milburn score enthralling goals.

Another documentary on The Last Days of Tony Blair revealed a man who first got interested in politics around the age of 20, when he also became a committed Christian. Surely faith should eliminate any fear of flying? If God cares, he’ll look after you. And, if not, you’ll have the joy of meeting him all the sooner. The programme also showed us someone who was rarely out of the air, whether on international jaunts, quick trips to Sedgefield, or dropping in on lucky schools by helicopter.

Just imagine how different things might have been if he hadn’t got over his alleged phobia. No regular tête-a-têtes with George W. Bush, unless they had met on a battleship in mid-Atlantic, like Churchill and Roosevelt. No surprise visits to depress the troops on the ground in Iraq or Afghanistan. No shuttle diplomacy. Many fewer EU summits, and those reached by trains that would have brought him into some sort of contact with everyday reality.

Can it be a pure coincidence that, when Britain was at the apogee of its power, our leaders rarely left the country? It has been downhill all the way since they got into the habit of flying. The most infamous such journey was surely that made by Neville Chamberlain in 1938, when he bravely boarded his first-ever flight to meet Herr Hitler and secure “peace in our time”. Many think of Chamberlain as simply a gullible old fool, but Mr Blair described him last week as “someone who tried desperately to do the right thing by the country”. Suggesting that he knows very well which wartime PM history is likely to compare him with, and it won’t be Churchill.

Chamberlain’s legacy was the belief that it is never a good idea to appease dictators. This led Anthony Eden into the disastrous Suez invasion of 1956, and Anthony Blair into the even more catastrophic operation to topple Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Mr Blair fondly believes that his own legacy is “a different approach to politics which gets beyond the old divisions between Left and Right.” Or, to put it another way, ending up equally loathed by both sides.

It’s never easy to tell which, if any, parts of Mr Blair’s strange story are not pure fantasy. Did he ever really fear flying? If so, he should have stuck with it in the interests of world peace and his own self-preservation. He’d have been able to present himself as so cloyingly Green that neither Gordon nor Dave would ever have got a look-in at 10 Downing Street.

If he did have a phobia, how was he cured? Could it have been through hypnotism? Meaning that, at any moment, someone like Paul McKenna could snap his fingers and we’d discover that nothing in the last decade was Tony’s fault after all, as he’d been “under” all the time. Even better, maybe we’d all snap out if it, and discover that it was just a ghastly dream.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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