Tony Blair’s considerable political skills have been put to great use since he resigned as Prime Minister. Since then he’s been busy bringing peace to the Middle East, now he’s going to save the Union. Yesterday Alistair Darling confirmed that he will play a major part in the No to Independence campaign. As the plans for the Scottish independence campaign shape up ahead of launch on Friday, many in the Yes camp see Blair’s arrival on the scene as a gift from the gods.
The suggestion that Blair should have a role in this campaign could only be made with any seriousness by a Labour Party leadership who have no real idea about what happened five years ago or how New Labour is regarded in Scotland. It reeks of a party leadership still deep in denial about the economic, cultural and military shadow that hangs over Labours record in office, and Blair’s stature in Scotland. And yet it makes sense. This is the man who, more than any, tried to recreate a fuzzy sense of Britishness, post-Diana, all touchy-feely and shorn of any of the harsh realities about his foreign misadventures and his assault on civil liberties.
This may be a ‘call to arms’ in Darling’s words, but it’s not his iconic status as warmonger-in-chief [http://presstv.com/detail/2012/05/21/242296/tony-blair-warmonger-speech/] that is the real albatross around Blair’s neck. Blair’s five ‘wars’, beginning with the air strikes in Iraq (1998) through the Kosovo war (1999), and then on to the dispatch of British troops to Sierra Leone (2000) and the overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003) may have included an unprecedented breaches of international law, but there are more compelling reasons why his contribution may hasten the end of the UK. Uppermost of these is his personal sense of importance and the well-recorded fact that he was against devolution itself. He has no political capital in Scotland. But more than that, his great inability to comprehend Scottish politics is a fatal disability.
In what has to be described as a giant understatement he wrote himself: “I was never a passionate devolutionist.” Continuing in typically confusing rhetoric he has stated: “It is a dangerous game to play. You can never be sure where nationalist sentiment ends and separatist sentiment begins.” What the No campaign needs more than anything is someone quintessentially Scottish, not someone who feels deeply uncertain about the place, the people and his own relationship. In Blair’s self-hagiography ‘A Journey’ he writes: “I was born in Scotland, my parents were raised there, we had lived there, I had been to school there, yet somehow they contrived to make me feel alien.” The ‘they’ in that sentence is revealing. Whilst Jeremy Paxman raged about the ‘Scottish Raj’ and cited Blair as one of this McMafia, few in Scotland recognised Blair as even Scottish at all.
As Nicholas Watt wrote after the SNP landslide last year: “Scotland is already detaching itself from the rest of the UK. One of the strongest examples of the parting of the ways was the role the UK Labour party played in this year’s Scottish election: none.” Now, all that’s changed. The coalition parties know it would be a disaster for them to lead the No campaign, as the Lib Dem meltdown at the local election has just shown, so they have to rely on Labour. Yet in Blair they have a politician who like George Robertson saw devolution as a means of killing nationalism, little more. These people can’t make a positive case for the union because they see home rule as a self-defence mechanism.
Then there is the wider issue is about Blair’s own enduring legacy and how this is perceived. Blair created a political persona based on openness and honesty, ‘I’m a pretty straight kinda guy’. But his political life ended with him deeply associated with cronyism and corruption.
Nor can remnant Blair acolytes point to Blair’s ‘reform agenda’ as an enduring legacy in Scotland for Blair to touch on as a unique (and elusive) ‘positive case for the Union’. As that rare breed, a Scottish Tory writer Alan Cochrane put it: “The saddest aspect of the Blair relationship with Scotland and Scottish Labour, was that it ignored the Blairite reforms on schools and hospitals.” Sad indeed, but true. Cochrane glosses over why that would be the case. The reality is that the New Labour values found little resonance in Scotland, and it would be conceivable to fight the No campaign on the back of a progressive reform government. Fighting it on the behalf of the Quad and the Bullingdon Club is a different matter.
So Labour under Johann Lamont’s competent but uninspiring leadership are caught with a unique balancing act: on one hand they can define themselves as Not New Labour and circle the wagons by carving out a defendable west coast niche, on the other they need to make alliances with the Tories to defend the Union and put forward Tony Blair as spokesman for Cool Britannia. These two approaches are very difficult to reconcile with any public credibility.
Not that Labour doesn’t have aces up it’s sleeve to play in Scotland. Devolution, minimum wage, tax credits – all good – but not from Blair. Instead he’s associated with landmark policies and actions such as PFI, Iraq, “modernisation” of public services, infringement of civil liberties, pandering to Daily Mail/Sun and as a cheerleader for a bankrupt model of globalisation. In 1999 Linda Colley briefed 10 Downing Street (‘Britishness in the Twenty-First Century’) arguing that: “Instead of being so mesmerised by debates over British identity, it would be far more productive to concentrate on renovating British citizenship, and in convincing all of the inhabitants of these islands that they are equal and valued citizens irrespective of whatever identity they may individually select to prioritise.” The problem is no-one really believes that any more.
Blair is responsible for all of this, and as such is the best possible to lead the disfigured Labour Party out of the mess of it’s own creation. What was once impregnable, deeply certain, now seems afected by the same precarity as the rest of us.
As Tom Nairn writes in After Britain (Granta, 2000): ‘The Constitution of old England-Britain once stood like a mighty dam, preserving its subjects from such a fate; nowadays, leaking on all sides, it merely guides them to the appropriate slope or exit. Blairism has reformed just enough to destabilise everything, and to make a reconsolidation of the once-sacred earth of British Sovereignty impossible. As if panicked by this realisation, his government has then begun to run round in circles groaning that enough is enough, and that well must now be left alone. The trouble is that everything is now broken – at least in the sense of being questioned, uncertain, a bit ridiculous, lacking in conviction, up for grabs, floundering, demoralised and worried about the future.’
The reality is that Darling, Kennedy and Blair are yesterday’s men, indelibly tainted by yesterday’s failures. You can almost feel the hand of history on Tony’s shoulder once again.