Hatred has its reward, even without revenge. Time will do the rest

We need no retribution against those we loathe, be they Thatcher, Blair or failing footballers, says Tim Lott. Every villain shrivels with the years
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The Independent Online

The fact that Tony Blair is donating the entire profits from his book to the British Legion seems to have had absolutely no impact whatsoever on those who hate him.

The gesture has most commonly been characterised by critics as an attempt to buy off his own guilt – the guilt that the Blair-haters desperately wish kept him awake every night.

I doubt Tony Blair suffers much in the way of guilt. No one who has the mental equipment to be a prime minister can afford such a luxury. Blair is also, I imagine, and for the same reason, largely immune to hatred. He imagines that if people don't like him, they have simply misunderstood him. Which invites the question, why do so many people spend so much of their energy on a target who is entirely indifferent to the effects of their dislike? This raises a further question, not so much about Blair as about human nature and its capacity for hatred.

I have always felt that the most interesting thing about hatred is that the person it punishes is always the hater – not the intended target. For as anyone knows who has felt the sting of real loathing – not from others, but directed from themselves towards others – such a feeling is deeply toxic.

Blair would doubtless read a Christian message into this: that forgiveness is the only path to inner peace, or to Heaven, as he might see it. I wouldn't presume to judge if Blair should be forgiven or not, and if so, for which crimes. But I do feel that, as inquiry after inquiry into the Iraq war plays out, an element of hysteria has entered into the equation which has less to do with justice and more to do with the expiation of hatred.

Forgiveness is one way of expiating hatred, and, arguably, so is revenge (which is perhaps what the Blair-haters crave, while dressing it up as the need for justice). But in a sense, both are a waste of time. Targets for hatred, for those who choose to hate, never stop manifesting themselves in some form or other.

If Blair were sent to prison tomorrow, those who were sated by his punishment would soon be in search of fresh blood. There are already those who, after little more than 100 days in government, hate David Cameron. But he, like John Major, is not, I would suggest, intrinsically hateful, unlike Margaret Thatcher and Michael Howard.

For people who hate, it is often a psychological need. Hatred, after all, usually goes hand in hand with a lurking feeling of moral superiority. For if those we hate are very bad, then we must be proportionately good.

Hatred is a kind of addiction. It is closely related to anger, but much more durable. Anger, which, like hatred, is a psychological defence arising from fear, dissipates when the threat retreats. Hatred is held on to, nursed and nurtured. It can become a source of identity. It may endure long after the target of hatred has disappeared, or been rendered impotent.

It is also very powerful. Hatred is one of the most important forces in history. Where would Hitler have been without his hatred, most particularly of the Jews? Where Lenin and his revolutionaries without the bourgeoisie to despise? Al-Qa'ida could not have orchestrated the attacks on the twin towers merely out of pure faith for the Prophet. Their actions were fuelled by the hatred of the modern Satans that threatened their deepest beliefs – secularism, democracy, feminism, science, the whole mindset of the contemporary Western world. It was the hatred that produced the action rather than the faith, just as it was the hatred that produced Nazism, not the ideology that produced the hatred.

Hatred of a more quotidian variety is everywhere, every day. Its mass theatre is the football field. When I used to be on the terraces in the Seventies, the smell of hatred was heavier than that of lager and hot dogs – ranged against the opposing team and fans, against the referee, against the manager. And not that much has changed. A friend at the otherwise good-tempered World Cup game between Argentina and Germany earlier this year told me that a woman was trying repeatedly to start a chant without much success. Then she happened on "We all hate Cristiano Ronaldo". The chorus rocked the stands.

There was also hatred in the popular feeling for the England football team after their humiliating failure in South Africa. The England team were typical of those who we feel hatred for most of all: the people who we feel have betrayed our trust. This applies to both Blair and Fabio Capello's lame-dog squad, but it is especially and enduringly relevant to the political class. We rarely love our politicians as we sometimes find love for our sportsmen when they do the job well.

Football teams can be repositories of national pride, but the politicians' function is to be full-time whipping boys, particularly in this country where we still haven't, in a sense, grown up politically. We still tend to think of ourselves as subjects rather than citizens, who have the belief that our politicians are, in some sense, in loco parentis. They are there to tell us what to do, but also to look after us and set an example. When they let us down, we see it as a form of betrayal, or even abuse. For despite ourselves and our avowed cynicism, we still invest our hopes in politicians.

Perhaps I am using the word "hatred" rather loosely in this context. After all, most of what I have thus far described as hatred might more accurately be described as "'recreational hatred". I used to tell everyone that I "hated" Margaret Thatcher, much in the way nowadays people "hate" Tony Blair. Having spent my youth waking up every day, it seemed, to another deeply distressing headline about the crimes done in her name, Blair will always be merely a pretender. But in reality, what we call hatred is often just a long-standing, if deep, resentment. Anger and slow-burn resentment stand in for hatred when the threat simply isn't sufficiently real and great to produce the genuine article.

True hatred comes about as a result of a much more personal threat, as a result of some individual destroying someone or something to which you are very closely attached. Anyone who has lost a loved one to an act of violence might experience real hatred. I suspect that those men who wipe out their families or kill their spouses in an orgy of violence are also filled with hate – perhaps for an institution, the police (as in the case of Raoul Moat) or the spouse or girlfriend by whom they feel betrayed. This is true hate, and the fact that so many of the perpetrators end up killing themselves tells you something about what true hate feels like.

Is there a remedy to hatred of either the recreational or real kind? This isn't merely a moral question: hatred does a lot of damage, most particularly to the hater.

Hating is stressful, and there is little doubt that under stress, cortisone levels rise strikingly, producing harmful effects on the heart and blood pressure. The Christian/Blairite solution of "forgiveness" is appealing, but true forgiveness is hard to come by. It's something that happens to you rather than something you do. Real forgiveness means that you're no longer attached to the object of your hatred, that you are freed. Just as the opposite of love is not hatred, it's indifference, the opposite of hatred is also indifference. You have effectively forgiven someone when you no longer care.

You could also argue, from an Old Testament or fundamentalist Islamic position, that revenge is equally an answer to hatred.

I remember interviewing the child abuse prosecutor and author Andrew Vachss, who brought a number of child abusers and murderers to the execution chamber. Was his conscience clear about his efforts leading to the death of another human being?He said that it was, because he saw the effects of revenge on the bereaved victims. He said that time and time again that very public revenge represented a great release for them. As a liberal, I find that stance hard to accept, even though Vachss spoke from long experience and in good faith. I have never been tempted by revenge: I find it a futile emotion. I always content myself with a less drastic remedy for hatred, the somewhat softer emotion of Schadenfreude.

It's not a pleasant admission to make but the fact that Thatcher is now practically senile is vaguely satisfying to me, given the misery she heaped on so many. And perhaps the greatest revenge you can really have on an enemy is simply to outlive them. If prematurely aged, white-haired and somewhat shaky Mr Blair is anything to go by, most of us are one day going to at least have that small consolation.