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.