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Tony Blair in Wonderland

Photo by Chatham House | CC BY 2.0

Tony Blair is clearly a piece of work.  Incidentally, I’ve known about him for decades before he became well-known.

Blair went to Fettes, the Scottish equivalent of the elite English private school Eton (the former’s alumni include the composer Michael Tippett, the winner of the Nobel Prize in economics Angus Deaton, Churchill’s foreign secretary John Simon, the actress Tilda Swinton, the golfer Tommy Armour, the gay climber and child psychiatrist Menlove Edwards (who committed suicide after living a difficult personal life), and numerous legal figures and army generals).  Blair was at Fettes from 1966 to 1971.

A good friend of mine during my undergrad days in the late 60s/early 70s had the misfortune (his term) to attend Fettes the same time as Blair.

My Old Fettesian undergraduate friend, like me a future university teacher, moved in very different circles from Blair at Fettes (admittedly my friend was a couple of years older), who at that point had seeming thespian aspirations and gloried in the nickname “Emma”.

My friend was unable to tell me how this nickname came to be bestowed on the future prime minister.

The outlines of Blair’s career after he left Fettes and went to Oxford are well known.  His academic career at Oxford was just as undistinguished as his time at Fettes.  His main claim to fame at Oxford was playing in a band that did covers of hits by the Rolling Stones.

At Oxford, we’ve just been told by Blair himself, there was a brief flirtation with Trotskyism.  Blair is all veneer, so with supple convictions that drift effortlessly above this veneer, his time as a “Trot” did not last long.

It was now time to turn to religion, and he became a church-goer, Anglican at first but becoming converting to her faith when he married the Catholic Cherie Booth.  Mrs Blair combines her Catholicism with instruction and guidance from a New Age guru, and Blair has been known to join Cherie and her guru for the occasional session of ritualistic mumbo-jumbo.

Buoyed by the recent High Court decision blocking the bid by a former Iraqi army chief of staff to bring a private prosecution against him over the Iraq war, Blair decided he now has no need to lie low, and promptly made headlines by speaking of the need for a new anti-Brexit centrist party, uniting liberal Tories and right-wing Labour supporters.

Needless to say, Blair would be the leader, or the undefined ringmaster, of this political confection.

Blair apparently believes he can emulate the French president Emmanuel Macron in bringing about a “new” centrist realignment in his own country, perhaps not heedful of the fact that Macron is tanking in the polls (in part over spending large sums of money for make-up) and getting nowhere with his realignment “project”.

Such a UK centrist party already exists in the form of the Lib Dems– now largely discredited because they formed a coalition with the Tories from 2010-2015 with ruinous consequences for Brits (apart from the 1% of course) — so Blair’s new party would have to compete with the Lib Dems for the same somewhat limited electoral turf.

Blair’s pitch for a new party could probably be dismissed as a vainglorious attempt to signal he remains a “real and relevant” force in British politics.  We know he can still face prosecution for his role in the Iraq war if this is initiated from within the UK, or if he arrested in foreign country accepting the jurisdiction of the international court at The Hague.

Blair, like his partner in crime Dubya Bush, is still potentially a wanted man in certain parts of the world, so displaying his continued “importance” as the leader of a western political party with parliamentary seats is probably his main safeguard against those wanting him still to be accountable for war crimes in Iraq.

In itself, however, the notion of a new “centrist” party in the UK is asinine.

In addition to the Lib Dems there are “centrists” in both the Labour and Tory parties.

Labour’s “centrists” are Blair supporters determined to unseat Jeremy Corbyn as the party leader.

Corbyn, despite losing the recent election, nonetheless secured Labour’s largest share of the vote since its landslide in 1945 (Blair was unable to do this in his three election victories), and Blair’s willingness to form a new party may be a signal to his supporters that they have no foreseeable future as Blairites in a Labour party led by Corbyn.

Tories these days, apart from a tiny remnant of “One Nation” Tories such as Ken Clarke, do not signal themselves as “centrists”, but most Tory big donors are pro-EU corporate fat cats, and these one-percenters are at odds with the party’s xenophobic Little Englander base.

The Tory corporate fat-cat donors love globalization and the EU, the Tory Little Englander Tory base not so much.

The conjuring trick required of a Tory leader, and the US Republicans in an analogous way, is to take lots of money from pro-business fat cat donors, while conning their Little Englander/Middle America bases with largely symbolic gestures (typically involving immigration controls, subtle or not so subtle Islamophobia, getting rid of foreign aid, being tough on crime, pandering to the far-right on a largely cosmetic nationalism, and so on).

In the UK in 2017, all this has been nothing more than a repristination and modification of what Thatcher started in the late 70s:

Thatcherism Mk 1: Thatcher with her “Iron Lady” habitual snarl and handbag swinging.

Thatcherism Mk 2 (Blair/Brown): Thatcherism morphing into a seeming human face (Blair’s characteristic fake suntan and rictus smile).  Under Blair and Brown, the UK’s richest households – concentrated in London and the south-east – took an even greater share of national income than they did under Thatcher.

Thatcherism Mk 3 (Cameron/Osborne): Thatcherism, now called “austerity”, delivered with a posh-boy smirk and patronising tone.

(Wannabe) Thatcherism Mk 4 (Theresa May/Labour’s largely clueless neo-Blairites): Thatcherism must now be placed in the hands of pragmatic professional politicians like us, who will follow the dictates of focus groups and opinion polls.  Exemplum:  May has over time taken all three positions on Brexit.  Before the Brexit referendum she campaigned for the Remain side.  During the recent general election, May campaigned for a hard Brexit (i.e. a complete severance from the EU) hoping to prevent Tory voters from defecting to the far-right anti-EU UKIP.  When she lost her majority, May endorsed a soft Brexit (i.e. a break from the EU but hoping vaguely for a to-be-negotiated market arrangement with it).

No thanks to all the above embodiments of a pernicious dogma!

Tony/Emma in Wonderland is not going to reconfigure the terrain of British politics.  Emma will simply reshuffle the deckchairs on the Titanic that is today’s Ukania.

The journalist Paul Mason, who writes intelligently about UK politics and economics, has said that the creation of a new UK centrist party will be a magnet, not so much for Labour’s diminished Blairite remnant, but the neoliberal segment in the Conservative party.

This claim seems counterintuitive at first sight, but some reflection suggests that Mason could be right.

The driving force behind UK neoliberalism from Thatcher onwards has been the Tory party, with Blair/Brown’s New Labour falling in line with the appropriate adjustments here and there.

Brexit, however inchoate in its implementation and diverse in its underlying motivations, represents a repudiation of neoliberalism.

Culturally, Brexit seems to involve the rejection of a more cosmopolitan outlook, an endorsement of an insular Little Englanderism, but this is hardly the case– the people who voted for Brexit may have opted for Little Englanderism on the surface, but this is because they have been royally screwed in large numbers by neoliberalism, of which the EU, and the Tory party, have been unremitting proponents.

Since Thatcher, the Tory party has combined, or sought to combine, neoliberalism with a culturalist gloss on nationalism.  In essence, this has been an absolute bluff.

Blair’s “centrist” party, however inadvertently, will call this bluff.

Why put up with this Tory Little Englander pantomime, just to get votes from a xenophobic, and largely elderly and less educated, base, when you can have the option of voting for a flat-out neoliberal party, now unburdened by having jettisoned both Little Englanderism–  Conservatives belonging to the 1% view this confining xenophobia as a drag on wealth that has been parked offshore in places like Panama and on lucrative deals to be made with dictators from balmier climes), and also Corbyn’s Labour (which, dear oh dear, wants a return to all that outdated socialist stuff)?

A new neoliberal and resolutely post-socialist “centrist” party will probably cut the Tory Gordian Knot existing once Thatcher took office– i.e. purporting to be the party for “all” Brits while only benefitting the 1%– but also bypassing what neoliberal one-percenters and Blair himself believe to be a no longer relevant socialism (now represented by Labour under Corbyn).

“Utopia” for these neoliberal one-percenters, in essence, is for London to remain the money-laundering capital of the world.  And of course, the EU has allowed, and will allow, all of this to continue, if the UK did not/does not opt for Brexit.

Why my vague “did not/does not” formulation?  The Tories led by a thoroughly discredited Theresa May will have to face an election sooner rather than later.  Every indication so far points to a Labour victory.

Here then is a possible scenario.

With an election victory secured, Labour will now insist it needs its own mandate to implement Brexit.  Corbyn will sit on the fence this time, maintaining this must be a vote based on each person’s “conscience” (his own conscience as always being for a Lexit).

The pro-EU Ukanian plutocracy will be better organized for a referendum this time round, and in this second referendum Brexit will probably not pass.  Even the queen, supposedly “above” politics, wore a hat resembling the EU flag when she gave her recent speech at the opening of the new session of parliament.  The Ukanian plutocracy, from the land-owning aristocracy to the financial elites, will not have this “accident” repeated a second time.

Labour, now in power, will use this vote against Brexit to call for a more “democratic” EU.

Given that the neoliberal EU is constitutively undemocratic, Labour will need something akin to a revolution to succeed in any attempted “democratization” of this ghastly monstrosity.

A few cosmetic changes will in all probability then be thrown at Labour as a sop, to show how much the EU “loves” its repentant flip-flopping Ukanian member.

The old dictum therefore still applies in 21st century Ukania:  socialism or barbarism!

In the meantime, let’s continue to find ways to put Blair in the dock at The Hague. Emma genuinely needs to be given an extended opportunity to make his case for the Iraq war while contemplating the prospect of a long spell in a Dutch jail cell.

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Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.

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