One of the most interesting ideas of the week has been the idea that Tony Blair is "obsessed by his place in history". Or at least so we were told by Clare Short in her resignation speech. It is a rich and ambiguous notion, freighted with an unspoken moral agenda.
Clearly the departing Cabinet minister intended it as an insult. The verdict of history, or at any rate the prime minister's fixation with it, stood in contrast to the Labour Party's proper agenda of reform, she said. The History Thing was undermining the success of that – and also public trust, party loyalty and respect for our political system.
These are odd things to juxtapose, for it is not clear why the judgement of history should stand apart from such matters. Yet what Ms Short seemed to be saying in the cold fury of her Commons statement was that the smoothed-out sentence of history was somehow a refuge in which to hide from the complicated business of making the world a better place in all the areas of life which modern government touches. It is doing the Big Thing to avoid having to get involved with the mess of little things which come with the exigencies of daily political life.
The judgement of history is about as near as our secular world gets to the religious idea of a divine reckoning, whether that notion is understood in terms of a Final Judgement or more abstractly as a measurement against absolute values. Yet there is something more provisional in the historian's long view.
In part, of course, that is because the question is being asked prematurely. Various newspapers, prompted by Ms Short's remarks, asked today's historians to pronounce on how Mr Blair will be remembered. The result was a ragbag of subjects – devolution, Northern Ireland, the economy, the Third Way, privatisation, human rights, government centralisation, the continued growth of inequality – on which there was little consensus. And on war in Iraq and its legacy – the damage done to Nato, the EU, the UN and international law, and the stirring up of more Islamic terrorism – there was passionate polarisation.
But in history – to borrow Chou En-lai's famous response when asked about the legacy of the French Revolution – it is always "too soon to tell". What will happen in Kosovo and Afghanistan when the semi-permanent foreign garrisons which keep local factions from relapsing into civil war are finally withdrawn? Will things get worse in Iraq before they get better? It is not that the jury is still out so much as that events constantly put new evidence before it. The bombs in Riyadh this week have raised again the question of whether the war in Iraq was a needless diversion which took Western security services' eye off the activities of al-Qa'ida.
History is a process rather than a set of happenings. Because of that its verdict can be changed by sentiments. We have had an example of that this week with the harrowing television footage of the exhumation of the bodies of the thousands killed by Saddam in the Shia uprising after the first Gulf War. See, pro-war voices have said, the proof that regime change in Baghdad was justified.
But there is a revealing elision here. We already knew about those deaths, as many as 15,000 we were told, just as we knew that those who died rose up against Saddam after being encouraged to do so by President George Bush senior, who then failed to back them as he had promised. Seeing those rebels' bodies now – and the anguish of their widows – produces no new evidence, only a disturbing indignation. What we are faced with is the emotional manipulation of history, which assists those seeking to rewrite history for their own ends. Thus this week we have also had a succession of government ministers telling us not to be concerned that no weapons of mass destruction have been found. The force of the intelligence reports which suggested they were there was justification enough for war, they now say. Not finding the weapons doesn't matter.
Yet most of the population knows that it does. For though contemporary secularism does not have the vocabulary to articulate it as easily as did religious ages, there persists an amorphous urge to reach after something greater than the judgement of history, something which speaks of absolute values.
The idea of conscience is useful here, the notion of a core of internalised values which set the boundaries of integrity. In Christian tradition the formation of conscience is a community achievement, moulded with reference to the words of Christ and the common sources of moral wisdom which grew from them. It is not a feeling but a faculty accessed through reason. Its secular equivalent may be less consciously precise but is probably no less potent.
There was a time when people were prepared to take Tony "I'm a pretty straight sort of bloke" Blair on trust. They were prepared to accept that he acted in good conscience. But suspicions of a lack of candour in the ever- shifting reasons given for the war threaten to undermine that, and reveal how out of line Mr Blair's judgement is from the collective conscience. If so, it will not be the verdict of history which proves most damning.
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