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Friday, 28 November 2014

Please, no more awards for Tony Blair


I have a proposal for an urgent new UN security council resolution: that it shall be deemed contrary to the spirit of the United Nations charter to give any more awards to Tony Blair.

The US would probably veto it. But surely it's still worth making the point: enough already. Perhaps you recall Tom Lehrer's complaint when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel peace prize: "Political satire just became obsolete."

The latest Blair bauble -- a "Global Legacy Award" -- comes from the US branch of Save the Children, which says the former prime minister was recognised for his role at the G8 summit at Gleneagles in 2005 which pledged to "make poverty history" and agreed to write off $40 billion in debt owed by by the world's poorest countries.

But the award doesn't seem to have gone down too well with some of Save the Children's own staff. An internal letter signed by 200 of them called the award "morally reprehensible" and said it was "inappropriate and a betrayal of Save the Children’s founding principles and values." An online public petition protesting against it has been signed by more than 100,000 people.

As it happens, I'm not one of those who believe that Blair is evil incarnate. I met him on only a handful of occasions during his time as prime minister, and I was always left with the impression of a man possessed of almost messianic certainty that he was put on earth to make it a better place and rid it of bad people.

I do believe that he made an appalling error of judgement in backing President Bush's decision to invade Iraq in 2003. It was an error that involved the UK in one of the biggest foreign policy blunders of recent times -- I described it some months ago as "the most disastrous military adventure since the German army marched into Poland in 1939."

So yes, Tony Blair must share responsibility for the hundreds of thousands of deaths that followed the 2003 invasion. I suspect that one reason why so many people now feel such deep antipathy towards him (including, I imagine, many who voted for him in the past) is that to this day he has never admitted that he got it wrong. (He did, though, tell the Chilcot inquiry in 2011: "Of course, I regret deeply and profoundly the loss of life.")

Compare that to, for example, Hillary Clinton, who also backed the invasion, but who wrote in her memoirs: "I wasn't alone in getting it wrong. But I still got it wrong. Plain and simple." If only Mr Blair could find it within himself to say something similar …

I'm sure you'd want me to be fair-minded about this. (Actually, I'm not at all sure, but I'll try anyway). Because there is a case for the defence, and it was robustly put by Tony Blair's former director of political operations, John McTernan, in The Guardian.

It goes like this: first, that as a result of Blair's commitment as prime minister to halve UK child poverty by the end of this decade, "huge sums were spent and the number of children in poverty fell. It was one of the greatest triumphs of government social policy … "

Second, that at the Gleneagles summit, "the ambitions of the development movement were not just tabled, they were fulfilled. Debt became, for a time, not just an issue to campaign on but one to resolve once and for all … The persuasive power of the UK hosting and chairing the G8 – the power of the bully pulpit – was used to change Africa for good."

And that, presumably, is what Save the Children US regards as Blair's "global legacy". (We'll assume for the sake of argument that the presence of several former top Blair aides in the higher echelons of the Save the Children management structure has nothing whatsoever to do with it.)

The McTernan defence has some merit. But to me he sounds too much like a character witness giving evidence on behalf of a defendant in the dock. "Members of the jury, he may have committed a terrible crime, but don't forget all the charity work he did." It's not really a defence at all, it's a plea for leniency.

So please, no more awards. Ever since Mr Blair picked up the US's highest civil award, the Congressional Gold Medal of Honour, in 2009, he's been collecting them like a schoolchild picking up gold stars for good behaviour. "Look, mum, I got another one. Aren't I good?"

It looks needy. And it's undignified. And it sends out an appalling message: that those countless unnecessary deaths in Iraq don't matter -- that history has already expunged them from the balance sheet because Tony Blair also did some good things.

But those deaths do matter. They matter a great deal, and they are a reason for profound, lasting shame. So let's save the baubles for more deserving recipients.

Finally, and please excuse the trumpet-blowing, I thought you'd like to know that last Tuesday I was named at the Editorial Intelligence Comment Awards as independent blogger of the year.

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