Fair to Blair

Tony Blair (picture European Commission)

An epitaph for the Blair era was published today by Chatham House, the respected and independent foreign policy think tank. “Blair’s foreign policy and its possible successor(s)”, written by outgoing Director Victor Bulmer-Thomas, pulls no punches in setting out Blair’s achievements and failures. It makes a sobering read. (You can read it here.)

The headlines were attracted to Professor Bulmer-Thomas’ assertion that the invasion of Iraq was “a terrible mistake”, but it is one of those comments that is hardly news. He goes on to suggest that “a rebalancing of the UK’s foreign policy between the US and Europe will have to take place.” This is more nearly news, and is a thoroughly wise and welcome comment.

The comments by US official Kendall Myers last month on the so-called special relationship – “We typically ignore them and take no notice” – are borne out in this authoritative analysis of Blair’s ten years. Within Europe, of course, the UK can exercise influence: across the Atlantic, let us be honest, it can’t.

Back to Iraq, Professor Bulmer-Thomas goes back to the speech by Tony Blair in Chicago in April 1999, at the time of the Kosovo war, where he laid out his view of the preconditions for military action. He brands that speech “naïve”, with “little or no reference to history”. The decision to invade Iraq, says Bulmer-Thomas, “drove a horse and cart through the ‘doctrine of international community’ … proclaimed in the Chicago speech.” The attempt to found British foreign policy on principles failed when it came up against the determination, if not desperation, on the part of the American neo-conservatives for war. (This blog remarked on the contrast between the Chicago speech and the decision for war here.)

Closer to home, looking at the question of Europe, it is one thing to call for a rebalancing of British foreign policy, another thing to say that it has been a success so far.

To be fair to Blair, the attempt by anti-Europeans to stir up opposition to membership of the EU has failed. Sir James Goldsmith in 1997, William Hague in 2001 and Robert Kilroy-Silk in 2005 all tried to make Europe a central issue in the general election and they all failed. Kilroy-Silk, for example, got less than 6 per cent in what he thought would be his best constituency. There is little public appetite for less Europe than we have at present.

But there is at present little public appetite for more Europe, either. Bulmer-Thomas suggests that 9/11 marked a turning-point, with different European countries each seeking national relationships with America in their response to the terrorist attacks rather than a European relationship. Certainly, the divide between Blair and Chirac over Iraq made it much harder for them both credibly to insist that Europe needed the constitutional treaty in order to have a stronger common foreign policy. If they could not agree on Iraq, why should they need to agree on anything else?

I am struck, though, by the date. Bulmer-Thomas observes that, by the autumn of 2001, “the United Kingdom shied away from joining the Eurozone and ‘Brussels’ was increasingly portrayed as part of the problem rather than part of the solution.” At this time – the summer of 2001 – Blair was supposedly leading his Britain in Europe campaign that was supposed to change the way that the British people thought about Europe. It changed nothing: it merely entrenched existing prejudices. If Blair wanted to leave Britain a more enthusiastic EU member state, he has failed.

Professor Bulmer-Thomas says that “Blair can take credit for the fact that Britain is no longer the outlier when it comes to Europe”. Bosh. Polish President Lech Kaczynski and his prime minister (and twin brother) Jarosław deserve rather more credit for making Britain look normal. To be fair to Bulmer-Thomas, he continues the sentence “but British influence is strictly limited and the British public is still uncomfortable in its European skin.”

Looking forward, Bulmer-Thomas sees opportunities for a more pro-European policy in the future. What US governments want, he writes, “is a European Union that can make a real contribution to the international political and security agenda, and any European government with the diplomatic skills to deliver EU support will be hugely appreciated.” Atlantic and European interests are not in conflict: a united Europe is a better partner for America.

(By the way, before some readers of this blog get too excited, I think the phrase “European government” here means a government in Europe – e.g. of Britain or France – rather than a government of Europe, although I suppose the latter meaning is not excluded altogether.)

Where all this leaves Tony Blair is still in doubt. He will be remembered for Iraq rather than for anything else. All these speeches he gives these days, intended – according to his staff – to define his legacy and the current visit to the Middle East will be rather fruitless compared with the deployment of soldiers to Basra. Remember the optimism back in 1997, and look where it has ended up.

Professor Bulmer-Thomas writes that “Tony Blair has learnt the hard way that loyalty in international politics counts for very little.” Well, the British people have learnt that lesson the hard way; I remain doubtful how much Tony Blair himself has learnt.

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