Tony Blair and the politics of resistance

tony-blair
Enemy? Or useful ally?

Is Tony Blair worth listening to? Are the Liberal Democrats worth voting for? I’m going to risk losing whatever respect and friends I have by suggesting that ‘yes’ is a conceivable answer to both questions. A year ago, even six months ago, I would not have imagined being able to write this. But such is the nature of politics, generally, but particularly right now, that it is necessary to be flexible, to be strategic, to be willing to reassess and shift one’s positions—in short, to think what only recently had seemed unthinkable.

Some personal information will help contextualize this post. Those familiar with me will know that in so far as I am ideological I am well to the political left; I also subscribe to broadly liberal, libertarian and individualist views. All this makes me a somewhat idealistic anarchist. But I’m also a realist and, for the most part, non-partisan. I have long accepted that I will never see a society and political system conforming to my personal beliefs, I have reconciled myself to the long catalogue of political disappointments that I will experience in my life, and I am even sceptical whether my own politics would work—which doesn’t stop me from thinking that anarchism is a beautiful philosophy, and that the ideals of equality and freedom are important, even if only as a valuable counterpoint to and check on prevailing politics. Another way of putting this is to say that I am both politically idealistic and politically practical.

There is a vital place for both idealism and practicality in the present political situation. Idealism remains valuable: even if unachievable, our ideals, since they are ideas, are important starting points for thinking and debate. At the same time, there is a fundamental practical problem—more than a problem, in fact, a danger—facing us: the rise of the populist, nationalist right, with all its illiberalism and politics of division and (to be blunt) hate. In order to resist and overcome this danger it is essential that ideals and practicality are mutually accommodating.

My ideals can be viewed, above all by myself, both narrowly and broadly. The narrow view sees a particular version of anarcho-socialism. The broad view sees this anarcho-socialism within a wider historical context, namely a liberal and rational intellectual tradition that essentially stems from the Enlightenment. My own politics, in their detail, may be quite narrow and precise, but I recognize them as part of a large family of values and ideals occupying a broad swathe of the political spectrum, from the left all the way to some distant cousins on the centre-right. What unites this diverse and argumentative family are such things as the following: a belief in liberal values, above all a respect for individual freedom; the importance of tolerance; a celebration of diversity; the belief that all, irrespective of gender, race, ethnicity, religion and sexuality, are fundamentally equal; a rejection of nationalism, and a belief in the importance of international cooperation; a commitment to democracy and equality before the law; a belief that politics should be grounded in rationalism and secularism. Not one of those beliefs and values is straightforward and uncomplicated. But for all the differences and arguments about how best to achieve, say, gender equality, it ought to be possible to recognize the fundamental difference between those of us who believe absolutely in gender equality and those on the right who subscribe to patriarchal and misogynist views.

In good times (or less bad times) we can quietly acknowledge our shared core ideals and attend to the more urgent business of getting at each other’s throats over our more particular differences. But right now we are living in the bad times: the core ideals, the entire liberal and Enlightenment tradition, is in danger of being overwhelmed and overthrown. In practical terms, the family members need to set aside their differences, focus on the common threat and defend their shared, core ideals. That might mean acknowledging, however grudgingly, that the unsavoury and hard-to-like uncle trying to be heard is nevertheless part of our family, unlike Donald, Nigel and Marine, the noisy, obnoxious and aggressive neighbours next door.

I have never much admired Tony Blair, not even in 1997 when he led the sweeping victory of the centre-left over the Tories. His contribution to the rise of neoliberalism has been significant and woeful; his path of personal enrichment, and his work with authoritarian regimes has been appalling; and his role in the Iraq War was little short of scandalous. That Blair bears some responsibility for the current crisis is undeniable. But simply yelling ‘liar’ at him and insisting that he is prosecuted for war crimes is as simple-minded and unproductive as those Trump supporters who screamed ‘crooked’ and ‘lock her up’ about Hillary Clinton. Just as the murderer will never confess to his crime because he knows that to do so would come at the cost of personal destruction, so Blair will never apologize for nor admit the mistakes that led to the Iraq War. Does that refusal—which, I would suggest, owes more to understandable human psychology than to any irredeemable ‘evil’ on Blair’s part—mean that he should never be listened to again?

The fact is, distasteful though Blair may often be politically and personally, he belongs to the same family as I do. He is smart, experienced and insightful, and his political analysis is often incisive—just because one may not like him doesn’t mean one should ignore his strengths, intelligence and qualities. He is evidently dismayed by recent political developments, arguing that a fightback against Brexit needs to be launched in tandem with a revitalization of the political centre ground. I’m not much of a centrist myself, but I rarely find centrism truly objectionable. And right now there are simple binary realities that call for practical responses that embrace centrism rather than precious idealism that rejects it. The fact is, it may be uncomfortable having to vote for the likes of Clinton, or whoever the French centre-right puts up against Marine Le Pen, and it may be uncomfortable having to accept an alliance with figures like Angela Merkel or Richard Branson or Tony Blair, but in times like this it is necessary to act against the larger enemy.

I’m not suggesting that one needs to agree with everything, or even most things, that Blair says. I am suggesting that one needs temporarily to set aside differences and disagreements, or at least not to let them dominate debate, and focus instead on the shared ground. Let’s hope a day will come when arguing against Blairism will seem once more like a good idea. But for now there is an overriding goal: to resist the politics of Trump and Brexit and Farage, to defeat Le Pen, and to defend and reinvigorate the core values of liberal democracy. When that’s done we can all get back to fighting among ourselves; but if the new populist right is allowed to succeed, there’ll be no opportunity for infighting since we will have suffered a crushing defeat. That Labour, and above all Momentum (whose ideals elicit some sympathy from me, but whose practical politics elicit much contempt) seem determined to descend into infighting first, thereby enabling the populist right to run rampant and unchallenged, is a shameful invitation to disaster. Ideologically I may have more in common with Momentum than with Blair, but if the latter is urging broad cooperation in the face of the right-wing threat while the former is obsessed with internecine war on the left, then I’ll listen more seriously to Blair than to Momentum.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, I’m all for the idea of a broad front, spanning from the centre-right to the left, to resist the populist right. This does not necessarily have to be a formal front; on a personal level I find it practically strategic and helpful to view all forms of opposition to Trump, Brexit and Le Pen as constituting such a front, even if it is more an idea than a formally constituted political body. In large part this is a negative form of politics: it’s about doing anything and everything to stop the other side, the common enemy, from winning. If that means listening to Blair and Branson, if it means voting Liberal Democrat (like many, I vowed after 2010 never to vote for them again, but there you go), if it means opposition parties agreeing on single election candidates to fight the Brexiters, if it means voting for a centre-right French presidential candidate, then so be it.

But the notion of a broad front is not entirely negative. The positive essence of such a front is the identification, recognition and defence of the common values—those values of liberalism, tolerance, equality and rationalism stemming from the Enlightenment tradition that I summarized above. And there is a shared and positive wider aim, which is to ensure that history remembers the early twenty-first century not as the death of the liberal, progressive tradition but as a period of revitalization in the face of the threat from the irrational, illiberal, reactionary, authoritarian, intolerant and hateful politics of the populist and nationalist right.

[I have added some further thoughts and discussion to this post in the Comments below.]

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8 thoughts on “Tony Blair and the politics of resistance

  1. A few further comments in relation to my post above:

    First, I am not a Blair apologist. Blair deserves all the criticism he has received for his role in the Iraq War (among other things). I disagree profoundly with much of his politics. I would not wish him to become the figurehead of opposition to the populist right. But, to put it simply, Blair is not Trump or Farage or Le Pen (or Wilders or Fox, and so on). I prefer Blairite politics over anything that Trump, Farage and Le Pen have to offer. My main point is to recognize that fact, and to suggest that Blair’s past does not mean that he has nothing of value to contribute to the necessary resistance against the right.

    Second, it is worth recalling Blair’s main achievement. He became leader of the Labour Party that had spent much of the previous decade in a state of internal conflict and division. Britain had been governed by the right (not the centre right, but a fairly hard right) since 1979, resulting in the dismantling of many of the core values of social democracy. What Blair did was unite the centre-left and find a way of defeating the right. Of course, he did not do this single-handed (and the utter hopelessness and incompetency of the Major government was an important reason for the Tories’ 1997 defeat), but Blair was the principal architect of the victory. This has always been his overriding political quality: he understands the realities of power and the strategies required to gain power. As Blair has pointed out many times, it’s all very well having a set of fine principles, but unless one is able to win political power those principle count for very little. None of this means that one has to compromise one’s principles, nor does it mean that winning is all that counts. It is straightforward realpolitik. At the present moment, when the centre and left urgently needs to resist and ultimately defeat the new right, Blair’s realpolitik—i.e. his sense of what is politically achievable, of political realism, of successful strategies—could make an important contribution to the resistance.

    Third, and my fundamental point: I have no interest in tribalism, and those who have descended into a kind of tribal politics are bringing smiles to the faces of Trump and Farage. There are many on the centre and the left who doubtless vehemently oppose my own version of anarcho-socialism, just as I disagree with their politics. But right now none of that matters. Far more important to me than the specific ideological nuances of anarchism, socialism and liberalism are the core values that face an existential threat from Trump, Brexit, Le Pen, etc.—values such as human rights, freedom, environmentalism, social justice. These values are shared, in different ways to be sure, by almost everyone across the centre and the left, including figures such as Tony Blair. They are not shared by Trump, Farage and Le Pen. That’s the binary situation we are in, and, as I see it, the underlying reality that ought to be shaping our politics for the foreseeable future.

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  2. After the publication of the Chilcott report, an endorsement by Beelzebub himself would have garnered more popular support to the Remain cause than one from Tony Blair. One can admire his acheivements, but sadly his brand was tarnished beyond repair by his self-delusion prior to the Iraq war.

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    1. I agree that Blair’s reputation is tarnished–and rightly so. Even he seems to acknowledge this in his acceptance that he won’t be returning to frontline politics (e.g. in his interview with the New Statesman: http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk/2016/11/tony-blair-s-unfinished-business). My general point is that none of this means whatever he says or does should automatically be ignored or rejected. There is much in his interview that I agree with.

      In particular, I think his point that British politics needs a reinvigorated progressive centre is a good one, as too his suggestion that this is not really about left vs. right but about open vs. closed politics. In so far as he resources to do something about this, I am cautiously hopeful that any political organization he helps establish–whether as a non-partisan campaigning group or a think-tank sort of thing–might be a positive step.

      One might (to follow your analogy) suggest that to pay serious attention to Blair amounts to supping with the devil, but maybe the times are such that if Beelzebub has a good idea he might be worth listening to?

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  3. I agree that Blair’s views need not be ignored, even if most people will probably do so because of his previous failures of judgement during his time in government. One of those failures was the lack of any attempt to address decades of increasing economic inequality. Increasing social mobility alone was of little value while the ladder of inequality was (and is) still being extended upwards into the clouds.

    Another error of judgement was the failure to impose 2 to 5 year transitional restrictions on the entry of people from Eastern European countries joining the EU in 2004 to the UK. Other large EU members imposed restrictions, but not the UK.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2004_enlargement_of_the_European_Union#Free_movement_issues

    One could argue that these 2 failures turned traditional Labour voters against the EU, a major contribution to the Brexit mess we are now in.

    Why does Blair think he alone can “build a platform”? What’s wrong with, for example, The Compass Group, or the Lib-Dem’s 48 Movement? His ego still seems to be more developed than his humility, and his ability to admit mistakes. While I admire his acheivements in the past, and I agree with some of his diagnosis, he is no longer the best person to administer his own prescription. Others have also seen the need for a centre-left grouping, and are better qualifed to implement it.

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    1. I don’t disagree with any of that–they’re very good points. In particular, since various people and groups on the centre left are attempting to resist Brexit and reinvigorate liberalism, I wonder how Blair’s ‘platform’ fits into this. There’s a danger of the whole thing getting very fragmented. On the other hand, there’s room for several–a vibrant centre-left should never be monolithic.

      What Blair potentially brings to the party is realpolitik. While I vary in my attitude to his actual politics–some of his beliefs I have little problem with, many I disagree with (often quite profoundly)–in terms of British politics he has a good sense of what is possible and practical. Not all politicians (notably those on the left such as Corbyn) have that type of political realism. One thing any resistance to Brexit and the new populist right is going to need, in addition to coherent principles, is a practical realism about how to succeed in the resistance. I don’t think Blair (or for that Major) are going to do much good fronting any resistance; but as experienced politicians, I can see how, in a kind of behind-the-scenes advisory way, they can bring value to the resistance campaign.

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    1. And, for all that I think Blair has been a principled politician in many ways (even if I haven’t much liked some of his principles), your point about his lack of humility is a good one. I think he is genuinely concerned about the current state of politics, but there is undoubtedly an element of ego in his wish to re-enter the fray in some way. The danger is that he ends up being a divisive figure, weakening the prospects of a revived centre-left.

      But, the way things are right now, and in particular the way the Brexit debate is framed, I welcome almost any voices who speak out against Brexit. The Brexiteers want to shut up any opposition to their position, so I’m thankful that, even if it is Blair, Major, Branson, etc., there are people who refuse to shut up.

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