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Sunday 13 May 2007

Oh Gord, I'm shouting 'Tony, please don't go'

MUCH of the best and the worst of Tony Blair was evident in what he did in Northern Ireland. The idealism and vision were genuine, the courage unquestionable, the freshness invigorating, the commitment of time and energy astonishing and his patience and good humour amazing.

But along with all that went an arrogance that made him ignore unwelcome advice and surround himself with the like-minded, as well as an intellectual shallowness that stopped him thinking things through and frequently made him and others victims of the law of unintended consequences.

It was Blair's insistence on pandering to the extremes that resulted in the destruction of the centre and the triumph of the bigots and the terrorists.

Blair achieves short-term fixes because he is a great seducer who tells people whatever they want to hear and deludes himself into believing he's telling the truth, but he is an inept negotiator, not least because he so much wants to be liked and because he believes that people will be nice if he is nice to them. Hence the stream of unnecessary side deals with the DUP and Sinn Fein that have helped two ruthless parties achieve a squalid sectarian carve-up.

Even in his schooldays, Blair longed to be centre stage, and though as a statesman his considerable thespian gifts were constructively used to give people confidence and hope, he often tipped over into cringe-making ham acting that smacks of insincerity ("This isn't time for sound bites, but I feel that the hand of history is on our shoulder").

When Blair said in his goodbye speech that "hand on heart, I did what I thought was right", he was telling the truth: he would like everyone everywhere to be sensible and happy. He has the cast of mind satirised by Peadar Kearney in God Bless England - a country which "Gently raised us from the slime/And kept our hands from hellish crime/And sent us to heaven in her own good time".

It was moral outrage - coupled with his considerable self-belief - that made him intervene militarily to stop ethnic cleansing in Kosovo and suppress the brutal rebels in Sierra Leone. And it was his instinctive grasp that al-Qaeda posed a mortal danger to world order that made him stand with the United States after 9/11, while much of Europe equivocated.

I believe Blair's determination to take on radical Islam - which despises weakness - is absolutely sound, and I thought him right to send troops to Afghanistan. I also believed (and still believe) that Saddam Hussein had the means of producing weapons of mass destruction, and therefore I supported the invasion of Iraq.

Yet the doctoring of intelligence that ultimately undermined the case for war, Blair's failure to give the armed services the support they needed and his disastrous lack of post-war planning showed he simply wasn't up to the job. With no sense of history, no understanding of war and no respect for Foreign Office advice, his latent messianism and untrammelled optimism had convinced him that victory was inevitable.

Had he listened to the learned and the wise, had he not been desperate to be best friends with the biggest boy in the playground, and had he been a good negotiator, he could have had a highly constructive role in challenging US gung-ho strategy and helping put together an achievable reconstruction plan for Iraq.

As with foreign, so with domestic, policy. When New Labour came to power in 1997, its greatest deficiency was their inexperience, yet in his distaste for tradition, Blair treated the civil service with contempt, undermined its integrity by flooding it with special advisers, made policy on the hoof and listened only to his small circle.

The flip side of his freshness was his obsession with modernity. Those who were part of his 'sofa' government were as ignorant as they were zealous, driven by the guiding principle that what Tony wanted Tony should have, and they impatiently dismissed anyone who wanted to play devil's advocate. Hence the casual constitutional vandalism that is wrecking havoc in Scotland and Wales, with the House of Lords and the justice system. Then there are upheavals caused by incessant, piecemeal, target-driven reforms of the public services and the mania for grandiose unworkable computer projects: an unwanted scheme to put all medical records online is projected to cost around £20bn. Like Bertie, Tony jeers at serviceable pencils and seeks to replace them by dud electronic devices.

It was the ham actor who was most in evidence on Thursday, when Blair made his resignation speech at Trimdon Labour Club in Sedgefield, the Durham constituency he has represented since 1983. The young lawyer who had been a star performer on stage at school and a rock singer at Oxford had realised that he did not have the intellectual equipment to be a legendary barrister, so the only hope of fame was through politics. Partly influenced by Cherie, he adopted wholesale the radical socialist, anti-EU and anti-militarist agenda of the Labour Party and through sheer charm won the nomination for a safe seat.

Not that he remembers it that way: in his goodbye speech he explained that he had never had any time for twentieth-century ideologies. The Trimdon performance - complete with bussed-in supporters and the belting-out of tunes such as Search for the Hero Inside Yourself and Cherie as usual hurling herself at her husband's manly chest - was vintage, brilliant Blair. It culminated rather bizarrely in Bush-like rhetoric when - in a completely unBritish moment - Blair declared Britain "the greatest nation on Earth". ("It used to be, but not since he got his hands on it," said one disgruntled commentator.)

Though I find Blair hard to dislike and I admire his courage, I've never been a fan. But Gordon Brown shares responsibility for most of New Labour's mistakes, he listens to no one, he broods and bears grudges and is a control freak who will not rest until everyone in the United Kingdom is dependent on the state. As I think about life under Gordon, I feel like shouting: "Tony, don't go."

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards