David Aaronovitch writes for the Guardian. He has suggested (‘Why do they hate Blair so much?’, 18 May) that opposition to Tony Blair has driven some of us crazy. I fear Mr Aaronovitch is right, and will try to explain why.
His argument is straightforward and, though directed more to Mr Blair’s critics on the Labour Left than on the Tory Right, it has application too to Conservatives like me.
Essentially, says Aaronovitch, we Blairophobes are in denial. We cannot accept what in our hearts we secretly fear: that Blair is right and — worse — that Blair has won. We therefore continue in a fool’s paradise where the present Prime Minister’s apparent successes are only hollow and will shortly be exploded; where Blair himself is a kind of vacuum and will shortly implode; and where the Gods of the Copybook Headings (according to the Left the truths of Marxian class analysis; according to the Right the virtues of small-state laissez-faire capitalism) will shortly come down from the mountain to break up the Blairite feast in honour of his Third Way golden calf, and re-establish the eternal verities we had temporarily forgotten.
I must say I do recognise in this caricature something both of myself and of some of my friends on the Labour Left. The Left keep thinking that New Labour is all falling apart, yet it never quite does. As for me, I wrote in the Sun seven years ago that readers should tear my column out of their newspaper, put it in a drawer, and return to it in 12 months’ time — whereupon they would recognise that the man they had at first worshipped as the prophet of a new dawn for Britain had within a year become one of the most hated men in the land.
Every year or two I write a column announcing a slight delay to this timetable but insisting that it will all come to pass just as I have written. I am still saying this. I still believe it. I am beginning to resemble those sandwich-board men you used to see on Oxford Street in London, announcing that the end of the world was nigh.
And what particularly baffles people like Mr Aaronovitch is that all this furious prophecy and denunciation has been provoked not by some towering ideologue in the process of tearing society apart and rebuilding it according to some fanatical new model, but by an essentially alliance-seeking character whose manner is amiable, whose smile is perennial, and whose direction seems patient, rational and in many ways centrist.
The Iraq war, Aaronovitch would concede, rather strains that picture of our Prime Minister, but I agree with him that loathing of Mr Blair by many of his critics preceded the Iraqi adventure; they saw the war as just a new and grisly example of what they had been warning of all along.
So let me say where I think David Aaronovitch is right, but why what he overlooks matters so urgently, and ought to matter so urgently, to the Blairophobes.
He is right that Blair is not a wild extremist, and that broadly speaking (and excepting Iraq) the cumulative effect of his seven years as Prime Minister has been, by comparison with the ‘old’ Labour alternative, benign or at least neutral. Here of course I must part company with the Left: as a Conservative I rejoice that the present government, which might have been much more revolutionary, has fiddled around with and begun to erode the achievements of Thatcherism, but can hardly be said to have launched a frontal assault. The mask over those demon eyes never did come off. In a curious way, many of us on the Right have actually wanted Blair to emerge as the dedicated revolutionary that he is not.
And here a parallel in history will strike any reader who was a Conservative through the Harold Wilson years. The late Lord Wilson of Rievaulx inspired among the Right the same visceral, almost allergenic, irritation. It was maddening. We wanted him to be in league with Moscow, but he was not. He was a somewhat ineffective prime minister whose ultimate failure can best be attributed to taking the line of least resistance; so the fury he provoked by his instinct for public relations and by his foxy propensity to escape from every ambush cannot really be explained by any big, bad thing he was doing in politics. It can even be argued he was protecting us from the likes of Anthony Wedgwood Benn.
In the parallel with Wilson we may find the key to what is driving some of us crazy about Blair. Both are con artists. Both are at the same time scarily out of their depth, and wonderfully adept at giving the impression of control. Both are unanchored individuals with a talent for masking or rationalising drift. Both owe their reputations for flexibility to what the late Hugo Young described as ‘a mind not so much open as prey to a rapid succession of opposing certainties’.
Young was not talking about the present Prime Minister when he wrote that, but on his deathbed (if what he wrote then is indicative) Young began to believe it of the man he had at first and for so long admired: Tony Blair. David Aaronovitch has no reason to take what I say too seriously, but he might ask himself what it was that so embittered Hugo Young.
Let me put it like this: you are on an aeroplane and you tumble to the fact that the man at the joystick does not really know how to fly; and has no fixed idea where he is going; and could at any time fall prey to stupid advice in his headphones — is, in short, on some strange, deep level, reckless. Yet at the same time your captain displays a dazzling line in reassuring patter over the in-flight communications system and seems to have charmed most of your fellow passengers. Would not a desperate wish to alert them to the presence of a confidence trickster in the cockpit drive you almost to distraction?
The psychological syndrome from which (Aaronovitch argues) Blairophobes suffer is ‘a disproportion between stimulus and response’. Well, once airborne, a plane will more or less hold whatever course it is on when the captain lets go. It will not dive out of the sky. And so it is with the government of a nation. To those of us, however, on whom it has dawned that there is an impostor in the cockpit, the appearance of untroubled flight becomes horrifying in an almost obsessive way. Hence the apparent disproportion.
So yes, David, I have gone a bit crazy about Mr Blair, and I am sorry for it, but there is a reason. He holds our fate in his hands; and he isn’t all there.
Matthew Parris is a political columnist of the Times.