The recent death of Hugo Young, while still at the peak of his powers, has left an unfilled hole in British political discourse. Nobody has since emerged to match Young’s combination of soaring ideals, substantial argument and Olympian grandeur. But this week the loss of the great Guardian commentator has been felt with an especial keenness. Never would it have been so enjoyable to read his explanation of how, yet again, the British political class has failed to rise to its European destiny.
In his masterpiece This Blessed Plot Young took Tony Blair at something like face value. He regarded him as the most pro-European prime minister since Edward Heath some 30 years ago. Young, like so many others, was taken in by Tony Blair’s wide-eyed and apparently sincere protestations that his personal mission was to end the historic estrangement between Britain and Europe. Young failed to understand that Blair’s support for Europe in the 1990s was no more (though no less) genuine than his demands just ten years earlier that Britain should sever all links with Brussels.
Hugo Young could only have felt a terrible sorrow at the trajectory of Blair’s career — so familiar among British prime ministers — from the early certainty that he was the one man who could do business with Europe towards indifference, isolation and eventual capture by the White House. Young might well have despairingly recalled Tony Blair’s claim, made to the Labour party conference of 1994, that Britain under his leadership would never be ‘isolated or left behind’ in Europe.
For the rest of us, however, wonderment is the only appropriate response. Tony Blair is a prodigious figure who has defied the conventional rules of politics, and indeed normal conduct, in a way that gives rise to a number of emotions, one of which is awed respect. The past few months have brought about the destruction of his entire European policy. It used to be the over-riding objective of Downing Street policy to take Britain into the euro. Now that project has failed, and the euro itself is not far from collapse. Downing Street used to take the view that the battle for the European constitution would define the Blair legacy, while the Prime Minister himself accused its critics of ‘transient populism’. Now the man who vowed never to be isolated in Europe is not even on speaking terms with other EU leaders, and is being praised for sturdy euroscepticism in the leader pages of the Sun and the Express.
For other prime ministers, last week might have been horrible. Think what a fool Chamberlain felt after Hitler wrecked the policy of appeasement by invading Czechoslovakia, or how ghastly it must have been for Heath after the destruction of his industrial policy in 1972. Imagine the feelings of John Major on Black Wednesday. Europe has been the signature tune of the Blair government and there were reasons for thinking that the Prime Minister should have been morally destroyed.
But this was not the case. According to the word inside Downing Street, he has rarely been on better form. This startling information was confirmed on Monday, when Tony Blair made his statement about the Brussels summit. It was amazing, looking down from the press gallery. In a five-minute speech Tony Blair redefined what it means to be pro-European. It turned out that it is just the same as what many of us have always meant by Eurosceptic. The Labour benches looked puzzled. They are accustomed to cheer on all things European. Now they were being asked to denounce them. The same man who in October 2002 gave his endorsement to the Common Agricultural Policy over the next decade now called for its dismantlement.
Tony Blair is in danger of reaching a state of grace which comes to very few prime ministers while they are still in office, though it is quite common afterwards. He is close to becoming a national treasure, like Tony Benn or the late Sir Denis Thatcher. Nobody believes a word he says, but this does not matter. A nice example of this came on Tuesday when Tony Blair met Goran Persson, the Swedish premier, for talks in Downing Street. Afterwards Blair declared that ‘the rebate is an anomaly that has to go’. Two weeks ago, after his visit to the White House, Tony Blair had declared ‘the UK rebate will remain and we will not negotiate it away. Period.’ One of these two remarks could be true, but not both. Only George Jones, political editor of the Daily Telegraph and a journalist of the old school, raised the contradiction at afternoon lobby. Other political journalists dismissed Jones’s objection as pedantry, and gave him no support. They have just come to accept that there is no longer any link between words uttered by the Prime Minister and what they mean, and that it is otiose if not downright rude to draw attention to problems of this kind.
In Scoop Evelyn Waugh noted that the people of Ishmaelia did not mind what President Jackson was doing at any given moment, but took a lively interest just so long as he was doing something. The latest U-turn is a case in point. Soon, perhaps, the Prime Minister will change back, or veer off on another path altogether. That would be all to the good. There have been some exquisite moments in the European debacle. The best is the account, leaked from Downing Street, of the conversation between Tony Blair and his Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, after the result of the French referendum. Straw welcomed the result. After their conversation Tony Blair turned to an aide and contemptuously remarked ‘Tart!’.
This little aside demands analysis. The Prime Minister was pointing out, accurately, that Jack Straw swings with the political wind. But the same accusation could also be levelled at Blair himself, only very much more so. The Prime Minister, however — and this is the joke — quite genuinely believes himself to be a man of principle, while blaming poor Jack Straw for pragmatism.
Last week, according to an ICM poll in the Guardian, Labour rose two points in the polls. The rest of us can only gape. Tony Blair has suffered his greatest humiliation and turned it into victory. The Tories have nothing to say and Gordon Brown is reduced to silence. The Prime Minister has been liberated, and perhaps has a freer hand than at any stage for five years. Genius!