Simon Kelner: Blair's voice – a chilling reminder of what went wrong

Kelner's view


Sometimes you see or hear something that harks back to an earlier time, and you can't help but get all sentimental and nostalgic.

Oh, how much better everything was back then. That was not exactly my reaction to events in Court 73 of the Royal Courts of Justice yesterday when Tony Blair took the stand at the Leveson Inquiry.

When he began an answer with his well-practised, high-handed, phoney man-of-the-people, glottal-stop infected verbal style – "Look, let me make one thing clear..." or "Look, that really isn't the case..." – I remembered everything uncomfortable about the Blair era. We have a bit of history, Tony and I, as he alluded to during his evidence. When he made his valedictory speech about the media in 2007, he singled out The Independent (I was editor at the time) as the most pernicious of the newspapers which together represented "a feral beast, tearing people and reputations to shreds".

Mr Blair had taken exception to our campaign against the Iraq war, claiming the paper had blurred the lines between news and opinion. I don't deny we were loud in our opposition to the invasion of Iraq, and, without exhuming a largely semantic argument – I believe we made it clear what was news and what was opinion, and credited our readers with knowing the difference – I couldn't help feeling that the sophistry on show yesterday brought to mind a deeply conflicted, and troubling, time in British politics.

Mr Blair made the point that a British PM takes over when he's popular and not very capable, and leaves office deeply unpopular but eminently capable. In his case, that's undoubtedly true, and our reactions to Mr Blair are surely informed by the way we felt in 1997, when he was swept into office by people who thought that, yes, things could only get better.

Our disillusionment with a government who embarked on a disastrous imperial war was only intensified by the aspirations we had in the first place. And now, when I see him at Leveson – saying that he had nothing more than a "working relationship" with Rupert Murdoch – I feel bizarrely compromised, as if taken in by a giant confidence trick.

Yet when you enumerate the Blair government's policy achievements – among them, independence for the Bank of England, the minimum wage, equality legislation, the human rights act, investment in public services – there is little doubt that, to my mind, he left Britain a better, more tolerant place than he found it.

That's not, however, why he was up before Leveson. His administration changed the dynamics between politics and the media, probably for ever, and an example of how out of touch he is was the statement that he wouldn't have considered becoming godfather to Murdoch's child while he was still at No 10. How very reassuring! And hearing his voice was a chilling reminder of when public life, on either side of the media-political axis, became corrupted by arrogance, abuse of power, and the tangle of vested interests.

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