Monday, September 11, 2006
Any cousins across the Pond pondering possible reasons for their beloved Blair’s oh so Long Goodbye shouldn’t expend too many little grey cells on the matter, other than as an academic exercise. The details are debatable, the root cause is not: Tony is simply coming to the end of his term, and his government to the end of its tether.
Lord Acton’s observation about Absolute Power seems to have been absorbed into the Anglo psyche, and the Anglos won’t let anyone wield it for too long, however competent or revered or messianic or just deep-down decent he or she happens to be.
The President of the USA has an official shelf-life. The Prime Minister of the UK, who has far more or far less personal power than his American counterpart depending on how you look at it, does not. But the shelf-life is real nonetheless. Everyone knows it, including Blair. A drawback of the unwritten nature of the PM’s time limit is that the incumbent leader, addicted to absolute power, is tempted by the delusion that it is not there at all, and his or her exit will be accompanied by undignified kicking and screaming, mass reshuffles, resignations, sour grapes, backstabbing and disastrous Party civil wars. Great fun for the sharks of the press, who never waste a moment in publishing the inevitable Et Tu Brute? cartoons, but a dreadful bore for the general public.
And boredom is the heart of the matter. We’re tired of Tony. It’s nothing personal – for the most part, it’s not even his fault. As an international representative he’s been an eloquent, intelligent, reassuringly tall, and totally non-embarrassing figure. His domestic legacy is enormous: New Labour and the possibly irreversible monopoly of centre-ground tinkering over ideological politics.
But a decade is over-tiring. What’s more, the five years since those planes flew into the World Trade Center have been especially exhausting. If anything, given our ever-decreasing attention span cycles, it is to his credit (and the pre-Cameron Conservatives’ debit) that he’s held on so long.
On 12 September 2001, an age ago, we were all Americans – hard as that is to imagine now. It must have seemed impossible for any President to fritter away that heap of international sympathy and goodwill. It must have seemed impossible for the West’s left and right not to be fused in one united front. They were for a while, but that wave of unity, which just about carried over Afganistan (even the Left could see the logic in wiping out Osama’s protectors), took no time in breaking on the rock of Iraq.
Iraq knackered us. Cracked us down the middle. Blair got stretched thin between the UN and the US, attempting to appease the Euro appeasers while buddying up to Dubya. We got tired of Blair being Shoulder to Shoulder with Bush but the Voice of Reason in Europe. Blair got very, very tired of debating every step of the issue with BBC interviewers and studio audiences consisting, almost exclusively it seemed, of Guardian-reading politics undergraduates – an irritating circus made unavoidable by the trumpeting of democracy as a chief justification for the invasion (‘I think you’re wrong, but remember that if you were Iraqi you would not be allowed to disagree with your Government’). This was the Dawning of the Age of Weariness.
Then came the Confederacy of Dunces and the million marching in London, led by Red Ken, Gorgeous George, the Nobel-winning (!) Harold Pinter, Michael Moore and the usual semi-literate, wholly-hubristic pop musicians.
So varied and illogical and self-contradictory were the complaints, so moronic the oil conspiracies and the Saddam-apologising and the BusHitler rhetoric, the irrelevant stacked endlessly on top of the nonsensical like Pelion on Ossa, that the great Leftist coalition could only appal the rational.
But here was a big problem: how can you agree with some of the scattergun complaints (that the Allies were courting disaster by failing to create any kind of clear plan for post-war Iraq, or that Bush’s crass cowboy utterances could only alienate natural allies), without appearing to be on the same side as the Dunces? Iraq split us into two, sometimes unnaturally, meaning that old British lefties ended up on the right (Hitchens; McEwan; Amis) and old British righties on the left (Matthew Parris; Simon Hughes of the Times, who defected to the Guardian). The brick wall was hit, and afterwards it was just two grimacing faces grinding against its opposite sides, with no hopes of comfortably sitting astride it.
Abu Graib, Guantanamo, faked photos of British squaddies ‘abusing’ prisoners, Madrid, London July 7, ‘quagmires’, airport security, Prophet cartoons – they’ve all worn us to the bone.
Above all, Blair has become too synonymous with Bush, and the world is weary of them both. Surely even the patriotic, anti-Dunce American right will heave a secret sigh of relief when Bush is replaced and skirmishes can begin anew, just as even the staunchest New Labour supporters will when the Blair finally goes. The hatred of half the world has become so crushingly focused on the person of George W Bush. Remove the focus and you shift the battle lines. It will be a soft, superficial, temporary relief, like finding the cool part of the pillow in a bed-ridden fever. But a relief nonetheless. Fighting the same battles over and over every day since 2001 has set us firmly in the Age of Weariness.
The British political system means that we elect a benign dictatorship every ten years or so. We let them have a glorious honeymoon period of reform for a few years, then we gradually reduce their power over a few elections. Finally, we punish them for their longevity by utterly routing them at the ballot box and putting a new benign dictatorship in place.
Few parties have been so defined by their leader as New Labour has been by Blair. But we are tired of Blair, and of arguing about Blair. We've said everything we wanted to say, and quite a bit that we didn't. Now we want new battles, new battle-lines, new angles, new dinner-table topics and a new honeymoon to wake us up. Cameron will only have himself to blame if he blows it now.
Posted by Brit at 9/11/2006