“The public are rightly against honouring Blair – the person principally responsible for one of the worst foreign policy disasters in recent history, which led to the death of over 1 million Iraqis.”
By Matt Willgress, Labour Outlook
The best-known legacy of Tony Blair’s premiership is his disastrous decision to join the US-led invasion of Iraq on the fraudulent and literally incredible pretext that the UK could be 45 mins from a chemical weapon attack from Iraq. Today, he is widely unpopular, with the latest YouGov poll reporting that he is disliked by 57% of the population. A decade after the decision to go to war, 53% of the population believed it was wrong.
In line with this polling, there was disgust when in this year’s New Year’s Honours List it was announced that Tony Blair would be awarded a knighthood – and not just any knighthood, but the oldest and most senior version of the honour that can be conveyed, ‘Knight Companion of the most noble order of the Garter’. The decision has been greeted with widespread disapproval, with over one million people signing a petition against it and YouGov registering 63% disapproval in their Daily Question poll.
The public are rightly and overwhelmingly against the move to honour the person principally responsible for one of the worst foreign policy disasters in recent history – a decision which led to the death of over 1 million Iraqis and 179 British military personnel, the destruction of a nation, and also served to make the entire region more unstable.
For many Labour members and voters, therefore, it would have been a particular low-point when Keir Starmer publicly backed the knighthood on ITV’s Good Morning Britain programme. Speaking in support, the Labour leader said ‘I understand there are strong views on the Iraq War. There were back at the time and there still are, but that does not detract from the fact that Tony Blair was a very successful Prime Minister of this country and made a huge difference to the lives of millions of people in this country’.
The argument Starmer put forward here fails to understand that the Iraq war overwhelmingly overshadowed the popular elements of Blair’s premiership, contributing not only to a disastrous loss of Labour votes (which has still not been recovered from in some areas,) but also a dramatic loss of Labour Party members and activists.
Linked to this, Starmer’s backing of Blair’s knighthood was also poorly judged if – as the Labour leadership has repeatedly insisted – you are laser-focused on winning elections. For the vast majority of the people who dislike Blair from across the political spectrum, and certainly the millions who marched against the war, Iraq isn’t just one amongst a pick-and-mix of things for which the former Prime Minister is known; it is the definitive thing that – rightly – overshadows all else. Supporting the knighthood is not, in any credible sense, a vote-winner.
It also sits uncomfortably with the prominent anti-war pledge in Starmer’s leadership campaign, which the front bench’s increasingly hawkish stance on foreign policy issues generally seems to suggest is yet another of those pledges now consigned to the dustbin of history.
While Starmer’s comments are wildly out of tune with public opinion, they do resonate with the establishment – and minority – view embodied in those media, political and economic institutions where Blair is popular. In that respect, they reflect a broader strategy of Starmer and Co of trying to illustrate the Labour Party as not only a safe pair of hands for the ruling class, but the safest pair of hands for the ruling class – courting the establishment and signalling that Labour in government will not rock the boat.
We need a different strategy. Rather than cosying-up to the bosses, media barons and war-mongers, Labour should be building a positive coalition for transformative change – based on popular policies that meet the challenge of the pandemic, the ongoing economic crisis and stagnation, the climate emergency, and the spiralling cost of living crisis.
Inaction on all those fundamental issues in recent decades has led to a crisis of faith amongst many in the potential for change. The task ahead to change the country for the better is to put forward an agenda – and build movements across the country – that will deliver real change and democracy in our politics, our workplaces, and our public services.
Honouring disgraced former Prime Ministers who are overwhelmingly and rightly reviled by the vast majority of people, is a barrier both to Labour winning and achieving real change.
- FORUM: “No to Blair’s Knighthood – No Return to Blairism” – Thu, 10 Feb, 18:30. With: Steve Howell (Deputy Director, Strategy & Communications for Jeremy Corbyn in 2017 & author of the novel Collateral Damage) , Rachel Garnham (Campaign for Labour Party Democracy) & Sami Ramidani (Iraqi anti-war campaigner.) Register here.
- Stop the War Coalition called protest: No Knighthood for Tony Blair, 13th June, Windsor – details here.