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Sunday 22 August 2010

Blair discovers some carping never falters

Whether brought about by contrition or self-interest, the former PM should get credit for donating his book earnings to charity, says Ruth Dudley Edwards

I USED to know a young man who believed there was no such thing as altruism: every kind or charitable act was self-interested. He was equipped depressingly with an inexhaustible list of cynical motives that must be driving the apparently selfless.

This faith in the inherent selfishness of everyone enabled the person I will call Hamish -- for he was indeed a Scot of negative stereotype -- to be grumpy, tight-fisted and disobliging with a clear conscience.

Hamish was later sorely challenged by sharing a flat with a thoroughly decent young doctor who lived to improve people's lives. Grudgingly, he came to admit that maybe, maybe, compassion and benevolence were not always suspect. And he even became nicer himself.

Which leads me to Tony Blair and his announcement that all the proceeds from his memoirs will go to the British Legion's fund for injured service personnel.

My own knee-jerk response was as mean-spirited as Hamish at his worst. I never fell for the Blair charm, I never trusted him and even though I agreed with the invasion of Iraq, I was appalled by the dishonesty involved in the lead-up and the shocking failure to plan properly for the aftermath. And after he left office, I was furious when he became a Catholic. He hadn't had the courage to convert when he was prime minister, had passively acquiesced in an aggressively evangelical secular agenda, and then was allowed by a supine hierarchy to 'Pape' (as some Prods still describe it) without recanting publicly on core issues like abortion and embryonic stem cell research that he had previously supported.

So as well as instantly dismissing Blair's decision with a derisive snort, I speculated gleefully on how it will have enraged his avaricious and extravagant wife. But on mature reflection, I'm siding with Blair. Media coverage has almost all read as if the young Hamish were in charge. The gift is to salve his conscience, it's blood money, it's a tax dodge, it's a detoxifying PR stunt designed to boost his profile worldwide and so increase his earnings as a lecturer, it's to buy back the good opinion of those sickened by his acquisition of a large fortune and so on and on. Had he been sincere, say some critics, he would have made the donation privately.

But Blair, it turns out, has been visiting injured troops

for years and doing so privately despite having to put up with much public criticism for apparently ignoring them. I really don't see therefore why he should have been required to put up with years of condemnation for making money out of his memoirs while secretly giving the profits away.

Blair has had an odd relationship with the army. He came into office with a New Labour contempt for uniforms, discovered the hard way that the only public servants who jumped to it when asked were the military, fell in love with soldiers when they took on and efficiently did the horrible job of disposing of hundreds of thousands of carcasses of animals during the appallingly handled foot-and-mouth crisis of 2001, and finally sent over-stretched and under-resourced troops into war in Iraq and Afghanistan, where I think he fell even more deeply in love when he saw their courage in action.

Did he feel guilt? Almost certainly, but that doesn't mean he thinks he was wrong to go to war. He certainly doesn't. But if you're a normal, civilised person and not some dehumanised barbarian like Naomi Campbell's chum Charles Taylor, you care about people you've sacrificed even if you believe the cause was righteous. Blair looked, I believe, at those young men struggling to overcome terrible injuries and decided to make a big contribution to their rehabilitation.

How much? Well, it seems definite that to 'honour the sacrifice' of the troops, he's giving the Legion the £4.6m advance on his book with a promise of all further profit from worldwide sales and related TV appearances. The cribbing has started over whether he's going to claim tax relief on his donation. Really, people are fabulously unreasonable at times. If the fellow's giving up enough money to have bought Cherie another fine and ornately-furnished house, it's not unreasonable that he doesn't pay tax on it.

Blair was moved around so much in childhood that he was rootless. These days, he is essentially a semi-expatriate who sees family infrequently, tours the world, getting richer, thinner and browner, and trying with great difficulty to find a purpose for his post-political life. He still has plenty of self-belief, but he's facing up to some of the consequences of his actions by giving up a fortune. Is it altruism or self-interest? Both, I expect. He's human. But it's better done than not.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards