Adrian Hamilton: The semi-detached world of Tony Blair

The horrifying thought is that he genuinely believes all the things he is saying in his speeches
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When historians come to deal with this particular period of British political history, there is one part they cannot hope to grasp and that is the sheer surrealism of Blair's performance.

The machinations of the politcians, the ambitions and manoeuvring of the Chancellor, the Deputy Prime Minister and the party, as they wrestle with the succession will become clearer as the memoirs are published and the papers released.

But what the papers and the recollections will find it hard to recreate is the extraordinary sense of semi-detachment of the Prime Minister himself, the unreality of a situation in which he seems at once determined to hang on to power and to act as if he had already given it up.

On domestic affairs and foreign policy he has become an almost ceaseless source of grand speeches, setting out his philosophy and his aspirations for all the world as if he wasn't part of the Government at all but a lone warrior on a personal crusade.

The theme of all these speeches is that of Blair the Reformer, the standard bearer of "progressive" politics fighting bravely against the forces of conservatism and backwardness. Whether it is city academies, national health trusts, security or global warning, the message is the same. The world has changed, globalisation is sweeping all before it, there is only one choice: go with it or turn you face against it and fail.

Some describe it as his pursuit of a "legacy." Others interpret it as his agenda for continuing power. But the odd thing is that it's really neither. He doesn't harp on the achievements that would make a legacy. Indeed the tone of many of his speeches - on Europe, public service reform and Iraq - is one of explaining why so little has happened. Nor is it really an agenda for the future. The speeches are far too vague for that. Instead they are made largely of philosophising, an almost continuous effort to try to put a shape on what he is up to, or what he represents.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in the extraordinary series of three foreign speeches that the Prime Minister has embarked on, the first last week in London, the second in Australia this week and the third due in the US early next month.

What is extraordinary is not so much the content as the fact that they are deliberately billed as a trilogy of profound thinking, the recollections in tranquillity of a great statesman at the end of his career. Would that they were. On the evidence of the two so far, they are almost Bushite in their simplicity and completely Bushite in their view of the world as divided between goodies (us) and baddies (them).

This is the War on Terror vision of the world, in which we are fighting for universal values against those who wish to destroy us, "the age-old battle," as Blair puts it "between progress and reaction, between those who embrace and see opportunity in the modern world and those who reject its existence; between optimism and hope on the one hand and pessimism on the other hand."

It is an apocalyptic and overblown vision in which anyone who disagrees is categorised as anti-American and anti-progress, while those concerned about the dangers of imposing a western recipe on the Muslim world are accused of adopting a "posture of weakness, defeatism and, most of all, deeply insulting every Muslim who believes in freedom ie the majority".

If this was just the politician's usual tactic of dismissing criticism by distorting views it might be understandable, if pretty cheap. Blair knows, and is deeply frustrated by the fact, that his premiership is above all marked by the single act of invading Iraq. Every foreign affairs address is at bottom an apologia for that decision and an effort to push aside his critics.

But there is also the horrifying thought that Blair genuinely believes it all, that he has persuaded himself that Iraq was a part of a great global crusade for "civilisation" against the forces of recidivism, that the war on terror is, in his own words, "ultimately a battle about modernity."

This is such a travesty of the truth, so deliberate a misunderstanding of the views of his opponents and critics here and around the world, that one barely knows where to begin. How to explain to a man with such a Manichaean view that the majority of people who opposed war did not do so because they approved of Saddam Hussein, hated America, believed that the Muslim world had no wish for democracy or any of the other motives ascribed to them by Blair. They did so because they felt that war was an ultimate act that should never be embarked on lightly, let alone on false evidence, that US imperatives under Bush were far from pure; that the invasion made infinitely worse an already fractured relationship between the West and the Islamic world; that it increased the attraction of terrorism and that, if you really wanted to make the world a better place, the way to do it was through international co-operation and international law.

In other words "modernity" lies in pluralism and multi-nationalism and that it is Bush and Blair who are looking back to the imperial world of western mastery and Cold War divisions.

But then it is probably pointless trying to explain that to the British Prime Minister, any more than the US President. He appears to have entered a nether world in which he is divorced not just from his own party but from reality.