Howard Jacobson: Tony Blair can't help but look both ways in the matter of Saddam Hussein's execution

Allow him to be in two places at once is all I say. Grant him, if nothing else, the privilege of ambivalence
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The Independent Online

In his indispensable essay Of the Inconstancie of Our Actions, Montaigne cites, as an example of man's unfixedness of character, the tyrant Nero, now "the perfect image of all cruelty", now weeping like a baby at having to sign the sentence condemning a man to death. "Would to God," Nero sobs, "I had never been taught to write." Thus are we not today the person we were yesterday.

Fortunately for Tony Blair, he does not have to sign the warrant for Saddam Hussein's execution, else we might see him blotting the paper with his tears. And then he would have the charge of "Hypocrite!" to face, along with "Bliar!".

As it is, even with the decision out of his hands, the Prime Minister has come in for some stick this week for appearing to look both ways in the matter of Saddam's hanging. "We are against the death penalty, whether it's Saddam or anybody else," he told reporters. But when asked whether that meant he looked forward to Saddam being spared, he refused to comment. "I happen to want to express myself in my own way, if you don't mind," he snapped.

I am sympathetic to his predicament. It is always hateful to have people telling you that if you think this, you must think that. Our logic is our own, however illogical it may look to someone else. "We float and waver between divers opinions," Montaigne says. "We will nothing freely, nothing absolutely, nothing constantly."

It sounds like evasion - "I happen to want to express myself in my own way, if you don't mind." It may even be evasion - though since when was that a sin in politics, a word that all but means evasion? But it may also be the impatience complexity feels when harried by simplicity.

Tony Blair, complex? Goes against the grain, I know. But that's only because we have decided against complexity in ourselves when we think of him. Some people we can only contemplate with simplicity. Tony Blair, Nero, Saddam Hussein... It is only when their destiny darkens that we have second thoughts and recover our humanity in recalling theirs.

Not that I am asking even that much on behalf of Blair. Allow him to be in two places at once is all I say. Grant him, if nothing more, the privilege of ambivalence. You know what it's like when cross-examiners get going on you. It doesn't matter whether it's the Spanish Inquisition, John Humphrys, or just a bored newspaper reporter, you have to answer them their way - do you or don't you, are you or aren't you, yes or no. Try saying, "Well I am and I'm not." Try putting that to Paxman: "I cannot answer your questions in the form you continue to insist upon because a yes is often equally a no."

Wouldn't go down too well in the morning papers either. "Prime Minister says a yes is often equally a no." But it is a perfectly reasonable protestation to make. We accept the necessity for ambivalence in art - Anna Karenina both does and doesn't have it coming; Lord Jim both is and is not a coward - so why not in politics? By what law do we demand that politicians, unlike all other men, cannot hold contradictory beliefs?

If I am less outraged than some by Tony Blair it is because I had less rigid expectations of him. That is to say I had none. What did everyone else think they were doing, nine years ago, letting off fireworks and dancing in the streets because a smart lawyer with a tight jaw on a hungry face, a dodgy past in religion and rock 'n'roll, and a political agenda all but identical to the party we were throwing out promised us a new tomorrow?

Much of the rage which Blair inspires in us today is rage against ourselves for being such fools to optimism. But optimism is never justified in human affairs. Optimism simplifies not only what's possible but how we will feel about the possible should it ever be realised. That no politician ever delivers what we want is partly a consequence of his failings - which might well include arrogance, duplicity, bad judgement and greed - but for the most part is to be explained by our never really wanting what we thought we wanted. Or by our just as badly wanting something else. For we, too, are ambivalent.

Montaigne again - "We are all framed of flaps and patches and of so shapelesse and diverse a contexture that every peece and every moment playeth his parte. And there is as much difference found betweene us and our selves as there is betweene our selves and other."

This is no cynical justification of double-dealing. The point of owning up to our inconstancy is that we should the better know ourselves. "A man must thorowly sound himself, and dive into his heart, and there see by what wards or springs the motions stirre."

It is not for me to guess how thoroughly the Prime Minister has sounded himself when it comes to Saddam Hussein's execution, nor how often, in other matters, he dives into his heart. "Never!" his enemies will exclaim, but that is to fly in the face of Montaigne's teaching, that a man might be obstinate one day and supple of conscience the next; now dastardly, now honourable; now bold, now frightened - according to "the blast of accidents".

We do not, anyway, mean to make a hero of conscience or prevarication of Tony Blair. He looked perplexed and ill-tempered when questioned about the fate of Saddam; he was a politician caught on the hop, not a philosopher propounding inconstancy of judgement. And he had to measure every word, firstly because the final decision as to Saddam's fate must be seen to be Iraq's, and secondly in deference to the feelings of George Bush, a hometown, hanging man.

But none of this need hinder fellow-feeling with Blair's equivocations. You can't always say what you would like to say, even supposing you know what the thing you'd like to say is.

Hanging's wrong, but it's a pity we don't do more of it. Whoever argues otherwise (on the grounds that what's wrong is always wrong) is a fanatic, and since whoever argues otherwise is also a liberal, he must own himself to be holding contradictory positions. But there you are: we are all nothing constantly.

As for Saddam Hussein, the heinousness of his crimes cannot exempt him from our principled compassion. Except that it does. I'm with Tony. I'm against the death penalty, only I'm not.