Thursday, May 10, 2007

The Fall of Caesar

Shakespeare would have been proud. With more than a hint of melancholy Tony Blair made his pre-resignation speech today defending his policies and proclaiming that the British people have it far better now than we did in 1997.

Given that Blair was obsessed with image and buzz words like ‘Cool Brittania’, it was only fitting that Blair should see fit to drag this one out with as much heart-tugging poignancy as he could muster. One commentator described it as being delivered in the ‘Diana Funeral’ style, and it certainly seems that Blair views this whole event as some kind of Shakespearean tragedy. The great Caesar is going, long before his time. Forced out by low opinion polls and a legacy that includes Britains most disastrous foreign policy engagement since the Suez crisis.

As friends, Romans and countrymen line up to offer tributes to their fallen King, I feel it necessary to point out that this is only the PRE-resignation speech. The guy won’t be leaving office until June 27th, meaning that we are likely to be treated to another slice of Blair wisdom then. In fact this is technically his second pre-resignation speech after first announcing he’d be gone ‘within a year’ last September.

Of course, it would be wrong of me not to comment a little on his 10 years in power. The media likes to boil things down into a nutshell; has he been good for the country or bad for the country? Well it isn’t really that simple is it? Even I, a hardened anti-Blair activist, can recognise that it is impossible for any leader to be in power for 10 years without doing something good!

Sadly, my opinion is that pretty much all the good came in the first 4 years. The introduction of the minimum wage, the handing over of interest-rate management to the bank of England, the introduction of devolved assemblies in Wales and Scotland and the successes on the World stage (Good Friday Agreement, Kosovo, Sierra Leone) all occurred in his first term of office.

After 9/11 everything changed. It has been written that Blair really did (and still does) see this as a great battle between ideologies; That invading Iraq and Afghanistan are acceptable cases of liberal interventionism (like Kosovo was). This isn’t the case. I believe whole-heartedly in liberal interventionism. We shouldn’t stand back while people are slaughtered in countries around the world. We must take action. The war in Kosovo was right and just. The war in Iraq was a mistake of arrogance.

The only tenuous moral justification Blair had left for Iraq was that Saddam was a dictator that murdered his own people and suppressed opinion with violence. However, this was not the reason we went to war. It was the reason given when all the others (WMD, links to Al Qaeda etc) failed to produce significant evidence to back them up. But more than anything, his failure in Iraq is that a plan for managing the peace was not effectively drawn up in the months prior to the invasion. Vague plans for holding elections and training a police force are nothing more than rhetoric if most of the country doesn’t have electricity or running water. Throughout 1944 and 1945 the allied forces put together a detailed plan for post-war Europe. Given that we were constantly told how Saddam was the greatest threat we had faced since Hitler, it is astonishing that no-one in the vast ranks of military advisors, politicians and civil servants considered what would happen when you create a power vacuum in a country were a dictator has ruled with an iron fist for over 25 years.

While it would be easy to chalk up the remainder of Blair’s time in office post 9/11 as a tale of wars, terrorism and trips across the Atlantic the truth is that a considerable amount of legislation has been introduced. However, while Blair started out his tenure talking of social justice and freedom of choice for all, increasingly the last 5 years has taken on a more controversial nature. From top-up tuition fees which went against a manifesto promise, to measures for curbing a citizen’s right to protest, I find it difficult to rationalise the change in direction his second term took. Hell, even his efforts to modernise the House of Lords have become overshadowed by scandal and corruption.

In his speech, Blair turned to his favourite friend to detail his achievements. No not Alistair or Peter, but rather the statistics that have been the backbone of his time in office. Crime is down, hospital waiting lists are down, schools are more productive, our economy is the most stable it has been in generations and unemployment is down. Of course, statistics are too easy to spin, and sadly for Blair too much of his time in office has been spent obsessing about figures that ‘prove’ his success.

  • Reported crime is down, but violent crime is up.

  • Hospital waiting lists are down, but a considerable number of trusts are in heavy debt and have been forced to put caps on hiring staff, even to replace natural turnover.

  • We have the highest rate of University attendance in history, but students are now burdened with considerable debt and find themselves over-qualified for the jobs available in this country.

  • Our economy is booming, but it is based entirely on massive borrowing and held up by the highest level of consumer debt in history.

  • Unemployment is down… okay Tony, I’ll give you that one.

On top of statistics we’ve had the positioning of unelected advisors reporting on government departments – a move I find shameful and deeply undemocratic. Indeed, Blair’s first two terms can be described as more Presidential than anything we have seen before.

Blair has said that we should all think back 10 years and ask if our standard of living has improved. That is the saddest excuse a Prime Minister can use to explain away his time in office. To boil down his achievements to this is an indictment of failure. Let me ask you, in 1997 would you say your standard of living had improved since 1979? Of course it had. Standard of living in this country has been improving steadily since the end of WW2.

Blair has achieved some great things in his time. Of that there is no doubt, but my opinion of him will always be that of a man who was more spin than substance; a man who used his massive majority to force through unpopular legislation; a man who rather than improving democracy in this country, has damaged it considerably; a man who squandered the greatest chance in generations to make this country a better place for all; a man who cannot hide behind moral justification for a war that has made the World a more dangerous place and given disillusioned Muslims a reason to turn to violence.

I won’t miss you Tony.

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