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Delusions of Honesty
Tony Blairs domestic legacy: corruption and the erosion of liberty
When Tony Blair announced his resignation after ten years as prime minister of the United Kingdom, his voice choked with emotion and he nearly shed a tear. He asked his audience to believe that he had always done what he thought was right. He would have been nearer the mark had he said that he always thought that what was right was whatever he had done. Throughout his years in office, he kept inviolable his belief in the existence of a purely beneficent essence of himself, a belief so strong that no quantity of untruthfulness, shady dealings, unscrupulousness, or constitutional impropriety could undermine or destroy it. Having come into the world marked by Original Virtue, Blair was also a natural-born preacher.
In a confessional mood, Blair admitted that he had sometimes fallen short of what was expected of him. He did not give specifics, but we were expected to admire his candor and humility in making such an admission. It is no coincidence, however, that Blair reached maturity at the time of the publication of the famous book Psychobabble, which dissects the modern tendency to indulge in self-obsession without self-examination. Here was a mea culpa without the culpa. Bless me, people (Blair appeared to be saying), for I have sinned: but please dont ask me to say how.
There undoubtedly were things to be grateful for during the Blair years. His support for American policy in Iraq won him much sympathy in the U.S., of course. He was often eloquent in defense of liberty. And under Blairs leadership, Britain enjoyed ten years of uninterrupted economic growth, leaving large parts of the country prosperous as never before. London became one of the worlds richest cities, vying with New York to be the global economys financial center. Blair did inherit a strapping economy from his predecessor, and he left its management more or less to the man who succeeds him, Gordon Brown. Still, unlike previous Labour prime ministers, he did not preside over an economic crisis: in itself, something to be proud of.
But how history will judge him overall, and whether it will absolve him (to adapt slightly a phrase coined by a famous, though now ailing, Antillean dictator), is another matter. Strictly speaking, history doesnt absolve, or for that matter vindicate, anybody; only people absolve or vindicate, and except in the most obvious cases of villainy or sainthood, they come to different conclusions, using basically the same evidence. There can thus be no definitive judgment of Blair, especially one contemporaneous with his departure. Still, I will try.
Blairs resignation announcement was typical of the man and, one must admit, of the new culture from which he emerged: lachrymose and self-serving. It revealed an unfailing eye and ear for the ersatz and the kitsch, which allowed him so long to play upon the sensibilities of a large section of the population as upon a pipe.
He knew exactly what to say of Princess Diana when she died in a car accident, for example: that she was the peoples princess. He sensed acutely that the times were not so much democratic as demotic: that economic egalitarianism having suffered a decisive defeat both in theory and practice, the only mass appeal left to a politician calling himself radical was to cultural egalitarianism. He could gauge the feelings of the people because, in large part, he shared them. A devotee himself of the cult of celebrity, in which the marriage of glamour and banality both reassures democratic sentiment and stimulates fantasies of luxury, he sought the company of minor show-business personalities and stayed in their homes during his holidays. The practical demonstration that he worshiped at the same shrines as the people did, that his tastes were the same as theirs, more than compensated for the faint odor of impropriety that this gave off. And differences of taste, after all, unite or divide men more profoundly than anything else.
No prime minister had ever been at once so ubiquitous and so inaccessible. Instinctively understanding the dynamics of the cult of celebrity, Blair was both familiar (he insisted on being known by a diminutive) and distant (he acted more as head of state than as head of government, and spent three times more on his own office than did his predecessor). Having invited 60 ordinary citizens into Downing Street so that they could give him their views, and so that he could say that he listened to the people, he proceeded to address them via a huge plasma screen, though he was in the building. So near, and yet so far: this was a grand viziers durbar for the age of virtual reality. With Blair, communication, like times arrow, flew in one direction only.
Tony Blair was the perfect politician for an age of short attention spans. What he said on one day had no necessary connection with what he said on the following day: and if someone pointed out the contradiction, he would use his favorite phrase, Its time to move on, as if detecting contradictions in what he said were some kind of curious psychological symptom in the person detecting them.
Many have surmised that there was an essential flaw in Blairs makeup that turned him gradually from the most popular to the most unpopular prime minister of recent history. The problem is to name that essential flaw. As a psychiatrist, I found this problem peculiarly irritating (bearing in mind that it is always highly speculative to make a diagnosis at a distance). But finally, a possible solution arrived in a flash of illumination. Blair suffered from a condition previously unknown to me: delusions of honesty.
Blair came to power promising that his government would be purer than pure, an expression both self-righteous and somewhat foolish, given the fallen nature of man. The Tories preceding him in government had become notorious for acts of corruption that now appear trifling. Indeed, one objection to those actsfor example, asking questions in the House of Commons in return for payment, handed under the table in used banknotes wrapped in brown paper envelopeswas the derisory sums involved. What kind of person would risk ruin for amounts of money that honest people could make in a week or two?
Soon after Blair took office, however, a billionaire named Bernie Ecclestone offered the Labour Party a $2 million donation if the government exempted Formula 1 motor racing, which he controlled, from the ban on cigarette ads at sporting events. The government granted the exemption. After public exposure, Blair declared himself to be such a straight kind of guy that it was inconceivable that he had involved himself in such an unsavory arrangementthough clearly he had. It was his capacity to believe his own untruths that proved so persuasive to others; it was among his greatest political assets.
Such scandalsinvolving favors granted to rich men, followed, after exposure, by protestations of injured innocencepunctuated Blairs tenure with monotonous regularity. One of the more notorious was the letter that Blair sent to the Romanian prime minister, Adrian Nastase, encouraging him to sell the state-owned steel producer Sidex to billionaire industrialist Lakshmi Mittal; it would help Romanias application to join the European Union, Blair argued, if a British company bought the steel producer. But Mittals company was not British; of its 125,000 employees, only 100 worked in Britain; indeed, Mittal himself was not British. He had, however, donated $250,000 to Labour shortly beforehand.
Far from being purer than pure, Blair was laxly forgiving of impropriety in others, provided that they were loyal or politically useful to him. The case of Peter Mandelson is particularly instructive. When first a minister, Mandelson borrowed a large sum of money from another minister, Geoffrey Robinson, a multimillionaire, in order to buy a house. Not only did Mandelson fail to tell the bank that lent him the rest of the money for the purchase that the money he had in hand was not his own (in less well-connected mortals, that would be considered fraud); the government department that Mandelson headed at the time was investigating Robinsons own business affairs for suspected improprieties.
Public exposure forced Blair to accept Mandelsons resignation. But the prime minister soon reappointed Mandelson to the cabinet. Blair accepted Mandelsons resignation a second time, however, when it emerged that he had pushed through the passport application of one of the Hinduja brothers, Indian businessmen accused of corruption in India, after a $2 million donation to Labour. Blair then rewarded Mandelson with the lucrative and powerful post of European Commissioner. What is one to conclude from this?
Having come into power deeply critical of the previous governments use of private consultants, Blair promptly increased spending on them at least tenfold, ensuring the loyalty of senior civil servants (traditionally a professional cadre, not political appointees) by allowing them to cross back and forth between public and private employment, enriching themselves enormously at public expense in the process. Thus Blair played Mephistopheles to the civil services Faust, introducing levels of corruption and patronage not seen in Britain since the eighteenth century. Huge sums of money have disappeared, as if into a black hole, into such organizations as the National Health Service, where bureaucracies have hugely expanded and entwined their interests so closely with those of private suppliers and consultancies that it is difficult to distinguish public from private any longer. Spending on the NHS has increased by two and a half times in the space of ten years; yet it is hard to see any corresponding improvement in the service, other than in the standard of living of those who work in it.
Blair even became the first serving prime minister in history to find himself questioned by the police in Downing Street, under caution of self-incrimination, in the course of a criminal investigationin this case, into the selling of seats in the House of Lords. Small wonder that for much of the population, truth and Blair now appear to inhabit parallel universes. Reflecting the countrys mood is the famous remark that Gordon Brown made to Blair: There is nothing that you could say to me now that I could ever believe.
Blair proved unusually expert in the postmodernist art of spin. A political advisor to the government perfectly captured this approach on September 11, 2001, when she said that it was a good day to bury bad news. In other words, you can get away with anything if the timing is right.
At the outset of his tenure, Blair said that his government would be tough on crime and on the causes of crime. He wanted to appealand succeeded in appealingto two constituencies at once: those who wanted criminals locked up, and those who saw crime as the natural consequence of social injustice, a kind of inchoate protest against the conditions in which they lived.
Blairs resultant task was to obfuscate, so that the electorate and even experts could not find out, without great difficulty, what was going on. For example, Blairs government, aware of public unrest about the number of criminals leaving prison only to commit further serious crimes, introduced indeterminate sentencingopen-ended imprisonmentapparently a tough response to repeat offenders. But the reality was different: the sentencing judges still had the discretion to determine such criminals parole dates, which, in England, are de facto release dates. The sentences that criminals would serve, in other words, would be no longer than before the new law.
Another way to confuse the public was to corrupt official statistics. Last year, to take one example, the government dropped three simple but key measures from the compendious statistics that it gathers about people serving community sentencesthat is, various kinds of service and supervision outside prison: their criminal histories prior to sentencing, their reconviction rates, and the number given prison sentences while serving their community sentences. Instead, it introduced an utterly meaningless measure, at least from a public-safety perspective: the proportion of people with community sentences who abide by such conditions as weekly attendance for an hour at a probation office.
The police also received encouragement to keep crime numbers down by not recording crimes. The crime rate has fallen in part because shoplifting has ceased to be a crime, for instance. Police now deal with it the way they do with parking violations: shoplifters get on-the-spot fines worth half, on average, of the value of the goods that they have stolen.
The problem of unemployment in Britain illustrates perfectly the methods that Blairs government used to obscure the truth. The world generally believes that, thanks to Labours prudent policies, Britain now enjoys low unemployment; indeed, Blair has often lectured other leaders on the subject. The low rate is not strictly a lie: those counted officially as unemployed are today relatively few.
Unfortunately, those counted as sick are many; and if you add the numbers of unemployed and sick together, the figure remains remarkably constant in recent years, oscillating around 3.5 million, though the proportion of sick to unemployed has risen rapidly. Approximately 2.7 million people are receiving disability benefits in Britain, 8 or 9 percent of the workforce, highly concentrated in the areas of former unemployment; more people are claiming that psychiatric disorders prevent them from working than are claiming that work is unavailable. In the former coal-mining town of Merthyr Tydfil, about a quarter of the adult population is on disability. Britain is thus the ill man of Europe, though all objective indicators suggest that people are living longer and healthier lives than ever.
Three groups profit from this statistical legerdemain: first, the unemployed themselves, because disability benefits are about 60 percent higher than unemployment benefits, and, once one is receiving them, one does not have to pretend to be looking for work; second, the doctors who make the bogus diagnoses, because by doing so they remove a possible cause of conflict with their patients and, given the assault rate on British doctors, this is important to them; and finally, the government, which can claim to have reduced unemployment.
But such obfuscation is destructive of human personality. The unemployed have to pretend something untruenamely, that they are sick; the medical profession winds up humiliated and dispirited by taking part in fraud; and the government avoids, for a time, real economic problems. Thus the whole of society finds itself corrupted and infantilized by its inability to talk straight; and that Blair could speak with conviction of the low unemployment rate, and believe that he was telling the truth, is to me worse than if he had been a dastardly cynic.
Tony Blairs most alarming characteristic, however, has been his enmity to freedom in his own country, whatever his feelings about it in other countries. No British prime minister in 200 years has done more to curtail civil liberties than has Blair. Starting with an assumption of his infinite beneficence, he assumed infinite responsibility, with the result that Britain has become a country with a degree of official surveillance that would make a Latin American military dictator envious. Sometimes this surveillance is merely ludicrousparking-enforcement officers wearing miniature closed-circuit security cameras in their caps to capture abusive responses from those ticketed, say, or local councils attaching sensing devices to the garbage cans of 3 million homes to record what people throw away, in order to charge them for the quantity and quality of their trash.
But often the governments reach is less innocuous. For example, in the name of national security, the government under Blairs leadership sought to make passport applicants provide 200 pieces of information about themselves, including bank-account details, and undergo interrogation for half an hour. If an applicant refused to allow the information to circulate through other government departments, he would not get a passport, with no appeal. The government also cooked up a plan to require passport holders to inform the police if they changed their address.
A justification presented for these Orwellian arrangements was the revelation that a would-be terrorist, Dhiren Barot, had managed to obtain nine British passports before his arrest because he did not want an accumulation of stamps from suspect countries in any of them. At the same time, it came to light that the Passport Office issues 10,000 passports a year to fraudulent applicantshardly surprising, since its staff consists largely of immigrants, legal and illegal.
As was often the case with Blair and his government, the solution proposed was not only completely disproportionate to the problem; it was not even a solution. The government has admitted that criminal gangs have already forged the U.K.s new high-tech passports. The only people, then, whom the process will trouble are the people who need no surveillance. No sensible person denies the danger of Islamic extremism in Britain; but just as the fact that the typical Briton finds himself recorded by security cameras 300 times a day does not secure him in the slightest from crime or antisocial behavior, which remain prevalent in Britain, so no one feels any safer from the terrorist threat despite the ever-increasing government surveillance.
Blair similarly showed no respect for precedent and gradual reform by Parliament itself, whichin the absence of an American-style written constitutionhave been the nations guiding principles. By decree, he made the civil service answerable to unelected political allies, for the first time in history; he devoted far less attention to Parliament than did any previous prime minister; the vast majority of legislation under his premiership (amounting to a blizzard so great that lawyers cannot keep up with it) passed without effective parliamentary oversight, in effect by decree; one new criminal offense was created every day except Sundays for ten years, 60 percent of them by such decree, ranging from the selling of gray squirrels and Japanese bindweed to failure to nominate someone to turn off your house alarm if it triggers while you are out; he abolished the independence of the House of Lords, the only, and very limited, restraint on the elected governments power; he eliminated the immemorial jurisprudential rule against double jeopardy; he wanted to introduce preventive detention for people whom doctors deemed dangerous, even though they had as yet committed no crime; he passed a Civil Contingencies Act that permits the British government, if it believes that an emergency anywhere in the world threatens serious damage to human welfare or to the environment in Britain, to confiscate or destroy property without compensation.
That Blair should have turned out to be so authoritarian ought to come as no surprise to those who listened to the timbre of some of his early pronouncements. His early emphasis on youth; his pursuit of what he called, grandiosely, the Third Way (as if no one had thought of it before); his desire to create a New Britain; his assertion that the Labour Party was the political arm of the British people (as if people who did not support it were in some way not British)some have thought all this contained a Mussolinian, or possibly Peronist, ring. It is ridiculous to say that Tony Blair was a fascist; but it would be equally absurd to see him as a defender of liberty, at least in his own country.
Blair found the Muslim threat far easier to tackle abroad than at home, perhaps because it required less courage. Intentionally or not, he pandered to domestic Muslim sentiment. During the general election, in which the leader and deputy leader of the opposition were Jewish, he allowed Labour to portray them as pigs on election campaign posters. The Jewish vote in Britain is small, and scattered throughout the country; the Muslim vote is large, and concentrated in constituencies upon which the whole election might turn. It is not that Blair is anti-Semitic: no one would accuse him of that. It is simply that, if mildly anti-Semitic connotations served his purposes, he would use them, doubtless persuaded that it was for the higher good of mankind.
Further, Blairs wife, Cherie, is a lawyer who now practices little, but who by convenient coincidenceimmediately before a general election, and at a time of Muslim disaffection with Labour over the Iraq Warappeared before the highest court in the land, defending a 15-year-old girl who claimed the right to wear full Muslim dress in school. It turned out that an extreme British Islamic group backed the case legally and financially.
Blair also presided over the extension of mail voting in Muslim areas, despite having been warned about the likely consequence: that frequently, the male heads of households would vote for all registered voters under their roofs. Indeed, it is difficult to resist the conclusion that Blair supported voting by mail because of this consequence, which would tip the vote toward the many Labour candidates who were Muslim men themselves. Pro-Labour fraud became so widespread that the judge leading a judicial inquiry into an election in Birmingham concluded that it would have disgraced a banana republic. The prime minister also proved exceptionally feeble during the Danish cartoon crisis, and repeatedly said things about Islamthat it is a religion of peace, for onethat he must have known to be untrue.
Blair, then, is no hero. Many in Britain believe that he has been the worst prime minister in recent British history, morally and possibly financially corrupt, shallow and egotistical, a man who combined the qualities of Elmer Gantry with those of Juan Domingo Perón. America should think twice about taking him to its heart now that he has stepped down.