Wednesday 6 March 2013

The Anti-Foot

A number of readers are asking why I am so soft on Anthony Blair. They should read the words that I used with more care. ‘I cannot feel anger at Anthony Blair over the Iraq War which he still absurdly defends. I am quite sure he never understood what he was doing. Those who created him out of nothing, and those who were willingly fooled by him, are the ones to blame.’

Surely, to say that a man who was at the time Her Majesty’s First Lord of the Treasury and Prime Minister,  did not understand what he was doing is a far more devastating criticism than to rail that he was a ‘warmonger’ or ‘mass killer’ or ‘war criminal’ or whatever the crowd likes to say? What I am saying is that Mr Blair never really was a real prime minister, that he was a little squeaking figure, baffled by events, concealed inside a booming image of power.

I expect those who attack me for my supposed leniency are also the ones who keep asking (though I have answered it a dozen times) why I call him ‘Anthony’ instead of ‘Tony’. It is because it is his name. His own wife, Cherie Booth, described him as ‘the barrister, Anthony Blair’ in a leaflet issued by her, during her own failed campaign for a parliamentary seat in Margate in 1983. She surely ought to have known what he was called. It wasn’t as if she didn’t know that people called ‘Anthony’ are sometimes called ‘Tony’. She made a speech during that campaign, of which only fragments are recorded, about ‘the Two Tonys’ who had influenced her on her path to socialism. As it happens they were both present on the platform of the meeting – ‘Tony’ Benn and her father ‘Tony’ Booth. The ‘Anthony’ who had not apparently influenced her in that direction at all was sitting not on the dais but in the audience, a nobody, undistinguished either in the law, his chosen profession, or in politics, the career he hoped to pursue because he could see little future in the law, as he had recently explained to her over a glum birthday lunch, recounted in her memoirs. By the way, I repeat here my standing request, which has never yet received an answer, for anyone who was ever represented in court by Mr Blair when he was a barrister, to step forward.

But he played little part in her campaign after that for, suddenly, he too was selected, at the very last moment, for the completely safe seat of Sedgefield. Unlike his fiercely left-wing wife, he had until then failed to find a seat of his own to fight, despite a reasonably competent if awkward by-election campaign in Beaconsfield, smack in the middle of the Falklands War, during which he had been teased quite a lot by the Daily Telegraph’s then sketch-writer Godfrey Barker. He had lost his deposit. He had also won the warm endorsement of the then party leader Michael Foot, an endorsement he later did little to repay, when poor old Footy became an unperson, not to be mentioned in public, let alone honoured as a former leader of his party and, like him or not, a distinguished figure of the Left.

Now, the accepted account of Mr Blair’s selection for Sedgefield doesn’t really make sense. Somehow or other this privately-educated London barrister is supposed to have beaten the formidable left-wing brawler Les Huckfield, in a left-dominated seat. Either because of his not very gritty Northern connections;  he told them he had grown up on an ‘estate’ in Durham, which was technically true; it just hadn’t been a council estate. Or because of a letter from Michael Foot, supposedly saying he should actually be the candidate: it didn’t, it just praised his performance in Beaconsfield; the text was not read out at the crucial meeting. Or perhaps it was because of his membership of CND, something he would later get the party machine to deny on his behalf. Because the Blair of 1983 was in fact a standard-issue London leftist, whatever the legends now say.

In my view, he held those positions not out of conviction but out of protective colouration. I belonged to a London Labour Party at that time, and I opposed CND, the LCC (Labour Co-Ordinating Committee) , and the CLPD (Campaign for Labour Party Democracy), and the rest of the outfits then pushing Labour towards its current Euro-Communist, Gramscian culturally revolutionary position, madly misunderstood both by Fleet Street and by Labour’s own thicker old leftists as ‘right-wing’. And as a result I was in a very small, very disliked minority in my Labour Party at both ward and constituency level. I enjoy that sort of thing. Most people don’t. Most of the Labour Party members who felt as I then did were leaving to join the Social Democratic Party (SDP) around that time.

Round about then I first met ‘the barrister, Anthony Blair’, thanks to my wife’s membership of a body called the Society of Labour Lawyers. I think our first encounter was at a gloomy dinner at the old Great Western Hotel at Paddington. Soon afterwards, to my amusement, he turned up in Parliament, round about the time I began work as a Political (lobby) reporter for my former newspaper. It was my job to take such young, new MPs out to lunch. And, as we’d met and our wives were lawyers, and as our first children had been born about the same time, we had a sort of bond. But I couldn’t be bothered to invite him out. I felt a terrible sense of boredom at the prospect. I had an overwhelming feeling that the leader and the policy of the day would all be praised and glorified. And that, if I did the same thing a year later and the leader and the policy had altered completely, they too would be praised and glorified. And – worst of all – I suspected he wouldn’t be aware of having changed.

Was I wrong? I’ve sometimes wondered. But I don’t think so. I was never going to be part of any project to revive the Labour Party’s fortunes (by then I’d left, without regret, and rather hoped that Labour would be finished for good). Even if I had been I’d have been targeted and wooed by people more knowing than A.Blair. I’ve watched him with interest ever since and I have never heard him say anything from the heart that wasn’t banal. I feel quite differently about Alastair Campbell, a heavyweight politician whose force of mind and conviction I can respect, and an opponent I can take seriously. But modern politics could never have found room for Alastair. He’d scare away the voters who buy governments the way they buy cornflakes, by looking at the pretty box. Alastair’s not pretty. But which of the two actually ran the government?

I can’t work out what Anthony’s really interested in – you might think religion, thanks to the fuss he makes about it, but in what way? This is a man who, soon before he became a Roman Catholic, told the Pope off for having the wrong opinions on war – a subject on which the Holy See tends to speak with some authority. Well, many of us have disagreements of one kind or another with the Vatican. But we don’t then go and deliberately join the RC church, do we? He has certainly become interested in money and property, as all can see. But I don’t think that was his motivation at the time. Perhaps his dreadful rock band, ‘Ugly Rumours’, gives us a clue. (I almost had to waterboard him to tell me this name, during the one flaccid, tooth-grindingly tedious interview he ever granted me, back when he was Shadow Home Secretary.) Perhaps, what he really wanted was to be Mick Jagger, and had to settle for being ‘Tony Blair’ instead. Oddly enough, it turned out not to be that different. The warm golden glow of celebrity, an endless stream of first-class flights, flattery, and nice hotels, with all the tedious tasks of life just smoothed away, came to him in the end. Both men, interestingly, take a great deal of trouble to keep fit.

But back for a moment to Sedgefield. What if he really got the seat because various forces in the Labour establishment wanted the opposite of Michael Foot. To their fury, Foot had just survived because the Labour candidate had unexpectedly won the Darlington by-election, which almost everyone in the whole Shadow Cabinet had been hoping the party would lose. I’m reliably informed that, had Labour lost the Darlington by-election, Michael Foot would the following morning  have been confronted by a deputation of Labour potentates, urging his immediate resignation to make way for Denis Healey, which would certainly have made the 1983 general election more fun than it was.  Great was the fury among the plotters when Labour won Darlington.

But if they couldn’t get rid of Foot then, what about the future? What Labour needed was a long-term secret weapon – an anti-Foot – a telegenic young man, no walking stick, no ill-advised overcoat, no floppy white hair, no alarming sheep-like cadences in his oratory, no past, no opinions worth talking about, some acting ability desirable. Get such a young man a safe seat. Talk him up in the press. Give him a chance in front bench shadow jobs. Get him on TV. Perhaps by, oh, 1995 or so, he’d be ready to allow Labour to take revenge for all the humiliations of the Thatcher years.

Who was there? Well, nobody much. Most seriously ambitious people in the political world weren’t bothering with the Labour Party just then. If it had a future, it was a very long way off. But the Labour lawyers, an influential network, had heard of young Anthony. And they could have told the trades unions, who tend to have a large say in the selection of candidates in seats such as Sedgefield, that this was a young man worth investing in. And if that had happened, then the selection of Anthony Blair at Sedgefield, transformed into ‘Tony’ for Northern consumption, would make sense, as it doesn’t otherwise.

Would Anthony ever have come to anything without such help? Once he reached the top, would he have been anything without Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson? How much did he ever know or understand of the issues of the time? My own view, supported by one or two interesting pieces of personal information, remains, not much. I just don’t think he’s very interested in politics, much as I am not very interested in sport, But whereas you can’t succeed in sport unless you’re good at it, you can succeed in modern politics without being good at it. In fact, precisely because you’re not good at it, but are instead good at the tricks of marketing and presentation that so many voters seem only too willing to be seduced by.

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