Peter Oborne

Blair’s willingness to follow Bush into any torture chamber shames Britain

Blair’s willingness to follow Bush into any torture chamber shames Britain

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All my life, till this month, I have felt more proud than I could say to be British. I felt there were special and irreducible things that we stood for and would, if necessary, fight for: freedom, decency, fairness, humanity, the rule of law. Of course there have been blots — the Amritsar massacre, Bloody Sunday. But on the whole the conduct of British troops during the 30 years of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, or our record during the second world war, has been outstanding. We have been a force for good in the world.

Today there is no pleasure in being British. We are almost a pariah nation. Ordinary British citizens are now starting to learn about the terrible things that have been done in our name. We have been collaborators with the Americans in something so gross, murderous, barbaric and obscene that it defies belief. It is no excuse that US troops have been responsible for the most bestial of the atrocities. We are part of a joint command in Iraq, and thus share the joint shame. Tony Blair went to great lengths to share the credit with President Bush during their triumphalist, flag-draped victory summit 12 months ago. Now he must stomach the disgrace.

The Prime Minister appears not to sense any of this. But hopefully this low-grade and wretched man will be out of Downing Street before long, because many of his party are starting to feel the moral humiliation that already grips the rest of us. The most sordid moment yet of Tony Blair’s increasingly despicable premiership came two weeks ago when, in a response to Sir Peter Tapsell at Prime Minister’s Questions, he defended the murder of hundreds of innocents in Fallujah.

It was a deadly moment this, an apotheosis: the final fulfilment of the Prime Minister’s policy of complete identification, come what may, with the United States. Tony Blair’s dedication to George Bush is so total that he will follow the President into any killing field or torture chamber. It may in due course become highly relevant that Britain, but not the United States, has signed up to the International Criminal Court. What a very curious thing that Tony Blair came to power pledging a special kind of morality.

Historians will seek to explain this paradox for many years to come. I think there is a personal explanation for this. The Prime Minister has never known, not properly, who he is. All students of his life have noted his way of attaching himself to more cogent individuals — Gordon Brown, Peter Mandelson, Alastair Campbell, etc. — as a method of personal self-affirmation. Blair cannot survive without such a crutch, as the government’s listless, drifting ineptitude since the departure of Campbell nine months ago demonstrates.

Just as the Prime Minister lacks a real personality, he has no sense of Britain as an independent state with its own magnificent values and history. He does not really esteem our country, hence his prostration before the United States. He does not grasp that Britain will not tolerate atrocities, especially not from our allies. If Tony Blair had even an ounce of the strong ethical sense that he constantly used to boast about, the pain and outrage would have flared out of him when he answered Sir Peter Tapsell’s question in the Commons. Instead he squeaked out a routine defence of American barbarism. For all the protestations, decency and morality are not of overriding concern to Tony Blair. His policy as Prime Minister is best summed up like this: he is the partygoer who automatically sucks up to the most powerful man in the room.

This power worship has led the government, again and again, to betray British values and traditions. Take the routine hooding of prisoners, one of the breaches of the Geneva Convention set out in the Red Cross report which ministers claim not to have seen. Hooding of prisoners was banned by Edward Heath in the early 1970s when it came to light in Northern Ireland. So why has it been reintroduced? Did government ministers insist on it? Or is the grim truth that the Americans were doing it, so we felt duty-bound to follow suit?

Another of the mysteries surrounding the terrible and tragic events of the last 15 months is how the Labour party has tolerated Blair. It was led into war on the back of a monstrous lie about weapons of mass destruction (last week Tony Blair made John Scarlett, one of the primary perpetrators of that deception, head of the Secret Intelligence Service) and yet seems not to resent it. This is the most maladroit as well as malign intervention of modern times, and yet there has scarcely been a word of complaint from the party of Keir Hardie, of Aneurin Bevan, of Michael Foot. There is a disconnection here, a most peculiar inability to grasp or confront reality. Take the case of Tessa Jowell, one of Tony Blair’s remaining cheerleaders. Jowell, with her exquisite Camden Town sensibility, frets about the rights and wrongs of banning smoking in pubs. And yet she apparently signs up without a word of complaint to the politics of murder in Iraq.

But there is the beginning of a new mood. Last weekend Gordon Brown, his Cabinet ally Alistair Darling and their back-bench henchman Lewis Moonie drove up through the Scottish Highlands, across Mull and then took the little ferry across the strand to Iona, where they joined the family and others at a simple Church of Scotland service to mark the tenth anniversary of John Smith’s death. There are reasons to believe that the family of the former Labour leader expressed a preference that the Prime Minister not attend. John Smith represented an older, wiser and richer vein of the Labour party than Tony Blair does, and it is swiftly regaining the ascendancy. This week there was renewed talk at Westminster that Blair would stand down this summer. In a significant development the Guardian’s normally unexcitable political editor Michael White reported that Tony Blair now says that he will go once he becomes a ‘liability’. That point is closer than the Prime Minister realises.

Gordon Brown is seen everywhere as the successor. And yet it should not be forgotten that the Chancellor — like Michael Howard’s Tory party — supported the war as well as its disgusting aftermath. There are only two politicians in Britain today with the moral right to take the premiership from Tony Blair. One is the Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy, who lacks the capacity to do the job, and the other is Robin Cook. Cook’s resignation on the eve of the war was the most noble and distinguished act of its kind since Duff Cooper quit as First Lord of the Admiralty over Munich. The quality of Cook’s decision then has been matched only by the calibre of his conduct since. Realistically one must accept that Gordon Brown will succeed Tony Blair. But only Cook has the stature and the vision to lead Britain away from America, and out of the sewer into which Tony Blair has led us.