The headline in The Times last week that made me froth a little was:
“Censored: Blair’s links with Rwanda”
Apparently, your friend and mine, Tony Blair has been granted a special constitutional status which no other previous premier has had. This status has led the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to refuse Freedom of Information Act requests to disclose its communications with Tony about Rwanda. Tony denies any commercial interests in Rwanda, and I’m sure that’s true. His involvement is via a registered charity called “The Tony Blair Governance Initiative” which provides mentoring to African leaders, including Rwanda’s premier Paul Kagame. Tony likes Paul, they are big mates, it seems. However, Mr. Kagame has a somewhat dubious reputation when it comes to human rights, operating a sinister security machine with accusations of murder, false charges, unlawful detentions, and plots to assassinate dissidents in the UK. For more detail I commend this post from The Economist
In the same week, we witnessed a ceremony to mark the 50th anniversary of the death of Winston Churchill. Two Prime Ministers, two very different men. Could they in any way be comparable? One thing which I would suggest they do have in common is that they were of course skilful orators. I give Blair credit for that. His speech to the US Congress post 9/11 was excellent.
However, whilst I always regarded Blair as a highly effective public speaker, there is no sense in which he could match the awe-inspiring mastery and delivery of Churchill, particularly in the depths of what seemed to be impending national catastrophe. There are other matters too. One is, of course, that Churchill wrote his own music, so to speak. I think Blair always had a coterie of writers. Another is that a speech from Blair was always like a Chinese meal. You felt full and satisfied for a while, but very soon after you felt a bit empty. Churchill was prime roast beef with all the trimmings.
Blair’s knack was to be all things to all men, to tell people what they wanted to hear, and appear sincere. As the saying goes, “if you can fake sincerity, you’ve got it made”; and that was, in essence, Blair summarised. Churchill, on the other hand, was a conviction man. He was willing to speak out about the threat from Germany when it was unfashionable to do so, and to spend time in the political wilderness. Blair honed in on power at all costs like a heat-seeking missile. More, Churchill had seen something of the world as a soldier and a journalist who saw war at first hand. He showed that courage and principle in his indomitable stance when the country seemed doomed to inevitable defeat, and he would have known his fate had the Germans invaded. I read somewhere that only a threatened mutiny by his service chiefs prevented him from actually taking part in the D Day landings.
Blair, of course, has no direct knowledge of such things. He has always remained safely cloistered in the cosy world of the Bar and the Westminster elite. Contemporaneous accounts record Blair’s opposition as a rookie Parliamentary candidate to the Falkland’s War. He was in favour of some unknown “compromise”.
He has since changed his tune, and seems to have become enamoured of the whole process of war. Some have speculated that he learned this lesson by the popularity afforded to Margaret Thatcher after that conflict. I suspect it may be part of a more complicated “busy body” complex. But in any event these are not wars where there is any possibility of direct come back on him or his family. I don’t think he felt any real connection with or understanding of the men and women that his governments have asked to fight and bleed and die.
There is a book someone in the muddle of my bedroom called “Apache” by Ed Macy. Macy had been a paratrooper with the goal of making it into Special Forces, until a random accident when he was out training damaged his body too greatly for him to realise his dream. Undeterred, he “blagged” a medical and then ended up in the Army Air Corps, ultimately flying the deadly Apache helicopters in Afghanistan. His job was close air support for the troops on the ground. In short, to kill the Taliban with the wide variety of hugely powerful weapons systems that the helicopters posses, and this he and other such pilots did with aplomb. In the book Macy recounts how one day they got the pleasure of a visit from Blair at Camp Bastion. Blair was thoroughly charming and shook everyone’s hand in proper style, and asked the boys (and girls – there was at least one female pilot) of the squadron what they did. They explained they flew Apaches. Blair said that was great, but made some comment about what wonderful humanitarian work they were doing which made it perfectly plain that he had absolutely no idea what an Apache was, or what their job entailed.
Churchill had a rapport with servicemen. Churchill would have known what an Apache was, and would have been keen to have a brew with the pilots, inspect one, and if possible have a go in one. Again, buried somewhere in a jumble of books are four volumes entitled “A History of the English Speaking Peoples”, by Winston Churchill.
It is a magnificent work, easy to read and digest because of the clarity and precision of its prose. It is the work of a rigorous man who understands the history of his country, and how the values which he defended as a wartime prime minister had come to be forged. These are not, I think, qualities which I would ascribe to Blair, who seems to have a grasp of contemporary media techniques but no grasp at all of his country’s past. This is not to say that Churchill didn’t have his faults and errors of judgment. He could be dogmatic, his military strategies can be criticised, not simply the disastrous Gallipoli campaign.
I read somewhere that Churchill once proposed dropping Gas bombs on the Kurds; unfortunate. I recently learned that Churchill as Chancellor of the Exchequer oversaw Britain’s disastrous return to the Gold Standard, which resulted in deflation, unemployment, and the miners’ strike that led to the General Strike of 1926. In fact, when I thought about writing this post I did wonder if in fact there could be more parallels in qualities. The further I thought about it the less there seemed to me. Blair the great seducer, the persuader, the charmer and the fixer, now with his snout in the trough of shadowy consultancies and back stage deals; Churchill the soldier, the maverick, the ultimate leader in crisis, the man of letters.
No comparison at all. That is why Churchill will always be remembered, and ultimately, Blair will be consigned to the wilderness of ignominy.
Gildas the Monk