Why Tony Blair Must be Destroyed:
A Conservative Case
by Sean Gabb
7th April 2003
The Friday before this war started, I had dinner with some friends, where I was forced to defend my bitter dislike of Tony Blair. At the moment, nothing could be easier. The front page of my newspaper today carries one of the most disgusting photographs I have ever seen. It is of Ali Ismael Abbas, a 12 year old boy in Baghdad who had his arms blown off in a rocket attack at the weekend. His lower body appears to have been burned all over, and the smile on his face is probably the effect of the opiate he was given to block the pain. The rocket that did this may have been fired by the Americans – or even, though I doubt if they now have the means, by the Iraqis. But thanks to Mr Blair, we share in the corporate responsibility. Because of his joining us in the “coalition of the willing”, it is partly in our name that this boy has had his life destroyed. Killing and maiming are always bad. I doubt at present if they can ever be right. Certainly, unless absolutely necessary, they are wrong. For me, that is reason enough for the most envenomed hatred.
However, the question was asked of me before the war started, when my opinion of Mr Blair was already fixed. This beastly war aside, what do I so dislike about him?
I will begin by conceding that my usual complaints about his domestic policies do not in themselves justify such positive loathing. Yes, he has integrated this country further into the European Union since he came to power. Yes, his other domestic policies have been directed to the creation of a sinister police state. He has done all this and is to be blamed for it. Even so, is there anyone to replace him who would not have done, or would not continue to do, very much the same?
Forget their claims, unconvincing as they are. The Conservatives are just as committed in reality to the European project. They got us into it, and have said nothing to indicate they would get us out. If possible, they are even more committed to the American alliance than Labour. Indeed, I suspect they would have us pressing on with the Americans to Damascus and Teheran, whereas many of the present Ministers seem to want this horror over for us as quickly as the soldiers can be marched out of Basra.
As for all the police state laws, these the Conservatives have failed efficiently to oppose during the past six years, or have even supported. Nor let it be forgotten that it was the Conservatives who began to demolish the Constitution when they were last in power. Can we hope for any better from them? I rather think not.
How, then, about the most likely Labour replacements of Mr Blair – Gordon Brown and David Blunkett? Would they be any better? Again, not. Mr Blunkett is hard at work outdoing both Michael Howard and Jack Straw in the attack on due process. Mr Brown might be slightly less friendly to European integration, but this cannot be taken for granted; and he seems to lack Mr Blair’s belief in the marketising of public services, which is about his only worthwhile achievement.
So why hate the man? What is there to justify wanting him replaced by people who might only differ for the worse, if they differed at all?
The answer is that Mr Blair is so bad because he is so effective in the work of destruction. Let us compare England with America. The United States has a written constitution. Plainly, this has not preserved American freedom so well as its framers hoped. But at least it draws a visible boundary between what is constitutional and what is not. Everyone can see when a law crosses that boundary; and its clear wording provides a point around which libertarians and conservatives can rally—and can sometimes rally with success. Our own constitution is different. Though it has restrained power for longer than any other, it is not written. We have fundamental laws, but they are not easily perceived, and their breach is hardly ever obvious to those without a detailed legal and historical understanding.
We are free in this country because freedom is part of our constitution as conceived in the wider, old-fashioned sense of the word. It resides in our habits of thought and action. Now, this sort of constitution derives its stability not from the wording of a written document, but from a mass of conservative prejudice. Freedom is generally an administrative inconvenience. It stands in the way of privilege for wealthy business interests. The lack of detailed policing that it requires gives offence to the various moral entrepreneurs who make their way into politics and the media. Considered alone, trial by jury is an expensive and often inaccurate means of deciding guilt. Freedom of the press allows people to say hateful things. Unlike any specific disadvantages, their benefits are hardly ever understood by the mass of people. What keeps them, and all the other freedoms and protections of freedom, reasonably safe is that they are parts of an ancient and general order of things. They are legitimised in the main less by their rightness than by the appearance that they have always existed in this country.
There can be no doubt of the many benefits that have flowed over the centuries from our Constitution. Those Americans who dismiss it as a fraud should bear in mind that their own is barely a quarter as old, and that it is already falling apart. Even so, it is peculiarly open to attack at the margins. The restraints in power in this country are largely customary. They derive their force form the fact that they exist within a web of associations that tie the present to the past. Let these associations be removed, and with them will go the old restraints on power.
That is, for example, why compulsory metrication is so objectionable. Metres are more rational than yards, and probably more useful for most purposes. Compulsion aside, it is the break with the past that is objectionable—especially when the benefits, though undeniable, are not that great. It is the same with renaming writs as claim forms and bailiffs as enforcement agents, with changing the old forms of public address, with rearranging museum displays to make the English past shameful or incomprehensible, and with much more. Individually, these changes may be of no importance. It is their conjunction that is important. Let there be a sufficient conjunction of changes, and the setting within which freedom resides is destroyed. Disconnected from the web of associations in which they have come down to us, valuable protections like trial by jury and habeas corpus can be presented as more rubbish form the past to be cleared away—especially when they can be presented as hindrances to a cheaper and more efficient system of criminal justice. Unlike in America, where the Constitution must first be abolished or plainly turned on its head, we can be led into tyranny along a route where every step can be presented as of no great consequence, and where objectors can be dismissed as pedants or cranks. As Lord Eldon said against the claims for parliamentary reform—and, I am now inclined to think, rightly—”Touch one atom, and the whole is lost”.
What makes Mr Blair so dangerous is that he has been able, as no other politician could, to combine systematic destruction of the old order of things with reasonable economic policies in the short term, and to persuade large numbers of people for most of the time that his is not a very radical government. It is a radical government at the cultural level, but his genius has been to conceal this. I had lunch last month with a highly intelligent friend from my university days who announced as if it were an incontestable truth that “Tony Blair is the best Tory Prime Minister this country has ever had”. Not so. He is the least Tory. His most honest statement of intent was his speech to the 1999 Labour Conference, in which he attacked “the forces of conservatism”. It was so honest that it was soon removed from the Labour Party website. One of my friends at dinner the other week tried to claim that this was really an attack on resistance to change within the public sector. But he is wrong. I looked out the speech on The Guardian website – http://www.guardian.co.uk/lab99/Story/0,2763,202189,00.html. It is a manifesto for destroying every ancient association, so that any conservative defence of freedom—and this is the best one we have, I repeat—becomes impossible. The New Labour project has little to do with overturning the economic settlement imposed by Margaret Thatcher. It is, much rather, a cultural revolution. But his charm—his ability to make radicalism look other than it is—has cast almost a magic spell over much of the English middle class.
That is why I so long for his destruction. No one else in politics would be so able to do what he has done. Take him away, and the spell would be at least weakened. The problem of who should replace him is not, on this analysis, a problem. Anyone will do. Gordon Brown might be more socialist in his economic policies—but he would not so easily seduce the middle class formers of opinion. Iain Duncan Smith might be even less friendly to our remaining civil liberties. Anyone else might be worse is some other respect. But there is no one else in British politics with the same lethal blend of qualities to hide the work of destruction, or to make it seem an improvement on the past.
Of course, the war may have changed this. It has wiped that boyish smile from Mr Blair’s face. He has aged ten years in the past six months, and the result is not pretty. From now on, his every appearance in public will be attended by passionate demonstrations. Combine this with the unconcealable effects of his economic policies, and he may have lost his hold over the national mind. Until last year, perhaps, he could be compared to the Lloyd George of 1910—the man of the people standing up to the forces of conservatism. He may now be compared to the Lloyd George of 1922—the dangerous adventurer surrounding himself with all that is corrupt and all that blocks the way back to a gentler and safer and greatly more attractive past. Nothing may ever be easy for him again. Never again may his good intentions be so readily trusted. Perhaps, therefore, we have him where we want him—as the weak leader of a weak government, able to do little more that is bad while we wait for the Conservatives or some other party of replacement to pull itself together.
On the other hand, this is not certain. A Prime Minister in being is still a Prime Minister; and events may always bring a recovery of his standing and power. And though I am not often given to explosions of moral outrage, that photograph will not quickly fade from my memory. I cannot think of it, and of our vicarious role in its production, without wanting to shout obscenities. Let him be replaced, I say, and soon. It matters not who replaces him. His continued residence in Downing Street dirties this country. He is trash, and all I really want at this moment is to know that I shall live long enough to dance on his grave.