Tuesday 15 July 2008

Applying The Auntie Test

The great Duke of Wellington is usually credited with inventing the pronouncement that “Because a man is born in a stable, that does not make him a horse.”

He was responding to what he regarded as the appalling suggestion that being born in Dublin made him an Irishman. His line subsequently found favour with the likes of Bernard Manning, and is beloved of racists everywhere.

It was brought to mind by a reader’s letter last week suggesting that I had erred in describing Tony Blair as an Englishman, when he is in fact a Scot. I could make the weaselly point that I was actually writing about Tim Henman and Andy Murray when I contrasted the charming Englishman with the dour Scot, and left readers to infer that I thought the same of Messrs Blair and Brown. But the truth is that, while I knew that Mr Blair was born in Edinburgh and educated there at Fettes (“the Eton of the North”), I have never thought of him as Scottish.

I am by no means alone in this. When in doubt on any common sense issue, I apply what I know as “The Auntie Test”, asking an elderly relative for her opinion. She firmly believes Mr Blair to be as English as they come.

In his published diaries, Alastair Campbell amusingly recalls the antagonism that both he and Mr Blair experienced in Scotland because they were assumed to be English, even though Campbell himself is 100% Scots and actually plays the bagpipes in his spare time.

Genealogically, Mr Blair’s case is complicated by the fact that his father is English by birth, though he was adopted by Scots, while his mother was Irish. In any sane world, we would just say that their son is British, and move on. But because of the mad (and hugely successful) efforts by Scottish Nationalists to drive wedges between Scotland and England, the issue of Mr Blair’s true nationality becomes of some interest and importance.

On the one hand, he never wantonly exposed his hairy knees, grew a full ginger beard nor tossed a caber while in office. On the other, he adhered to the Barnett funding formula and pushed through the Scottish devolution settlement which is so manifestly unfair to us English. But there has never been any suggestion that he did so out of any great conviction or principle. He was just “fulfilling the legacy of John Smith”. Historians will doubtless search for years to identify what he did do out of conviction or principle. Lance Price’s book, The Spin Doctor’s Diary, exposes a Number 10 in which most policies were made up on the hoof, which conveniently explains how we got into our current mess in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The plain fact is that Tony Blair looked, sounded and acted like an Englishman, and sat for an English constituency. He therefore never faced any of the West Lothian questions that dog his successor, as a proud Scot representing a Scottish constituency in a Parliament which no longer has responsibility for most of the crucial issues affecting everyday life north of the border, such as health and education.

By the same token, Mr Blair looked, sounded and acted like a Tory, as I believe that Sir Edward Heath gruffly pointed out to him when they first met at Westminster.

So my view is ultimately conditioned by appearances. Tony Blair achieved his three great election successes because he convinced middle England that he was one of their own, and safe to vote for. Like his claims to have been a committed Anglican and a lifelong Newcastle United supporter, it may not have been strictly true. But he conveyed the impression with such brilliant actorly conviction that most people believed him. I wonder what he believes himself?


Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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