Ever since I was 11 or 12 years old, Tony Blair has been a constant, leering presence in my life. Even now – a full decade after he resigned as prime minister of the UK and leader of the Labour Party – he’s virtually inescapable; a relentless voice in the global media demanding my attention through the sheer, overwhelming force of its celebrity. He’s quoted at length in GQ and The New Yorker on Brexit and Trump. He clogs-up the British press with his views on Jeremy Corbyn and Emmanuel Macron. He’s soft-balled on CNN and gushed over on Morning Joe. He wants and expects me to take him seriously – on terror, and Palestine, and free trade – and yet I keep hearing rumours that he destroyed Rupert Murdoch’s marriage.
I would be more inclined to listen to Blair if I wasn’t British, or if he didn’t freely admit that he has absolutely no idea what’s going on. “I’m not sure I fully understand politics right now,” he confessed in 2016, “which is an odd thing to say, having spent my life in it.” What confuses him, apparently, is the current popularity of politicians, like Jeremy Corbyn, who don’t adhere to the rules he established for the centre-left in the 1990s. These rules can be easily summarised: capitulate to the economic status-quo, and then turn passionately on the constituencies that elected you.
Blair’s passion has generated a whole lot of trouble for a whole lot of people. By the time he left office, in June 2007, he was hated. It was visceral. I remember it well, because one of his last political acts was to visit Scotland during a provincial (or ‘devolved’) election campaign. He was so utterly radioactive by then that his Scottish Labour colleagues begged him not to come. He came anyway – and for the first time in 50 years Labour lost an election in Scotland. The result was a nationalist government that has taken Britain itself to the brink of destruction. And that is just one aspect of Blair’s legacy: a terminally fractured union, a country that can barely stand the sight of its own company.
I never met Blair, but I did see him in the flesh once. It was at a prime ministerial question and answer session in the House of Commons. I was 16 or 17, and I was sitting in the public gallery, looking down at the government front benches, which, even at that late stage in the Blair era, were still stacked with New Labour loyalists: Jack Straw, Patricia Hewitt, Margaret Beckett, Geoff Hoon. Blair’s dispatch-box opponent was a very bald, very Catholic Tory who, as part of a subsequent Conservative administration, would go on to implement some of the most punitive cuts to the British welfare system ever made. Blair wasn’t flawless that day, or even particularly impressive. He was just Blair. The same Blair I had always known. I left knowing him the exact same amount.
Some people find Blair charismatic. Like Bill Clinton, he is said to possess a unique political talent; a deep natural gift for communication that enabled him to become the only Labour leader in history to win three general elections in a row. He still has a few hardcore supporters in Britain. Most of them are journalists: commentators and editors who remain profoundly committed to open markets and the EU, and who covered the revival and ‘professionalisation’ of Labour after Foot, Kinnock, and Smith. But I don’t find Blair charismatic. I don’t find him affable or charming or erudite. I find his entire aesthetic – the leathery tan, the liquid grey eyes, the heavily coached and calculated hand gestures – tremendously unsettling.
This, I’m sure, is generational. Blair’s followers fought their formative political battles 30 years ago, when Labour was a mess and the Tories intended to run Britain indefinitely. For them, he was a saviour. But I grew-up with Blair in power, and watched as he lurched from one insane policy announcement to another. It wasn’t just Iraq and the War on Terror and 90 days detention without charge. It was the immense strategic stupidity of his entire project. Blair slashed benefit payments for single mothers. He refused to regulate the financial services industry. He oversaw a massive increase in the prison population. He even allowed his ministers to accuse immigrant kids of “swamping” British schools. The net effect – inevitably – was to demoralise the left and bolster the right, dragging Britain even further into a political ditch.
Watching him now, I’m not convinced that he knows why people hate him or how extensive that hatred is. Whenever he comments on something, he does so with an air of strange blissful detachment, as though he didn’t run Europe’s second largest economy for ten years, and as though the competing populisms of Trump, Corbyn, and Brexit aren’t an explicit response to the failures of the political and economic experiment that he himself defiantly championed. “If I’m with a group of Democrats in the US and I even suggest there might be an area in which the Trump administration could do good, people just go mental,” he remarked over the summer. “The left media finds it very hard to be objective on Trump.”
This tendency seems dissociative; an internal mechanism for managing and mitigating guilt. But you only have to manage guilt if you actually feel guilty. Blair tends to say the right things. He will nod contritely in an interview. But if he really felt even the slightest twinge of shame or embarrassment for the vast amounts of disorder he has brought into this world, he couldn’t possibly justify subjecting me, year after year, to his inane, condescending chunks of insight and advice. He would, instead, do the only appropriate thing under the circumstances: he would leave me alone to cope with the disorder on my own terms, as an adult, free from his endless, badgering, sub-parental intrusions.
But Blair simply cannot stop himself. It’s compulsive. That’s why he haunts Davos and the global climate summits, lunches with Jared Kushner, dishes out analysis on Hamas and Netanyahu, and asks us to give the Trump White House a fair hearing. His ideas veer from the contradictory to the cynical. He once even cited the Arab Spring in defence of the Iraq War: “Just think what would be happening if these Arab revolutions were continuing now and Saddam, who’s probably 20 times as bad as Assad in Syria, was trying to suppress an uprising?” But none of that really matters. He doesn’t care if we clock his bullshit. He’s not trying to enlighten anyone. He just wants us to listen.
I’ve been listening to Tony Blair for 20 years – two thirds of my entire life. I’ve been a permanent, conscripted member of his audience since 1997. There was a brief period when the audience was willing. For a while, Blair caught the zeitgeist. Britain wanted rid of the Tories, and Labour seemed like a fresh, plausible, optimistic alternative. That was a very long time ago. In the decades that followed, the UK changed beyond recognition, and nearly everything that made Blair politically attractive became discredited. He lost one argument after another, on foreign intervention, inequality, and the free market. All the old rules were mashed-up and thrown away right in front of him. And yet he adamantly refused to accept his rapidly collapsing status or his vanishing ideological credibility. He could have left at any time, and let us all go. He could have exited the stage with a little bit of dignity. Instead, he’s still standing there, and I’m still sitting there, and for as long as I’m still sitting there, he’s going to continue talking.