Even now, three years after he left office, as Blair seeks to define his legacy from the past and burnish his standing for the future, his efforts are colliding with the reflexes of mistrust and downright scorn bred of his decision to send British troops alongside US forces to Iraq in 2003.
This month, the former British prime minister announced that he would donate the earnings from his soon-to-be-published memoirs – including a reported $7 million advance – to the welfare of wounded veterans of the wars he embraced with such evident resolve. But the families of some of the 179 British soldiers who died in Iraq have called Blair’s grand gesture “blood money.”
Next month, his old friend Bill Clinton will award Blair the Liberty Medal at a ceremony in the United States to honor his record as a peacemaker – somewhat at odds with his role as the principal ally of George W. Bush in Iraq and Afghanistan, though arguably reflecting his efforts to end Northern Ireland’s strife and his current role as a representative of the so-called Quartet seeking peace in the Middle East.
But cynics have noted that the ceremony – complete with the techno-hoopla of live Internet streaming – will coincide with the launch of a US book tour to promote his memoirs, modestly titled “A Journey,” to be published in September.
Indeed, his critics say, Blair is wealthy enough in his own right – from high-ticket speaking engagements and advisory positions with J.P. Morgan and Zurich Financial Services – to sustain any losses from philanthropy.
So pity poor Blair, resented as much for his self-enrichment since his political demise as for the policies he pursued during a roller-coaster decade in 10 Downing Street.
The opprobrium says something about Britain itself, its yearning for heroes and its merciless haste in turning against those who stumble. Once people feel their trust or reverence is misplaced – in sporting heroes as much as politicians – then worship quickly gives way to blame, leavened by a rose-glow hankering for the days when the frontiers of courage and integrity seemed easier to draw.
On August 20, for instance, Britons celebrated the 70th anniversary of a single speech – possibly a single sentence – uttered by Winston Churchill.
Last week, the debt seemed slightly different: never, it seemed, had so many done so much to revere a single speech by a former leader.
Yet, who can forget that, in 1945, voters unceremoniously dumped Churchill, their wartime champion, in favor of his Labour opponents, only to recall him six years later?
If Blair is looking for a similar comeback, he might have just as long, or longer, to wait. In the annals of modern British politics, he occupies a special place – the first celebrity prime minister of an age driven by the sound bites and snippets of the 24-hour news cycle, but neither a war-winner like Churchill nor an iconoclast in the style of Margaret Thatcher.
While in office, he offered himself as a visionary, a pioneer of muscular, military intervention in pursuit of avowedly moral goals.
After the attacks of September 11, 2001, Blair came to align himself ever more closely with the White House, telling Bush: “We are going to be with you,” as he put it during an official inquiry into the Iraq war. That judgment – most welcome to Americans – sealed his destiny among Britons.
While Blair strutted the globe as an evangelist for invasion, he offered no acknowledgment of the way his compatriots felt, either about going to war or about the rationale for it. He proved to be an eloquent spokesman for a coalition in which he was a junior partner – some Britons labeled him Bush’s poodle. But many of his compatriots said he did not listen to the hundreds of thousands of protesters who took to the streets of London imploring him to pull back from conflict.
Insisting that Saddam Hussein’s arsenal of unconventional weapons had to be destroyed, he won enduring plaudits in Washington. Many Britons believed – and events seemed to prove – that the Iraqi dictator had no such armory. For the sake of his campaign, Blair forfeited the trust of his people. Yet, when it came to the post-mortem of his role in Iraq, he insisted that he did not feel “regret for removing Saddam Hussein.”
In the quest for Churchillian grandeur, historians might conclude, he discovered the perils of ignoring those who voted him into office.
If anything, the questioning of Blair has persisted in his days out of power, reinforced by every report of six-figure speaking fees, every allusion to an ever-growing property portfolio and every mention of what The Guardian called “an extraordinarily complex – although entirely legal – structure that allows his finances to remain secret.”
Mark Thompson, whose son Kevin died at age 21 as a soldier in Iraq in 2007, told The Lancashire Evening Post that Blair “is just trying get back in people’s good books, that is my view. It is just blood money he is donating.”
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