‘Before we do any-thing, let me tell you this. It is out of the lore and experience of the ancients and of all those who have studied the powers of the UnDead. When they become such, there comes with the change the curse of immortality. They cannot die, but must go on age after age adding new victims and multiply-ing the evils of the world. For all that die from the preying of the Undead become themselves Undead, and prey on their kind. And so the circle goes on ever widening, like as the ripples from a stone thrown in the water… ”
— Van Helsing, Dr. Steward‘s Diary, 29 September; Dracula, Chapter 16
Though it’s been in the news this week, people may have forgotten that as long as November last year Tony Blair started trailing his political comeback. Nothing is unplanned. The Sunday Times reported then that: “The controversial former Prime Minister is engineering a comeback because he feels he can fill a political vacuum caused by Theresa May being a “light weight” and Jeremy Corbyn being a “nutter”. A source said Mr Blair is sourcing premises near Westminster in order to relocate 130 staff to the UK’s political hub.” In a recent interview with the Mirror, Blair said he’s ready to “get his hands dirty” again in the rough and tumble of frontline political life. In an another interview with the Daily Mirror, Blair said, “I am going to be taking an active part in trying to shape the policy debate [on Brexit] and that means getting out into the country and reconnecting.” And now it’s come out that Lib Dem boss Tim Farron held secret talks with Tony Blair about forming an anti-Brexit alliance.
The Undead are rising.
We’re rewriting the history books, glorying in unfettered nostalgia and quietly lying to ourselves. We’re being asked to remember Blair’s era as one of saintly social justice, peace and prosperity, all BritPop and post-Diana gushyness. We’re looking back fondly to a time when the mug clenched in Tony’s hand didn’t have ‘Controls on Immigration’ written on it.
The praise and sycophancy is already pouring forth.
Andrew Rawnsley of the Observer gushes: “Blair has always deployed a charming line in self-deprecation, but today it is allied with a passionate desire to remind people of the many advances made possible only by his unique feat of winning three back-to-back terms for his party.”
Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland is giddy already: “They all remember the sunshine. Talk to those who were there on 1 May 1997, and everyone mentions the way the whole country seemed to glow under bright blue skies and a warm sun.”
Someone called Jack May can hardly contain himself in The Independent:
“Tony Blair is a titan figure in our national history, and while his past is by no means uncomplicated – the four-letter word that Corbynites use instead of rational argument – his is a legacy that should be celebrated, remembered, and welcomed into the contemporary political conversation about our national future. Lovers of reason and the sensible middle way, rejoice! Twenty years after that landslide election kicked the Fellowship of New Labour into action, and ten years after he stood down as Prime Minister after The Two Towers and the ensuing mess of the Iraq war, we come to the third instalment of the Tony Blair saga: The Return of the King.”
A host of acolytes are circling and jostling to re-annoint him. We can expect a lot more of this in the coming weeks, both in the run up to the general election and in its aftermath. Indeed many of Blair’s former colleagues are actively campaigning against Corbyn. They would rather the Tories won than have Labour make some headway.
Iraq, a Personal Legacy
Undeterred by the devastating verdict of Chilcott, Blair is impervious to public opinion and has unshackled by self-reflection or remorse. The ex-PM, described recently as ‘a rapacious psychotic narcissist’ would be eagerly welcomed by a band of MPs, ex-MPs, hacks and spin-doctors, who would relish the return of their master.
Whilst those with short memories blame the entire Labour collapse on the shoulders of Jeremy Corbyn and Diane Abbott, they forget that the party was led into disrepute and then electoral collapse because they were unable to re-invent themselves from the rubble of the Blair-Brown era.
The Blairite candidates that they pushed forward after their re-tread Miliband failed spectacularly were utterly hopeless and completely unable to articulate a political vision. It’s also airbrushed out of history that whilst electorally successful, Labour’s vote plummeted to 9.5million from 13.5million between the 1997 and 2005 elections. That didn’t have anything to do with Jeremy Corbyn. Their membership walked away, a whole generation of people were disillusioned with politics or turned-on to independence.
They are about to lose Glasgow. Glasgow.
As Kevin McKenna writes (‘Labour’s aimless stroll towards oblivion in Glasgow‘):
“Labour is facing a catastrophic defeat in Glasgow by the SNP, deserted by its most loyal supporters and betrayed by a Scottish leadership that would struggle to find Sauchiehall Street on a satnav.”
Flailing around for a new formula, the incubus of New Labour may be about to attempt a re-birth. Whether it can find life without its host will be interesting to see. If he is successful in self-rehabilitation it will be an extraordinary failure for the public imagination and confirmation that the moral compass of British politics is dead. It will be proof that actions have no consequences and the political elite are free todo whatever they want to. Let’s be clear, Tony Blair was responsible for the most appalling foreign policy disaster of the last hundred years, and the consequences for the Iraq war have been spiralling for the ever since, destabilising the entire region and transforming British foreign policy to this day. What we have seen is the descent into barbarism. Where leaders rule without moral restraint, legal redress or ethical direction.
Writing in New Left Review and reflecting on the whole New Labour period back in 2010 Tony Wood wrote:
“Far from being a lesser evil, in this sphere Labour has presided over greater slaughter than any of its predecessors. Casualties from Macmillan’s colonial wars in Kenya and Aden totalled perhaps 20,000; Thatcher’s apotheosis in the Falklands came at the cost of just under 1,000 lives; the first Gulf War, in which Major participated, killed some 25,000 Iraqis. New Labour’s wars—Sierra Leone, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq—put these appalling figures into the shade. (1) The full death-toll of civilians will never be known, but is probably close to three-quarters of a million; reason enough in itself for Labour to be thrown out of office.”
He continues: “Blunkett mounted serial assaults on civil liberties, while he and other ministers vied in their hostility towards migrants. Between 2002 and 2009, Parliament passed four Acts on terrorism, six on policing and crime, five on immigration and asylum, and one introducing a system of national ID cards. The brunt of the upsurge in invasive policing, surveillance and suspicion was borne by Muslims, both British and foreign nationals—a form of officialized persecution that eclipsed anything experienced at the height of the IRA’s mainland campaigns. The depths to which Labour’s racist policy had brought the country was starkly illustrated in 2005 when, in the aftermath of the July 7 bombings, London police stormed onto an Underground carriage and shot a Brazilian electrician eight times, later explaining that they thought he was a Muslim.”
If anybody is guilty of generating the toxic political culture of today, it’s not Nigel Farage or Michael Gove (please), it’s the confused and morbid populism of Blair. Farage was just the disgraceful little racist, the Poundshop Moseley with his eye on the big-time, the fecal by-product of a half-century of far-right Tory rhetoric and public schoolboy imbecilism. It’s Blair who created the pathway to privatising the entire economy and the narrative about British exceptionalism. Now he’s being resurrected as gatekeeper to the hallowed ‘centre ground’.
But this isn’t just about bad decisions and fealty to US imperialism. This is about the distorting impact of obscene wealth.
Ken Silverstein, author of The Secret World of Oil suggests:
“No one knows for sure just how much money Blair has made, but the Financial Times estimated that in 2011 alone he raked in at least $30 million in speaking fees and for advising governments and corporations. He and his wife own seven homes, including a £40 million (approximately $64 million), seven-bedroom property once owned by Sir John Gielgud. Blair’s transformation into a human cash register has outraged many in Britain, and all the more so as he continues to collect a pension and allowance for a private office that costs taxpayers more than £122,000 (approximately $200,000) per year. Blair’s “love of money” has brought about his complete “moral decline and fall,” Nick Cohen wrote in a column in the Observer. […]”
So Blair is compromise not just because of his appalling legacy, but the fact that he has now personally entered the class of the filthy-rich, and the manner with which this wealth was amassed can’t be swept aside. Using a series of trading companies and fronts Blair has created a bewildering mass of consultancy, charity and political advice, often with the most questionable regimes possible, blurred lines everywhere.
At the top of his business operations is BDBCO No. 819 Ltd, a company that in turn owns a clutch of other companies called either Windrush or Firerush. His profitmaking affairs are administered by Tony Blair Associates (TBA). TBA is the trading name for a network of companies, limited liability partnerships and limited partnerships, one half under the Windrush Ventures umbrella, and the other under “Firerush Ventures”.
Windrush is the entity for Mr Blair’s governmental advisory work, while Firerush is the vehicle that offers consultancy services to firms and sovereign wealth funds.
From J.P. Morgan – where he reputedly earned £3 million year to Zurich Insurance where he advised on climate change for a paltry salary of just £180,000 a year, to advising Bernard Arnault, the head of a French luxury-goods conglomerate, whom he’d once entertained at Chequers, the period ‘out of politics’ has been fantastically lucrative and remarkably political.
In 2016 the Telegraph reported that “Despite receiving tens of millions of pounds in fees from private clients around the world, his financial affairs can appear as complex and opaque as his global influence is remarkable. The former prime minister, his wife Cherie and older children Euan, Nicky and Kathryn, now control a property empire covering some 10 homes across England and worth in excess of £25 million.”
Does any of this matter, is any of this new?
Probably not, all of this is in the public domain. But it is worth reminding those resurrecting him as a progressive social democrat figure that these entanglements, even if they don’t have the stomach to face his military legacy, can’t sit easily with the idea of him as force for social good. Unless, as remains possible, the resurrectionists go down the Trump line of saying “I’m so wealthy I can’t be bought”.
In March 2003, just before Britain went to war, Shell denounced reports that it had held talks with Downing Street about Iraqi oil as “highly inaccurate”. BP denied that it had any “strategic interest” in Iraq, while Tony Blair described “the oil conspiracy theory” as “most absurd”.
It turns out that just five months before the March 2003 invasion, Baroness Symons, then the Trade Minister, told BP that the Government believed British energy firms should be given a share of Iraq’s enormous oil and gas reserves as a reward for Tony Blair’s military commitment to US plans for regime change.
The papers show that Lady Symons agreed to lobby the Bush administration on BP’s behalf because the oil giant feared it was being “locked out” of deals that Washington was quietly striking with US, French and Russian governments and their energy firms.
Minutes of a meeting with BP, Shell and BG (formerly British Gas) on 31 October 2002 read: “Baroness Symons agreed that it would be difficult to justify British companies losing out in Iraq in that way if the UK had itself been a conspicuous supporter of the US government throughout the crisis.”
If you choose politicians solely because they ‘can defeat the Conservatives’ but without a programme, a set of ideas, a movement or an alternative, you end up replacing the government but not the governing ideology. That’s how we got New Labour in the first place.
Further to the scurrilous reputation that stains Blair as Ben Wray points out, replacing an unelectable ideologue of the left with an electable ideologue of the right, won’t guarantee anything.
Labour need someone who can grasp the national question, not just handle a soundbite. Wray writes:
“Constitutional politics is politics at the level of state structure and organisation. It goes beyond policy making within the existing framework of government power – it’s politics that questions the very way in which government and democracy itself is constituted. Constitutional politics is not in and of itself left or right – it is a battleground in which left or right fight on. Avoiding the constitutional battle is in effect surrendering the terrain to your opponent, i.e. defeat.”
It’s why you have the groundhog of Labour voices speculating bout ‘Federalism’, having been trapped in a shallow one-dimensional policy world for so long, structural change seems just beyond the horizon. Even simple things like House of the Lords reform aresunthinkable for a party shackled in liberal tinkering.
New Labour Again
Like a recurring nightmare, ‘New Labour’ (or a variant strain) may attempt to return to the political fold in the wake of the probable Corbyn defeat, possibly outside the body of the original host.
Those Labour members, who have been trying to unseat their leader ever since he was elected, will use this as a convenient opportunity to jump ship and start New Labour 2.0 or Social Democrats 3.0, probably with: some waffle about a ‘digital economy’; some great branding; maybe some token decentralist puff-rhetoric thrown in around some jazzy ‘citizenship’ jargon; and a good bit of pro-European spiel to draw in Remoaners.
If Marx was right that history repeats itself, “the first as tragedy, then as farce”, then a Blair return would be confirmation. For an un-convicted war criminal to emerge from ignominy and wipe history clean propelled by the promise of electoral success would be a tribute to the shallow greedy and hopeless society he helped create.
But Blair’s problem is not just his own personal legacy, it is that Britain has fundamentally changed. We’ve aged a lot in just ten years, and, frankly, grown apart.
There will be an attempt in resurrection to reconnect Tony Blair ™ with New Britain™. After all May’s ‘Global Britain’ is just a stones throw away from Blair’s ‘Britain an island nation …a young nation’. But like Draugr, Jiangshi or the Revenant, it’s difficult to square Youth with being Undead. Pairing Blair with Britain is like repositioning the ‘island nation’ as Atlantis and Britannia as the Mary Celeste, but I’m sure they’ll make a go of it.
Blair’s own youthful energy as Bambi has been dissipated by the hellholes of the Middle East, and the collapse of the PFI model.
The former lawyer Joshua Rozenburg noted of the Iraq Historic Allegations Team (Ihat) that: “…by the end of May 2016, Ihat had received 3,363 allegations of potential criminal behaviour. After sifting out cases that did not amount to criminal offences, Ihat is now considering – or has considered – 325 allegations of unlawful killing and 1,343 allegations of ill-treatment, ranging from serious sexual assault to common assault” (‘The Iraq war inquiry has left the door open for Tony Blair to be prosecuted’).
The investigation unit has now been shut down.
Britain was changed by the Iraq catastrophe, not just in a destabilised Middle East, a permanently insecure foreign policy, but by a collapse in the institutions and offices of politics, and a generation motivated towards ending the British State.
But it’s on the very idea of a ‘Brexit resistance’ that the Blairite resurrectionists bank most of their money. Sure he was pro-European and of course there will be a longing for a more competent figure than Corbyn (hardly difficult) and a huge groundswell against the emerging Brexit shambles, but as John Wight notes, it’s not quite as easy as that:
“On the issue of the EU specifically, who will gainsay the fact that Blair is the very embodiment of the free market neoliberal status quo, premised on globalization, which has fueled support not only for Brexit, but also the emergence and rise of anti-EU parties and politicians throughout Europe. The abandonment of the working class and their communities in service to the super-rich, to global corporations and the banks, allowing them free rein, led directly to the global economic crash of 2008, which plunged millions of people into poverty and despair. And yet despite this we are expected to believe that Blair and his ilk hold the solution to the very problems they created?”
None of this really matters.
Any new party emerging after the general election will need cash – and if Blair has anything to give it’s a lot of lolly. Money talks. There are three ingredients that may pave the way back into the political ‘mainstream’ for Tony Blair.
First, given the political opportunism of his former colleagues any of the political, moral or financial actions listed above are unlikely to trouble them much. Once you’re operating as a value-free agent with the aim of gaining power, nothing else really matters.
Second, their is a host of political commentators waiting in the wings to re-master this uncomfortable past and re-package it as personal story of redemption, a ‘Journey’ and as a return to the ‘balance’ of the ‘Mother of all Parliaments’. Britain needs a ‘functioning opposition’ will be the words you’ll hear most often. And, of course, Jeremy Corbyn is useless, even if he is right on many things.
Third, everyone forgets and forgets quickly. This serves a function.
Resisting memory-loss and holding elite power to account is essential.
1) Estimates of casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq vary widely; a conservative total for the former, based on press reports and UN figures (the Bush government made a point of refusing to assess Afghan casualties), would be at least 20,000 killed since 2001; for the latter, the most credible survey was in 2006, and gave a post-2003 figure of 654,965: see Gilbert Burnham et al., ‘Mortality after the 2003 invasion of Iraq’, The Lancet, 21–27 October 2006, pp. 1421–28. It would be sheer casuistry to apportion only a percentage of these casualties to the UK government, given its role in campaigning for the invasions.