By A. N. Wilson, the author, most recently, of “Betjeman: A Life” (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 10/05/07):
A LITTLE over a decade after he came in as the young hope of a New Britain, Tony Blair, who is expected to announce his resignation date today, is a figure vilified and loathed by his own party and disliked by people in Britain at large.
There is, however, one good legacy he bequeaths us, and we should not be ungenerous in recognizing it. That is peace in Ireland. Both sides in the Northern Irish dispute hate the English, and both have good reason to do so. This hatred was a substantial reason successive British prime ministers, many of them doing their very best to undo the mistakes of the past, got nowhere with the Irish.
But the hatred was only part of the reason. Another was the phenomenon of language. The Ireland of James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Oscar Wilde, Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams is a place where words bounce, and fly and sing, often meaning several things at once, sometimes meaning nothing at all. Expecting the various parties in Northern Ireland to negotiate with such solidly Aristotelian figures as Margaret Thatcher simply wasn’t fair. Her word was her bond. Of course, both sides became entrenched behind barricades not only of barbed wire but of discourse.
Mr. Blair, however, is a boundlessly superficial person, and he was perfectly happy to swim about in the weird world of Irish politics where words could mean anything you liked. Most of his sentences would be untranslatable. They were even delivered in quite different accents, as though he was more than one person, which in a way he is.
This multifaceted quality was very useful in Ireland. He is a naturally pleasant, polite person. And he has courage. These qualities have been an essential ingredient in the Irish peace process. They have led to the Alice in Wonderland situation we now have, in which the government of Northern Ireland has been placed in the hands of two sworn enemies — the extreme Protestant minister Ian Paisley and the former I.R.A. guerrilla Martin McGuinness.
In other areas of British life, where you might have expected a politician of Mr. Blair’s apparent élan and ambition to make a difference, he has made no impact whatever. One of his weirdest displays of oratory — delivered this time by Mr. Blair in his role as semi-tearful revivalist preacher — was that he would “heal the wounds” of Africa. That was Blair the Redeemer.
Then there was Blair the Efficient, who told us he would improve the educational system, transportation, hospitals: in all these areas, Britain is in a parlous state, with railway accident rates reminding us of the 19th century and true literacy levels much lower than those of the Victorians. As many as one-quarter of British parents now pay for ruinously expensive private education for the children. That is the measure of Mr. Blair’s success with the schools.
Being a man of quick though skin-deep intelligence, Mr. Blair found out very quickly that there are in fact fewer and fewer areas over which British politicians, perhaps any politicians, have control in today’s world.
The economy in Britain has been so successful over the last decade because politicians have at long last had so little to do with it. Our Bank of England, rather than our Treasury, has controlled the interest rates. The largely non-British City of London, most of whose firms and institutions are now in American, German or Japanese control, is the bubbling center of British wealth, and has nothing to do with Mr. Blair or his likely successor, Gordon Brown, the chancellor of the Exchequer.
To make an impact — and there is no doubt that Mr. Blair wanted to make an impact as prime minister — he could play on only two stages: the theater of Europe as a member of the European Union, and that of the wider world as an acolyte of the United States. He quickly discovered that Europe was too amorphous for him to stand out beside the bigger players, especially beside the president of France, Jacques Chirac. It was inevitable that he would emerge as the Odd Man Out of Europe, the one who supported President Bush in his Middle Eastern adventures.
Some people think he did so out of religious conviction. Maybe. Commentators make much of Mr. Blair’s religion, but it has never been an issue of public importance in Britain, and it has made no obvious impact on his policies. (Abortion, the rights of gay couples to marry and adopt children, the rights of religious schools to determine their own curriculum — in all these areas the laws enacted by the Blair government have gone against the expressed views of the Roman Catholic Church, to which his wife belongs and which it is rumored he wishes to join.)
Iraq has been a fiasco, but I think he got involved in the calamity because, once again, he is superficial, decent and brave. The superficiality made him think it would be a quick and easy operation, like the military action in 2000 in Sierra Leone, where the British Army nipped in and out to remove a rogue warlord.
Alas, his disregard for truth — indeed it seems very unlikely he even quite knows what truth is in this case — led him to think it did not matter what reason he gave for sending in the troops. You have to concede that he has been brave in his unwavering support for the war, but not so brave as the many people who have died as a result of his and President Bush’s calamitous mistake.