Tony Blair, Iraq and the struggle for the British left: Why the U.K.'s political soap opera is important

Tony Blair apologizes for Iraq — but says he'd do it all over again — while the Labor Party threatens to implode

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published July 6, 2016 10:58PM (EDT)

This is why the British hate Tony Blair. (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)
This is why the British hate Tony Blair. (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)

Two nations divided by a common language, as the old joke about Britain and America holds — and two nations haunted by the mistakes of the recent past, each now facing an unexpected and potentially calamitous political crisis. I suppose it’s no surprise that Britain and the United States serve as distorted reflections of each other, given how closely intertwined we are by history. It’s a paradoxical relationship: We’ve been the master rather than the dog for at least the last 70 years, but deep inside we’ll always be the uncouth colony that got away, and never quite mastered the use of knife and fork. We often notice the differences more than the similarities: Britain is an old country and America still a young one; Britain has the Royal Family and national health insurance and low rates of gun violence and public TV that the public actually watches.

So, no, the gripping drama of political meltdown in Britain that has followed the public vote to leave the European Union is not exactly the same as the American horror-show of 2016. But, man, is it full of familiar echoes. As I (and many others) observed in the aftermath of the recent referendum, Brexit is the British translation for Donald Trump — a bit more polite, and shaped by the peculiar regional politics of the multinational United Kingdom, but expressing much the same set of frustrations. Both major political parties in both countries now find themselves beset by internal division and turmoil, although at least on the surface Britain’s ruling Conservatives are in much better shape than the Republicans, while (surprisingly) the left-center Labor Party is in much worse shape than the Democrats.

Over the last two weeks, moderates among the Labor Party’s members of Parliament have tried to stage a coup against left-wing party leader Jeremy Corbyn, who was elected to his post just 10 months ago by an overwhelming majority of the party’s registered membership. That’s a peculiar situation that couldn’t quite happen in the U.S., but it bears some relationship to the Bernie Sanders-Hillary Clinton split in the Democratic Party, and also to the conflict between leadership classes and base voters that has roiled both major American parties.

Furthermore, the anti-Corbyn plot — depending on your perspective, it’s either an anti-democratic power grab or a heroic effort to rescue Labor from hard-left electoral doom — is not entirely unconnected to this week’s even bigger British news. I mean the release of the “Chilcot report,” the end product of an eight-year independent inquiry into Britain’s decision to go to war in Iraq, largely at the behest of the U.S. This enormous data dump, which runs to 12 published volumes and 2.6 million words, has variously been described as a “scathing verdict” and a “devastating critique” directed at former Prime Minister Tony Blair, a ghost from the recent past that most Britons (and especially most Laborites) would like to stay buried.

There are anomalies heaped on top of anomalies here. Britain is the country that lacks a written constitution, where freedom of the press is sharply limited (by our standards) and whose legal and political systems often appear to lack transparency. Yet nothing on the scale of Chilcot’s public investigation, not to mention public shaming, of a former government leader has ever happened in the U.S. — not after Watergate or Iran-contra, and certainly not after the Iraq war.

After Barack Obama took office in 2009, he slammed the door on any possible large-scale investigation of the Bush administration’s lies, war crimes and human-rights violations. There were a few limited, quasi-public inquiries into technical questions: Why the pre-war intelligence was so wrong, or the multiple failures of the Iraq occupation. But that was it. Can you even imagine the media civil war (or the actual civil war) that would have erupted if some Chilcot-style commission had spent years examining the misdeeds of Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and the other scoundrels implicated in what Bush biographer Jean Edward Smith has described as “easily the worst foreign policy decision ever made by an American president”?

Because a British prime minister has nothing akin to an American president’s executive privilege — he or she is simply a member of Parliament, elected to a leadership position by other members — Blair’s humiliating BFF mash-notes to George W. Bush, circa 2002, have been included in the Chilcot report. In a long memo written eight months before the Iraq invasion, Blair tells Bush that the task awaiting them in the Middle East “is absolutely awesome.” No, I’m not kidding. He really did. Blair begins that note by assuring the president, “I will be with you, whatever.” There are probably quotations from “The Greatest Love of All” or “My Heart Must Go On” in there too, but the damn thing is 2.6 million words and nobody’s read them all yet. (Bush’s responses remain classified, although I’m guessing they were less fulsome: “Love U 2 U crzy Limey!”)

In the context of the Labor counterrevolution against Corbyn, it’s important to note that the Chilcot inquiry was not launched by Blair’s political enemies but by Gordon Brown, the longtime Labor ally who succeeded him as prime minister in 2007. These two phenomena are opposite sides of the same coin, that being a struggle for the soul of Britain’s formerly-socialist opposition party, which radically transformed British culture and society under the postwar prime ministers Clement Attlee and Harold Wilson. If the American right seems embroiled in terminal chaos and confusion with the rise of Trump, across the pond it’s the left (broadly speaking) that faces an existential crisis. As Irish historian Fearghal McGarry recently told me, the Brexit vote was a vivid testament to the weakness of the British left, which saw numerous Labor strongholds in Wales and the north of England vote heavily to leave the E.U.

Labor’s role in world history is much larger than that played by social-democratic parties in other middle-sized nations; it is almost certainly a more significant institution than the Democratic Party ever was or could ever be. It was Labor that introduced the National Health Service and nationalized the Bank of England, the major utilities and the railroads (until Maggie Thatcher sold many of them off again). More clearly than any other party in the Western world that actually held power, Labor between 1945 and about 1970 stood for empowering working people through the trade union movement, and at least tried to represent a “middle way” between Soviet Communism and American capitalism.

All that was a long time ago indeed, but the Corbyn-Blair conflagration of 2016 represents the lingering hangover or unfinished endgame of that era. Both men made major public speeches on Wednesday in response to the Chilcot report — the embattled current Labor leader who has sought to rekindle its socialist heart, and the one who led the party to its greatest electoral victories in history (not to mention its only electoral victories since 1974). The tone of open warfare was unmistakable, and once again the whole spectacle bore no resemblance to anything we would ever see in American politics.

Unlike Bush, Tony Blair has expressed varying degrees of regret and contrition for everything that went south in Iraq, but by any standard his remarks on Wednesday were remarkable. He agreed that the war was based on faulty intelligence and that its outcome was catastrophic, and then said: “For all of this I express more sorrow, regret and apology and in greater measure than you can know or may believe.” But as Andrew Sparrow of the Guardian has put it, not far below the surface Blair’s remarks were “a statement of defiance,” a reassertion of his stated belief that it’s time for “the political class as a whole” to “stand up for itself.” Blair went on to say, after all, that he would make the same decision all over again, faced with the same situation and the same flawed information. He had acted in “good faith” and done the “right thing,” even if it was the ultimate example of a bad idea gone wrong. I’m honestly not sure if that’s admirable candor or profound perversity. Or both.

One obvious target for the renewed machismo of the “political class” would be Jeremy Corbyn, a lifelong political outsider whom Blair forcefully opposed during last summer’s Labor leadership campaign. (As many people observed at the time, the former prime minister has become such a punching bag that he probably helped Corbyn more than hurt him.) That was hardly surprising, since Blair’s “New Labor” legacy, his reinvention of the party as a moderate, pro-business, Bill Clinton-style coalition of upscale urban liberals, was precisely what Corbyn hoped to dismantle. Corbyn’s campaign against the Labor establishment had obvious pre-echoes of the Clinton-Sanders primary struggle in the U.S., except that the mainstream opposition was divided and disorganized, and Corbyn swept to victory with almost 60 percent of the vote from registered party members.

So it can’t have made Blair’s terrible, awful, no-good day any better to see the official leader of his own party apologize to the people of Iraq and the British public, and denounce the Iraq invasion as “a stain on our party and our country” and “an act of military aggression based on a false pretext.” One semi-plausible interpretation of the attempted anti-Corbyn coup by Labor M.P.’s is that Blair defenders or loyalists hoped to prevent Corbyn from ever making such a speech, either because they believed it was unfair or because they believed it was political suicide.

As usual in politics, you probably can’t boil the crisis on the British left (or in the center-left) down to a single issue. Some “Old New Labor” types didn’t want to watch Corbyn enthusiastically throw Blair under the bus — or, potentially, accuse their former leader of war crimes. (To be clear, Corbyn didn’t do that.) Perhaps others, as left-wing journalist Tom Barker has suggested, “would rather sabotage their own party than see it elected with a socialist leader.” But leading a British political party is a strange job that demands an unusual skill set; it’s roughly like being a congressional leader, a party chair and a presidential candidate, all at the same time. Corbyn is a fiery orator with undoubted principles and a rumpled, Old Left anti-charisma (Bernie minus Brooklyn, with more academic Marxism and a lot more rain). But by many accounts he’s a standoffish and difficult person, not well suited for a management role.

It’s impossible to evaluate that spin from this distance, but many more or less well-meaning people on what we might call the mainstream British left, from J.K. Rowling to the editors of the Guardian, have evidently convinced themselves that Corbyn effectively is Bernie Sanders — a galvanizing force with no hope of ever winning an election — and that Labor can never regain power and begin to undo the Tory neoliberal austerity agenda with Corbyn at the helm. That’s not an inherently irrational argument, but it carefully steers around the fact that Corbyn was the overwhelming choice of the party’s core constituencies and still has hundreds of thousands of grassroots Labor supporters. It also threatens to lead in a circle right back to the Blair-Clinton free-trade globalization agenda that those voters so forcefully rejected.

If everyone in Britain agrees on one thing, it’s that Labor has wasted the post-Brexit moment on bitter infighting rather than confronting the Conservatives, who appeared to be in deep disarray after David Cameron’s decision to resign. Thanks to the Tories’ tightly controlled leadership selection process, they are likely to produce a moderate-seeming female prime minister — current Home Secretary Theresa May, who will get along splendidly with President Hillary Clinton — and head toward the next general election in better shape than anyone expected. In other words, the Brexit soap opera has dramatized the same Jefferson vs. Hamilton problem that plagues both American parties, and many other quasi-democratic institutions around the world. Plato worried about this, and so did Nietzsche, but nobody’s ever figured it out. Who gets to decide things: the stupid, crazy and easily deluded people, or the self-appointed elite that believes it knows better? Which terrible option is worse?

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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