The painful memories of politics past

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The Independent Online

For Proust, it was a madeleine. For Proust, it wasn't a voice on the Today programme, at a time when you should have been up, but were still cowering under the duvet. For Proust, it wasn't a voice that was quite light for a statesman, or a former statesman, but also quite warm and pleasant and a little bit husky. For Proust, it wasn't a voice that sounded reasonable and intelligent and authoritative, and wise. But for some of us, on Thursday morning, it was. For some of us, it was a voice, a voice we hadn't heard for quite a while, that brought it all flooding back.

What it brought back was the hope – the hope, on a balmy May night, full of music, and laughter, and tears, and surprise, that things could "only get better". What it brought back was the belief that things could be different, and politics could be different, and the country could be different, and that the country could be run by people who had a heart, and a brain. What it brought back was a man with a plan that looked good, and sounded good, and, for a while, was good, and what it brought back was a war.

The man, of course, was Tony Blair. He was talking about his book. But it wasn't a new book. He was talking about a book that has already sold 700,000 copies. He was talking about a book with a new introduction, which is now in paperback, and which he hopes will sell a few hundred thousand more.

He was also talking about the Arab Spring. And Libya. And Syria. And Israel. And Palestine. He was also talking about reform. He wasn't just talking about the reforms he'd made, but about the ones that a Conservative prime minister had made, a Conservative prime minister who'd been trying to copy him. So what, the interviewer asked, did he think of the reforms dreamt up by the man who was trying to copy him?

"I believe," said the only man ever to have won three elections for the Labour Party in a row, "that all countries' public services need reforms. For me," he said, "coming from the Labour perspective, if you like, I was always determined that the reforms should help the poorest and most disadvantaged. Insofar as he is doing that, I would support it, and insofar as he is not, I don't."

It's possible that the casual listener, cowering under the duvet, or brushing their teeth, might have missed the significance of that "Labour perspective", and of that "if you like". It's possible that they might have forgotten that the current leader of the Labour Party would have used the word "party", or "movement". The current leader of the Labour Party would have used the word "party" or "movement" because he'd think that it was important to remind everyone that he was coming at this, and every other issue, from the left.

Tony Blair used the word "perspective" because he knows that most people in this country don't like to think in terms of political parties any more, and because he, unlike the Archbishop of Canterbury, knows that whoever else the people of this country voted for at the last election, it wasn't the Labour Party, and because he knows that under his successor's successor, who of course has his "complete and total support", which is what you say when someone doesn't, they probably won't for quite a while. He used the words "if you like" because he knows that a lot of people don't like, and because it's a way of deflecting attention away from the slightly embarrassing Labour bit to the more important words that will follow.

And those words are very, very important. Those reforms, to schools, and hospitals, and welfare, and public services, did help "the poorest and most disadvantaged". They didn't lead to peace and goodwill on earth, because nothing ever does, and they didn't stop bankers from raking it in, because nothing ever seems to, and they didn't stop the "filthy rich" from wanting to get even richer, because the "filthy rich" always want to get richer, and it's probably better to have them around, creating some jobs and paying some taxes, than watch them eff off to Monaco, even though you sometimes wish they would. But those reforms did put an awful lot of money into schools for inner-city children, and employment schemes for young people, and childcare schemes for children on sink estates.

All that money didn't mean that there weren't any poor people any more, and it may have meant that some of the poor people thought that paying for their rent, and food, and clothes, wasn't anything that had all that much to do with them, and it may even have meant that some of the poor people had more poor children than they would otherwise have had. But it did mean that poor people weren't being punished for the mistakes made by rich people, and it did mean that a government that said it was very "relaxed" about rich people, and things like the financial services sector, which is, after all, 30 per cent of the British economy, never forgot that being poor isn't a choice that poor people make.

When Tony Blair talked about these kinds of reforms, it felt like the taste of a sweet, light cake, eaten long ago. When he talked about the reforms that he was hoping for in the Middle East, it didn't. When he said "we have to be players, we can't just be spectators", and "if you decide not to act, to stand back, that inaction is also a decision with consequences", and "our plan is not just about changing the politics of these countries", it felt like the taste, or the memory of a taste, of something bitter.

More than half a million people have died in Iraq as a result of a Western attempt to change its politics. People continue to die there, nearly every week. In Afghanistan, they die nearly every day. Last week, three young British men died in three days.

Foreign and military spending in the country now makes up 97 per cent of Afghanistan's GDP. What this means is a country that's locked in a war the West can't win, and can't afford. What it means is a country that's doomed to financial disaster when it leaves.

It's strange how you can hear a voice, while cowering under your duvet, and think that that voice belongs to a man who did quite a lot of good in the world, and a truly, truly terrifying amount of harm.





For Proust, it was a madeleine. For Proust, it wasn't a voice on the Today programme, at a time when you should have been up, but were still cowering under the duvet. For Proust, it wasn't a voice that was quite light for a statesman, or a former statesman, but also quite warm and pleasant and a little bit husky. For Proust, it wasn't a voice that sounded reasonable and intelligent and authoritative, and wise. But for some of us, on Thursday morning, it was. For some of us, it was a voice, a voice we hadn't heard for quite a while, that brought it all flooding back.

What it brought back was the hope – the hope, on a balmy May night, full of music, and laughter, and tears, and surprise, that things could "only get better". What it brought back was the belief that things could be different, and politics could be different, and the country could be different, and that the country could be run by people who had a heart, and a brain. What it brought back was a man with a plan that looked good, and sounded good, and, for a while, was good, and what it brought back was a war.

The man, of course, was Tony Blair. He was talking about his book. But it wasn't a new book. He was talking about a book that has already sold 700,000 copies. He was talking about a book with a new introduction, which is now in paperback, and which he hopes will sell a few hundred thousand more.

He was also talking about the Arab Spring. And Libya. And Syria. And Israel. And Palestine. He was also talking about reform. He wasn't just talking about the reforms he'd made, but about the ones that a Conservative prime minister had made, a Conservative prime minister who'd been trying to copy him. So what, the interviewer asked, did he think of the reforms dreamt up by the man who was trying to copy him?

"I believe," said the only man ever to have won three elections for the Labour party in a row, "that all countries' public services need reforms. For me," he said, "coming from the Labour perspective, if you like, I was always determined that the reforms should help the poorest and most disadvantaged. Insofar as he is doing that, I would support it, and insofar as he is not, I don't."

It's possible that the casual listener, cowering under the duvet, or brushing their teeth, might have missed the significance of that "Labour perspective", and of that "if you like". It's possible that they might have forgotten that the current leader of the Labour Party would have used the word "party", or "movement". The current leader of the Labour Party would have used the word "party" or "movement" because he'd think that it was important to remind everyone that he was coming at this, and every other issue, from the left.

Tony Blair used the word "perspective" because he knows that most people in this country don't like to think in terms of political parties any more, and because he, unlike the Archbishop of Canterbury, knows that whoever else the people of this country voted for at the last election, it wasn't the Labour Party, and because he knows that under his successor's successor, who of course has his "complete and total support", which is what you say when someone doesn't, they probably won't for quite a while. He used the words "if you like" because he knows that a lot of people don't like, and because it's a way of deflecting attention away from the slightly embarrassing Labour bit to the more important words that will follow.

And those words are very, very important. Those reforms, to schools, and hospitals, and welfare, and public services, did help "the poorest and most disadvantaged". They didn't lead to peace and goodwill on earth, because nothing ever does, and they didn't stop bankers from raking it in, because nothing ever seems to, and they didn't stop the "filthy rich" from wanting to get even richer, because the "filthy rich" always want to get richer, and it's probably better to have them around, creating some jobs and paying some taxes, than watch them eff off to Monaco, even though you sometimes wish they would. But those reforms did put an awful lot of money into schools for inner city children, and employment schemes for young people, and childcare schemes for children on sink estates.

All that money didn't mean that there weren't any poor people any more, and it may have meant that some of the poor people thought that paying for their rent, and food, and clothes, wasn't anything that had much to do with them, and it may even have meant that some of the poor people had more poor children than they would otherwise have had. But it did mean that poor people weren't being punished for the mistakes made by rich people, and it did mean that a government that said it was very "relaxed" about rich people, and things like the financial services sector, which is, after all, 30 per cent of the British economy, never forgot that being poor isn't a choice that poor people make.

When Tony Blair talked about these kinds of reforms, it felt like the taste of a sweet, light cake, eaten long ago. When he talked about the reforms that he was hoping for in the Middle East, it didn't. When he said "we have to be players, we can't just be spectators", and "if you decide not to act, to stand back, that inaction is also a decision with consequences", and "our plan is not just about changing the politics of these countries", it felt like the taste of something very bitter.

More than half a million people have died in Iraq as a result of a Western attempt to change its politics. People continue to die there, nearly every week. In Afghanistan, they die nearly every day. Last week, three young British men died in three days.

Foreign and military spending in the country now makes up 97 per cent of Afghanistan's GDP. What this means is a country that's locked in a war the West can't win, and can't afford. What it means is one that's doomed to financial disaster when it leaves.

It's strange how you can hear a voice, while cowering under your duvet, and think that that voice belongs to a man who did an awful lot of good in the world, and a truly, truly terrifying amount of harm.

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