Time to get off Tony Blair’s foreign policy bendy bus

by Jonathan Todd

I’ve tried to watch West Wing but, pace Westminster, always found it too hackneyed to endure. It may be an equally unutterable thing to say, at least within the beltway, but Armando Iannucci’s the Thick of It is becoming tired and predictable.

While we may be too gushing in our praise for Malcolm Tucker et al, Iannucci’s Time Trumpet never got the recognition it deserved or – in a case, given that Iannucci is one of the writers of Alan Partridge, of life imitating art – a second series.

Time Trumpet is a spoof documentary that purports to look back on 2007 from 2031. Tony Blair features near the start of the first episode. Iannucci’s commentary says:

“And we look back at this madman and how he ended up 20 years later dementedly wandering round the bins of downtown Baghdad.”

A dishevelled chap, the Blair of 2027, then appears and mumbles to himself:

“Further down the bendy bus, have your money ready please.”

All of which may be offensive to Blair and his most ardent supporters. While I am a Blair fan – he is, after all, the longest serving Labour prime minister ever, responsible for a tremendous amount of positive change – I cannot stop myself finding Time Trumpet hilarious.

We shouldn’t take ourselves or our heroes too seriously. And nor should we think our heroes beyond reproach.

We should – more than five years after he ceased to be party leader – be capable of having a mature debate about Blair. In some senses, this debate has already been had. Hopi Sen is right that it is Gordon Brown’s time as leader, rather than Blair’s, that has been under scrutinised and debated within the party.

However, debate about Blair has often generated more heat than light. Calm consideration has been particularly lacking around one part of Blair’s legacy in particular, a part that the Labour Party continues to live in the shadows of, foreign policy.

The party, for the most part, does not rush to defend Iraq – quite the opposite – but was relieved by the departure of Gaddafi – if the manner of his death troubled some of us – and is as horrified by events in Syria as it is bemused by Afghanistan. All of which adds up to a pretty pickled picture.

It may be that out of the crooked timber of Labour party opinion, no consistent foreign policy will ever be made. In my waking moments at my GC, it can seem that way to me. Maybe that’s part of the reason a mature debate about Blair’s foreign policy has never been had. We know that passions run high and views are sharply divergent, so it just seems destructive and pointless to bother.

But here’s why we should make the effort: first, Kevin Meagher is right that Chilcot remains the test of Labour’s new unity; second, unless we, as a party, can come to some settled views on core foreign policy dilemmas, we will always be hobbled in our ability to respond to pressing foreign policy questions.

We need to do our homework before these questions emerge to avoid being exposed when they do. It may be helpful in this regard to think through some of the central criticisms that have been made around Iraq and consider what these thoughts might imply for the future.

The legality of Iraq is contested as vehemently by some as the responsibility to protect is upheld by others. It would seem to me as heartless to deny this responsibility as it is misguided to belittle the importance of international law. The strongest supporters of this responsibility are quite open in their willingness if necessary to ride roughshod over the UN – particularly, in contexts, such as in current debates over Syria, where they feel the right course of action is being frustrated by states, such as China and Russia, that they view as not respecting the fundamental rights that the responsibility seeks to uphold.

However, as we face a myriad of interconnected global problems, it is vital that institutions of international law remain inclusive and universal. We would degrade this capacity if we seek false solutions outside the UN. Instead, reforming the UN to more consistently uphold the responsibility to protect – as well as better reflect the changed balance of global power created by “the rise of the rest” – should be our aim.

This responsibility should, though, be tempered by humility. In retrospect, many aspects of the campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq could have been better executed. Nonetheless, in different ways, these campaigns have both exposed limits to the extent to which change can be imposed from without upon complex societies.

Our objectives should, in future, be specific, realistic and time-limited, as well as achievable in ways that we can be confident will improve upon the counterfactual of non-intervention. It is a tragic nonsense that we’ve been in Afghanistan for ten years and many politicians, who support our presence there, cannot say what we are doing.

Both the responsibility to protect and the UN should be revered by an internationalist party like Labour. But we need to be more precise about the circumstances in which we would intervene to uphold this responsibility and more urgent in our promptings for UN reform. Otherwise, we will keep going in circles on Blair’s bendy bus.

Next I’m going to write about Lady Gaga.

Jonathan Todd is Labour Uncut’s economic columnist

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3 Responses to “Time to get off Tony Blair’s foreign policy bendy bus”

  1. Robert says:

    I agree that we should be able to look at Blair objectively but my view of him will always be predominantly negative. Labour did win three times under his leadership but the Tory Party was unelectable until Cameron became leader. I also believe that Kinnock and Smith had already made Labour electable by the time Blair became leader.

    I used to think that Iraq ruined Blair’s reputation. I am not so sure now, because we know that the economic policies of his governments were flawed. They resulted in the worst economic crisis for a generation, including a massive deficit. In addition to being a neo-liberal, Blair was also extremely authoritarian on civil liberties.

    Lots of good policies were implemented by the Labour governments after 1997. My impression, however, is that these were implemented despite Blair, because most of them were inherited from Kinnock and Smith. So my view is that Blair was not left of centre in any meaningful sense and his governments got most of the big issues wrong.

  2. Rob the cripple says:

    Ah yes the longest serving leader of labour, and it may well be a long time before we see another one.

    Gosh poor old Millionaire Blair.

  3. Clem the Gem says:

    Never much of a fan of Blair to be honest, but reaction to Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo, Yugoslavia etc. also throws up the most hideous idiocy within the wider left.
    Having started out as opposing the war, pretty much as a visceral reaction to George W Bush, I found it increasingly impossible to support an anti war movement that cheered on some of the most reactionary forces ever seen. To a large extent, the western antis have been indulging in a decade long emotional spasm – mainly at the expense of their counterparts in the middle east and the third world.

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