Cyclefree on Blair, Cameron, May and Corbyn
On Radio 4 Peter Hennessey has been interviewing politicians who are no longer in the front line and asking them to reflect on their careers, mistakes, and things they might have done differently. Blair does not regret Iraq, his view still being that it is better (for whom one wonders, surveying the state of Iraq these last 15 years) for Saddam to have been deposed.
Perhaps politicians are not the best at analysing their own mistakes. Perhaps it takes a while for us to realise what their worst mistakes really were, and maybe we can only really tell once the consequences of action or inaction have been felt . Still, in the languorous spirit of a sunny Bank Holiday weekend here are my – possibly provocative – suggestions.
Iraq, surely? Can there be any contest? Well, perhaps not – as PM it was one of his worst mistakes. Arguably, the mistake was perhaps less the decision to go to war and more the way that decision was explained and justified (something which has proved very corrosive of trust in politicians). Crucially, Blair failed to understand the implications of his own largely correct analysis of Islamic extremism, namely, that upending a state with no tradition or culture of democracy via invasion is likely to create the conditions for such extremism to thrive rather than its opposite. The consequences for the Middle East and the West will last some time and are being felt in death, terror and pain.
But another mistake was his worst as a politician – it was his unwillingness to fight Brown for the Labour leadership. Whatever the justifiable reasons for it at the time, that timidity allowed Brown to create a narrative that he had somehow been “robbed” of the leadership, that he was entitled to be leader once Blair departed (resulting in him never making a case for his leadership, a lack which became painfully obvious once he became PM – and from which Mrs May might have usefully learnt some lessons). And it led to Blair giving him far more control over domestic affairs as Chancellor than was wise.
It stifled others who might have made a claim for developing a post-Blair Labour and led, ultimately, to a hollowing out of Labour, with little chance of the development of a new generation of possible leaders with new ideas and the courage to put them forward. Little wonder then, that Labour’s most successful leader seems to have left little by way of a domestic or party legacy and, Iraq apart, seems to have been characterised by a lack of boldness putting forward winning arguments for the matters he claimed to care about – Britain’s role in the EU, for instance. Good leaders leave good successors. Blair – like Thatcher – left a party with the life sucked out of it.
There is something immensely attractive about someone at ease with themselves, their place in the world, the world they’re in and the role they’re being asked to play. Cameron was such a man and after the Blair/Brown dramas he brought a welcome calm to government. But it is all too easy for such people so to take their world for granted that they forget how to argue for it. They assume rather than think let alone argue. So it was with Cameron and what will define his legacy: the EU and Britain’s place within it.
If Cameron believed that Britain should remain within the EU – as he said during the referendum campaign – he should have been making that case – and doing so positively – for years beforehand and doing so to all the voters, not just those inclined to agree with him. Waiting until the campaign was far too late: he discovered that when he needed something positive to say, there was nothing there. Someone who wanted his party to stop “banging on” about Europe left it banging on about little else. Complacency led to nemesis.
Too soon to tell? Maybe. Still, what might the interim appraisal say? Forget the unnecessary election, disastrous as that was. Her biggest mistake to date has been the failure in the months since she became leader to think through carefully and in detail the implications of the referendum result, the practical choices available, the trade offs needed, how to develop a sensible, sober negotiating strategy and how to sell that effectively to voters and persuasively to the EU.
Why are position papers being published now and not months ago? Why rush to Article 50, the timing of which was the one indubitable card the UK had? Rather than wait and think and prepare, a dull, grey politician’s legacy will be a meaningless slogan and early announcements boxing Britain into a corner from which extrication will likely be painful and humiliating. Even a large majority would not have made up for that.
I am likely going to humiliate myself now. Corbyn may not even make it to PM. His time as Labour leader was not, pre-June, glorious. But Labour’s unexpectedly successful leader has an idea of what Labour should be (however disliked it may be by some) and is not afraid to speak to all and sundry about it in an engaging way. Many of his criticisms of the current political/economic settlement ring true with voters, even those disinclined for other reasons to vote for him, and he now looks to his party like a possible winner.
So let me stick my neck out. If he comes to power it will be following a Brexit whose consequences will tax a government consisting of Solomons. European matters will consume his administration, regardless that it may not be important to him personally. His mistake will be the same as many previous Labour leaders. He will promise much. His promises will be well-intentioned (mostly). Expectations will now be high. His promises will be undeliverable, his solutions being essentially nostalgic (“let everything be as it was before the horrid Tories ruined it all”). He will let his supporters down. And as a result he may end up as reviled by some of them as Blair is now.
Corbyn as the new Blair? Well, I said I might provoke. Over to you, PBers.