Joyce McMillan: The tragedy of Blair's belief in Blair

It wasn't that he lied, it was that he genuinely believed, and still does, that he, and he alone, was right, writes Joyce McMillan

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair holds a press conference on the day of the publication of the Chilcot Report. Picture: PA
Former Prime Minister Tony Blair holds a press conference on the day of the publication of the Chilcot Report. Picture: PA

It was a day to remember, in cities all across the planet. The date was 15 February 2003 and everywhere from Seattle to Sydney, Johannesburg to Glasgow, people were marching against the invasion of Iraq being planned by the US and UK governments. The demonstrations were notoriously unsuccessful; even a million people marching on the streets of London that day, and 100,000 in Glasgow, could not change the absolute determination of George W Bush and Tony Blair to enter Iraq, and destroy the regime of Saddam Hussein.

Yet it was a historic day, nevertheless; the day when many who had had high hopes of the new Blair government in 1997 broke decisively with New Labour, the day when many gave up on politics altogether, the day when the SNP were handed their golden opportunity to bid for the votes of disillusioned Labour supporters, and began to lay the foundation for their present dominant position in Scottish politics. And so it’s perhaps not surprising that for many people – even those not directly involved – this week’s long-awaited publication of the Chilcot report into Britain’s decision to enter the Iraq War was an unexpectedly emotional experience, a reopening of deep political wounds. “Blair lied, thousands died,” they cried, as they campaigned outside parliament to see Tony Blair arraigned as a war criminal.

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Yet right from the moment, back in 2003, when I first glimpsed one of those ubiquitous Blair/Bliar placards, there has been a doubt in my mind about whether the word “liar” really covers what happened, during that time; and now that I have seen the Chilcot findings, I am more doubtful than ever. In essence, there were three elements in play in British government during those fateful months, of which the prime minister’s personality was certainly one. As anyone who watched him speaking on Wednesday must recognise, Tony Blair is no ordinary teller of untruths, even when what he says clearly conflicts with the facts. The secret of his outstanding success as Labour leader and thrice-elected prime minister lay precisely in his ability to convince himself, before anyone else, of the absolute truth of what he was saying, and therefore to present himself as “a pretty straight kind of guy”. When he told the nation that Saddam had huge stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, and could attack the UK within 45 minutes, I have no doubt that he believed implicitly in the truth of what he was saying; and proving that he intended to deceive is therefore likely to be impossible.

If anything, though, that recognition makes the Chilcot findings even more disturbing; because essentially, what Sir John sets out in his massive report is the absolute failure of the supposed checks and balances within Britain’s unwritten constitution to constrain the actions of a prime minister whose decision-making had lost touch with reality, and was being driven not by reliable evidence, but by a passionate prior commitment made to the US president.

This failure was two-fold, both structural and cultural. In terms of structure, the British system effectively awards excessive personal power and patronage to the prime minister, often on the basis of a very modest share of the vote. “If you’re the prime minister, you take the decisions,” Tony Blair kept protesting on Wednesday. Yet in saying so, he demonstrates a profound confusion between the technical power of the prime minister to take lone decisions, and the political and moral reality within which he or she is supposed to work, involving serious debate with cabinet ministers, with intelligence bodies, with MPs, and even with a former foreign secretary like Robin Cook, whose devastating resignation speech, on the eve of the invasion, now seems almost painfully prescient. The lack of due process and open-minded debate in the making of this crucial decision was therefore a disgrace of which everyone involved should be ashamed; and it shows strong similarities to the recent decision to go ahead with a potentially devastating Brexit vote, without any serious preparation at all.

It’s also clear that this process would not have proceeded so successfully, from Tony Blair’s point of view, had it not been for a pervasive culture in Westminster and Whitehall of subservience to power, and of obsequious eagerness to be recognised as part of what the commentator Max Hastings has scornfully called “Team Tony”. Cabinet members could have put a stop to the Iraq adventure, but only Robin Cook tried to do so. The Attorney General could have stopped it, by sticking to his original advice that the invasion would breach international law; but he succumbed to pressure and changed his mind. The intelligence and military chiefs could have stopped it; but they preferred to keep their mouths shut about how the prime minister was exaggerating and over-interpreting their reports.

And it seems to me that, beside this devastating exposure of procedural and cultural failure at the heart of British government, the individual responsibility and character of one man must pale into relatively minor importance. The UK’s unwritten constitution is clearly broken when it comes to restraining prime ministerial power. The Westminster electoral system is no longer fit for purpose; and the whole structure of government, in this supposedly egalitarian age, seems permeated by a neurotic culture of deference to the most powerful players. Voters in Scotland must of course now decide, sometime in the next few years, whether they want to remain on board for a long and much-needed process of UK reform or disentangle themselves from Westminster’s current meltdown and set out to chart their own course within the EU.

And as we face this decision, it is difficult – in this week of all weeks – not to wonder what Robin Cook would now be advising, about Scotland’s future: whether he would be with the Blairite rebels, trying to take us back to New Labour’s glory days, or with Jeremy Corbyn, trying to make Labour once again a radical voice against the excesses of corporate capitalism – or perhaps even with Nicola Sturgeon, as she argues that enough is enough, and that Scotland must now seize its chance to paddle its own canoe, back towards the heart of Europe.