Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: How power turns virtue into vice

Like Blair with Bush, so Clegg seems to be with David Cameron, too flattered now that he is in the big room with the most powerful people. He no longer seems himself

Monday 30 August 2010 00:00 BST

Will I read Tony Blair's memoir? Maybe skim through it and throw it on a big bonfire of the vanities. Millions would approve of this book-burning, I reckon. Then again, why put oneself through the agony of reading it at all? Do we really think we will discover the real, human, flawed Blair on the pages, prepared to confess all, the Good Catholic he now is?

At the Chilcot Inquiry, he was, as ever, phlegmatic and a trickster, flaunting his iron will and unassailable arrogance, and intimidating the panel. He denied emphasising the 45-minute WMD threat – having totally emphasised it during the Hutton inquiry. He mixed fact and fiction as dexterously as a cocktail-maker in a swish bar. In media interviews around the time he grandiloquently pronounced he would have backed the war whatever the evidence of weapons of mass destruction and claimed strong leadership is undeterred by public opinion or legal niceties.

The book is called A Journey. Not an honestly introspective one for sure. In his years out of office Blair does not appear to have spent much time on quiet reflection or a reassessment of his key decisions, some of which irreversibly tarnished the name of Britain, divided the nation – economically and politically – and degraded the very idea of ethical governance. Instead he keeps himself busy, busy, frenetically busy, getting rich, striding the earth as though he is a Roman God, imagining he is still making war here, ordering peace there, at will. Undiminished is his "absolute" certainty about how right he always was and is.

In the days and weeks to come, not only is his much anticipated (by others, not me) book launched, but he will also play at being a Middle East peace envoy at the talks in Washington between Israel and Palestine, then with his broad- smiling, multi-propertied family he is off to Philadelphia to receive a Liberty medal. Then there are big media interviews and book events.

Here, he has let it be known that all his earnings from the memoirs will go to the Royal British Legion, a move both cynical and provocative – as if money wipes this dark episode clean and redeems him. Call it chequebook expiation, kill and pay: it clearly works. Many now heap praise on the leader whose popularity and credibility had plummeted. Benedicte Page of The Bookseller says, for example, that this gesture (for that is what it is) will mollify his critics and many more will buy the book.

More good news is on the way. The Pontiff who admitted the co-conspirator of the Iraqi invasion into his church in 2007 comes on a state visit in October, and will apparently hand the erstwhile PM one of the highest Vatican honours for "services to peace", mainly in Northern Ireland. No one can dispute that great achievement, and there were others – the war in Kosovo and intervention in Sierra Leone, for example – that did save many lives. But Iraq undid all that.

It was, as Anthony Seldon, Blair's biographer, says: "the most controversial intervention abroad since Suez in 1956". To reward Blair now is to endorse the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, the displacement of over a million of them, and ignore the children born with deformities as a result of chemicals used by the allies. These undeserved honours inflate the reputation of a man who already thinks too highly of his talents and integrity.

What happened to the Blair who once inspired confidence and admiration? I fell for him when he was the shadow Education Secretary, young, highly intelligent, bursting with policy ideas and eyes blazing with what seemed like idealism. (We now know those eyes blaze with vanity and egotism, greed, ceaseless validation and money.) When he became PM in 1997, I danced with my husband in Covent Garden, as the sun shone down on us and we were released from years of Tory rule. Blair was the future millions of us wanted then.

He entered Downing Street and all too soon lost what he was and could have been. As did his wife, then a brilliant human rights lawyer, almost universally admired. He became obsessed with his own position, winning elections and status. With superpower Presidents Clinton and later Bush, he could only be sycophantic and overawed, unable to exercise proper judgement while claiming he had huge influence on the top men of America. What he told us was expedient and increasingly unbelievable. (There is a name for this mental condition – mythomania: the compulsion to embroider the truth, engage in exaggeration or tell lies.)

Such degeneration befalls many of the powerful who then cast themselves as misunderstood saviours. John Quincy Adams, the sixth President of the USA (1767- 1848) wrote: "Power always thinks it has a great soul and vast views beyond the comprehension of the weak and that it is doing God's service when it is violating all his laws." Is there any more pithy and exact description of Blair and the perils of high office?

Which brings me to our times and another fresh-faced, youngish politician, full of promise and good hope, eloquent and different. Something about him, particularly in the live TV debates, awakened the old hopes in many voters on the left. I speak of Nick Clegg, Deputy PM, a role thrust upon him and which he has taken to rather too well. Never again will I be as naïve as I was in 1997 – politics is a dirty business and requires much patience, surrender and compromise. But unease is creeping in.

Like Blair with Bush, so Clegg seems to be with David Cameron, too flattered now that he is in the big room with the most powerful people. He no longer seems himself. Nor does Vince Cable. Both are undoubtedly holding back the most rabid Tory ideas, and there is no need yet to give up on them. (If only they would tell us more of the Lib Dem effect on policies.) But there is a glint in their eyes that reminds me of Blair on the turn when he became impatient with critics and refused to engage with public opinion. Perhaps they should read about Blair's journey – it may well save them from taking the same treacherous road and help save our faith in politics.


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