In his just published autobiography, Tony Blair tells the story of a passenger jet that breached closed British airspace in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. A senior RAF commander was following the plane which was out of contact and heading towards London. The commander was awaiting instruction from Downing St to shoot it down. As recounted in "A Journey" (published yesterday) Blair said he talked with his advisors for several minutes “trying desperately to get an instinct as to whether this was threat or mishap”. When the deadline came, Blair decided to wait. “Moments later the plane regained contact. It had been a technical error,” Blair wrote. “I needed to sit down and thank God for that one.”
Blair’s desperation for a sign of “instinct” is almost as telling a factor as his gratitude to “God” for the way it eventually passed without incident. Blair is ultimate proof of John Gray’s suggestion in Black Mass modern politics is merely a chapter in the history of religion. While Blair initially recoiled with desperate horror against the possibility of making a preemptive strike against someone who may or may not be a threat, such decisions grew a lot easier for him in the years that followed. 9/11 was a watershed moment for Blair, as much as it was for the Bush administration as it marked a time when Gray said foreign policy would be shaped by Utopian thinking.
Blair always had a strong dash of neo-liberalism to go with his strong powers of faith. He came to the Labour leadership in 1994 when the party had been out of office for 15 years. He inherited Margaret Thatcher’s total belief in the power of the markets. John Gray said Thatcher’s aim of destroying socialism in Britain assisted Blair in his political rise. By dismantling the Labour settlement that had served Britain since the end of World War II, she removed the chief reason for the existence of the Conservative Party. Without an enemy, it lacked identity. Blair’s “New Labour” easily stepped into its shoes and deprived them of relevance for a decade.
As the 1997 British election proved, strategy and organisation were more important than policy. Once he won, Blair carried on Thatcher’s privatisation agenda moving it into the justice system and prison service while also making the NHS and schools subject to market forces. In his early international dealings he advocated a “doctrine of international community” which reflected the “end of history” thesis that infected much 1990s intellectual thought. It was destroyed with the towers on 11 September 2001 and exposed Blair’s more naked belief in the power of good intentions to triumph regardless of flaw in the execution.
Like Bush, Blair saw his destiny as the unfolding of providential design. The neocons in the White House made it abundantly clear to him on a Camp David visit in April 2002 the Afghan War would be a sideshow and Iraq was the real target. The Foreign Office knew the case for war was a thin one; Saddam was little threat and had no weapons to speak of. Yet by the time of the 23 July Downing Street Memo, he accepted the advice of MI6 war was inevitable and “intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy”.
He cautioned Bush to seek UN support but in January 2003 Bush told him plainly the US was invading with or without a resolution. Bush offered Blair the opportunity to pull out given the strong anti-war rhetoric in the UK but Blair pledged his support. Blair actively covered up any intelligence that contradicted the official line Iraq was a major threat that had to be stopped. The March 2002 Iraq Options paper produced by the Cabinet Office and the February 2003 Defence Intelligence Staff document both said there was no justification for invasion. All they succeeded in doing was to get Blair to shift the case to arguments about WMDs where intelligence could be more easily manipulated.
Blair wasn’t interested in the facts. Armed with his dogged Utopian belief in the ineluctable nature of progress, he screened out inconvenient data. Blair was only interested in faith-based intelligence that supported his moral imperative. As the disasters unfolded in the aftermath of invasion such as Abu Ghraib and extraordinary rendition, Blair kept silent. Again Gray: “Deception is justified if it advances human progress...Blair’s untruths are not true lies. They are prophetic glimpses of the future course of history and they carry the hazards of all such revelations.”
Blair’s militant faith in human progress brought him eventually to the political abyss. His was a true enlightenment view of unending human progress. In his ten years as Prime Minister his overriding concern was the shaping of public opinion to support his beliefs and his lies became an integral feature of government function. Despite winning three elections, he is remembered only as a Bush lackey. Both men practiced missionary politics and saw their goal as the salvation of humankind.
The difference was Bush could do faith better than Blair in a country with a lot more millenarian tendencies than the UK. An American Lt Col in Fallujah could get away with saying the war was “battle against Satan”; a British General in Basrah could not. But both Britain and the US have now left the country. Iraq turned out not to be a Utopian project after all.