Melvyn Bragg: Stop kicking a good Prime Minister

It is curious how difficult we find it to take good news in this country. Perhaps we can't believe our luck

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It has been open season on Tony Blair for more than a year, but he has never been in worse trouble than now. He has been reviled, sneered at, patronised, accused of having "blood on his hands" and spoken and written of in lynching terms. His wife, an independent career woman who combines this with bringing up a family and taking an effective part in many charities, has been, and continues to be in certain tabloids, the perpetual target for idle and abusive torment. The effect of this on their immediate family has been ignored. We are, in part, a kicking culture in Portugal and in print.

It has been open season on Tony Blair for more than a year, but he has never been in worse trouble than now. He has been reviled, sneered at, patronised, accused of having "blood on his hands" and spoken and written of in lynching terms. His wife, an independent career woman who combines this with bringing up a family and taking an effective part in many charities, has been, and continues to be in certain tabloids, the perpetual target for idle and abusive torment. The effect of this on their immediate family has been ignored. We are, in part, a kicking culture in Portugal and in print.

We have heard rumours of Tony Blair's resignation, gloating warnings about further illness. We hear of his being overthrown, and there appear to be cults which mushroom in soggy wine bars competing to see who can vilify him most blackly. Most people handing out this venom could not take it for two minutes and yet there is in our culture the curious belief that a political leader has, by that definition, lost all humanity.

It's to Blair's credit, I think, that he has not lost his. It is an indication of his resilience and strength that he is still in the ring in which I hope he will stay to win another election, which I think he will. There is a lot more to do.

It is a minority view, I know, but many British politicians are decent and hardworking, neither corrupt nor lying bastards, at least as honest and fair as most journalists. Although politicians wish to change the world we live in (and we elect them to do that, and it needs changing), the idea of their being power-seeking, power-crazy, power-sexed monsters is both damaging and destructive. You can want to improve society without wanting to crush it. To take extremes, you can veer towards Attlee or Hitler; both of them sought power.

But Iraq? Yes. We'll get to Iraq.

Let's begin on the home front. Here Tony Blair and his team have at the very least shored up a crumbling ruin. In the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties, the physical infrastructure of this country's public service was allowed to perish. Those who worked in that sector were neglected, their efforts often mocked. Greed became deeply rooted and hard to shift. In the attempt to eradicate socialism, privatisation (which can have its uses) was introduced as banditry and pillage. There was no such thing as society.

Starting two or three years late after the 1997 election - with a caution understandable to those in the Labour party numb with shock at winning after 18 years and fearful that the surreal victory would be a one-off - Labour has got on with the job of making this a better place to live.

It is curious how difficult we find it to take good news in this country. Perhaps we are having a love affair with failure. Perhaps we are still in a post-imperial sulk where nothing is ever going to be as good again. Perhaps we can't believe our luck. Self-flagellation and self-loathing now pose as self-analysis.

Tony Blair and his Government have done things that matter to many, many people and it is grossly unjust to have this kangaroo trial of Blair without taking some of that evidence into account.

The minimum wage has benefited more than one and a half million people, two thirds of them women. The number of people in work is at a record level and almost half a million young people have been helped into jobsby Labour's New Deal, another programme opposed by the Tories. More than two million children have been lifted out of absolute poverty, and pensioner households are, on average, £1,350 a year better off than in 1997. In the health service: 67,000 more nurses; 19,000 more doctors; waiting lists down by 250,000; heart disease down by 23 per cent; cancer down by 10 per cent. In schools there are 28,000 more teachers, and our 10- to 15-year-olds are now top of the league of reading abilities. Crime is down 25 per cent, there are three million fewer victims of crime in 2002/3 than in 1997 and the money finally piling into the physical infrastructure.

For this he gets a hammering much darker than the usual bruising which follows bad local election results. It has to be Iraq. Iraq is the subject which unifies the hangers and floggers of the Prime Minister. It is also a subject on which people of great integrity and decency feel that they have been mortally betrayed by someone they trusted and this cannot be sidestepped.

I was in favour of the invasion of Iraq as were the majority of the British at the time. There was legitimate authority at the United Nations to invade and Blair's attempt to secure extra authority was technically unnecessary, morally worth it and doomed by the realpolitik of Chirac, whom I find hard to respect.

So the coalition went in looking for WMD and found none. I was convinced they were there, not least because I understood that the West had sold them to the Iraqis some years before. I did not need them to be there to consider Saddam worth removing but they were made so much of that their non-appearance was a blow to many of those who went along with the coalition.

I presume that Blair is, correctly, waiting until Lord Butler makes his report before addressing the electorate on this.

I do not think he lied. It very much looks as if he was fed inaccurate information. It looks as if that information was worked in a way to whip up the public. In the preparation for war, the exaggeration of the enemy threat may be reprehensible but it seems sadly par for the course and, though never excusable, thought necessary to help steal resolve for an act which embarks on a dehumanising course.

But, like most Iraqis, I'm glad Saddam has gone. The real trouble in Iraq over the past few months has come from Iraqis and their terrorist allies and most of it has been directed against Iraqis who are trying to set up a democracy. The fundamentalist "weapon" has been the suicide attack which, more than anything else, destroys all before it.

And of course the coalition has done harm in Iraq. The proof of torture - though, dare one say it, nowhere near the scale of Saddam's torturers - is a terrible indictment and cannot be erased.

But the fact that Tony Blair will not turn his back on the decision which has now moved Iraq into a new situation could be compared to his decision to stand by the peace process in Northern Ireland.

If, as is not beyond possibility, Iraq does manage to succeed through elections, if it does defeat its internal terrorists, there could come a time when the toppling of Saddam might be seen as an important stage in the slow stabilisation of the Middle East. Time can turn the meaning of contemporary events inside out.

I think that Tony Blair is right not to run away from Iraq just as he was right to go in.

Another way of looking at this is that it is not cowardly of him to stand, almost alone it seems, and take the heavy flak over Iraq. In this way he shields the rest of his Government and lets them get on with the task of making the UK a better place to live in. This I believe was the chief reason that this tough complicated Christian man came into politics.

The author is a writer, broadcaster and Labour peer

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