What has he learnt, indeed? Blair’s essay

I found reading Tony Blair’s essay – ‘What I’ve Learned’ – in the current edition of the Economist to be intriguing, and come away with a number of reflections.

*** First, I wasn’t clear what he had actually learnt, other than that there are terrorists from further afield than Northern Ireland who have issues with the UK. He shares his concerns and fears, and yet there’s a dearth of reflections rooted in his experience on what he has actually learnt. There are therefore good grounds to propose that the essay is more dogma than autobiography. Indeed, he states that – with the rise of mass interactivity and communication technologies –

‘… struggles are fought as much through propaganda, ideas and values as through conventional means…’

Hmm, ‘conventional’ must then mean tactics such as having robust strategies (e.g. military ones) and consistent policies (e.g. on identity cards). Were he to carry out a research project under the supervision of my former university supervisors, Chris Blackmore and Ray Ison, then he probably would learn a thing or two, and be able to give an account of what he had learnt. So I perceive most of the essay to be setting out an agenda for his successor and, presumably, something for his own years ahead.

*** Second, despite a one-line mention of climate change, and the requisite call for global action to address it – and despite some domestic-policy-related thoughts tacked on at the end – the whole essay seems geared toward tackling terrorism. This strikes me as odd.

  1. Odd because he has supposedly nailed something about climate change to his political mast to date.
  2. Odd because I find it hard to believe he hasn’t learnt anything in relation to what his chief scientist claimed is so much more pressing than international terrorism. Maybe he thinks that the argument has been won regarding climate change, and that the hottest political debate to be had is that related to what he calls a ‘completely reactionary’ strand of terrorism. Reactionary in relation to what? I ask.
  3. And odd because Blair himself reiterates the mantra of how we live in an interdependent world, writing that what goes on in Pakistan effects what happens on the streets of Britain. Has he contemplated how the two might be linked, via consumption patterns and nature’s (/resource) privatisation? Has he wondered whether the world wars of the future, as claimed by the UN, will be fought over (such things as) plain old water and have in fact already begun? Take last year’s Israel-Lebanon war, for example.

*** Third, I was struck by how he does and doesn’t develop his argument. He proposes, for example, that ‘we must stand up for our values’ (the fourth thing he has learned), and that we will not succeed in fighting the terrorist ‘menace’ simply by military or security means.

‘It is a political challenge. Terrorism recruits adherents on the basis of an appeal to human emotion. It can be countered only by a better, more profound, well-articulated counter-appeal.’

Perhaps the most significant word that stood out for me in reading the article was the one beginning the next line: ‘But’. Why does he fail so noticeably in providing an outline of what such a counter-appeal would look like? In parallel, he goes on to write that ‘no one ever voted to get rid of democracy’. Yes, sounds like a good point, but misses miserably the fact that suicide bombers vote/choose to use their bodies for arguably-political means. Another section that particularly caught my attention was this:

It is said that by removing Saddam or the Taliban – regimes that were authoritarian but also kept a form of order – the plight of Iraqis and Afghans has worsened and terrorism has been allowed to grow. This is a seductive but dangerous argument. Work out what it really means. It means that because these reactionary and evil forces will fight hard, through terrorism, to prevent those countries and their people getting on their feet after the dictatorships are removed, we should leave the people under the dictatorship. It means our will to fight for what we believe in is measured by our enemy’s will to fight us, but in inverse proportion. That is not a basis on which you ever win anything.

Did Blair really launch the UK into Iraq because he wanted its population to throw off the blanket of their dictatorship and grapple with the prospect of getting up and onto their own, democratic feet? I thought it had something to do with weapons of mass destruction. So it seems wholly disingenuous to conflate the rationales for overthrowing the Taleban and President Hussein’s regime in the same breath. I think the notion of just cause has something to do with the explosion of terrorism in Iraq, which operates on a scale of significant orders of magnitude greater than in Afghanistan. Moreover, if he hadn’t protected Bush’s route to Baghdad, a consolidation of the new Afghan government’s hold on power would surely have been a lot swifter. Blair is right to suggest that strength of resistance shouldn’t undermine moral certitude; but shouldn’t it influence one’s strategic planning? As such, Blair displays his aptitude for thinking in terms of smoke and mirrors, hoodwinking himself, and bordering on gobbledegook. Were I opposite him at the despatch box, I doubt I’d be sharp and quick-witted enough to shine a laser-guided spotlight on his logic. The slipperiness of his seemingly-authentic argumentation only becomes clear latterly, when one puts one of his later threads alongside an earlier one; yet, by the time one’s done that, he’s moved on to his next trick.

*** Finally, and following on, I was struck by how a word here and a lack of a word there can carry profound weights of meaning. Take the last sentence in the following:

‘Mass migration can only partially be managed by individual nations’ internal policies. Economies are shaped by forces of globalisation.’

Too true, until one reflects that economies are also shaped by responses to globalisation, and that forces of globalisation don’t just work one way, i.e. from outside a country’s borders, in a unilateral, predetermined way. (Also, globalisation is not just one force; some would say there are many globalisations, but this is another subject for another day.) He seems to say that economies are primarily shaped by external forces. By omitting ‘and responses to’, I take Blair to be revealing his neoconservative tendencies, whereby so-called free trade policies flatten the market field in such a way as to favour corporate and heavily-subsidised interests that have power to override the nation-state.

I sympathise with his view that political parties ‘need to go out and seek public participation’, and with the view that party ‘membership should be looser, policymaking broader and more representative’. However, does he really mean what he writes next: ‘Open it all up’ (my emphasis)? Not when it comes to immigration, for sure. And hopefully not when it comes to a country’s sovereignty, environmental legislation, personal privacy…

For an apt spin-meister’s response to the PM’s essay, see here, albeit a party-related spin-meister’s response.

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