View Full Version : Blair Wants History To Judge Him, But The Police Are First In Line

02-05-2007, 09:43 AM
Blair wants history to judge him, but the police are first in line


Simon Jenkins

In such cases I always recommend defenestration. The public loves it. Wrestle the victim up the Downing Street stairs, open the sash, a quick push, a scream and splat. History dusts its suit, straightens its tie and goes back to work.

The killing of Thatcher in 1990 rescued the Conservatives and brought them the biggest popular vote in history. The dropping of Churchill, Eden and Kinnock revitalised their respective parties. The failure to “window” John Major in 1995 was a disaster for the Tories. British politics is far too kind. As a certain Tony Blair keeps saying, we lack the courage to face change.

Last week Blair lost the one thing no leader should ever lose: the initiative. The highest office in the land is at the mercy of a policeman.

The moment cash for peerages was mooted by Scottish and Welsh MPs, Blair must have known he was vulnerable under the 1925 and 2000 acts. He should have summoned Tony Wright’s Commons public administration committee, proposed an inquiry and make a clean breast on the whole subject. Every document should have been placed before the committee, with the other parties, who are just as guilty, invited to do the same. There would have been strength in numbers, the Augean stables cleaned before the police arrived.

Instead we have Blair twice questioned by Scotland Yard, his friend Lord Levy twice arrested and dangerously aggrieved, and a dawn raid on the flat of a close aide. We even have the prime minister silenced by the police lest he communicate with an accomplice. This is not Watergate, when Nixon broke the law to rig an election. It is rather Profumo without the sex. Blair did what all his 20th century predecessors had done, but with an unwise choice of friends.

Ever since the Formula One scandal — when a party donor “bought” a policy decision — Blair has thought he walked on ethical water. Gifts, loans, gongs, coronets, jobs are to him the small change of power. He is a man who waged five wars and rubbed shoulders with princes and presidents. Whenever charged with making a mistake he declares his accountability to his Maker and history. Mortals merit not apology but charm.

Suddenly Blair finds himself interrogated not by a regius professor of history but by Yates of the Yard. He is asked not about his crusade for world peace but about some wretched business over party funds. They are mice droppings in Escoffier’s kitchen. The legacy of a great prime minister cannot be insulted so. In his BBC interview on Friday Blair let slip the pomposity that the fault must lie in “relations between modern politics and the modern media”. The one-time emperor of spin was blaming the press, reduced to the banality of his predecessor, John Major.

Joseph Conrad’s ironical critique of moral leadership, Lord Jim, concludes that most people contentedly live “by ideals of conduct that have never undergone the trial of a fiendish and appalling joke”. Only on board the rust bucket Patna is Jim’s inner worth tested by “a joke hatched in hell” and found wanting. Blair’s fate at the hands of Assistant Commissioner John Yates is likewise. He might prefer that his deeds await the judgment of history, but he has no such choice. The joke we play on politicians is never to try them for the crimes of which they are guilty. We catch them as we can.

Can Blair now salvage any dignity, if not legacy, from his endgame? His references to hospitals and schools look threadbare as the scale of waste in his turbulent reforms becomes ever more apparent. His visits to world trouble spots are desperate, as are his orotund appeals to the world to save itself from mistakes he did so little in office to correct. He has run out of time to engineer an honourable retreat from Iraq. Why he failed to move Gordon Brown from the Treasury or why he broke his pledge to stay a full term remain a mystery. He seems in retrospect a shilly-shallying leader with no killer instinct.

While Blair’s legacy is a narrative for his imagination, the “legacy of Blair” is never more vivid than in the manner of his going.

Cash for peerages is emblematic of a governing style that has always seemed unfit for purpose. A patronage state dominated by Downing Street can no longer bear the required weight of public confidence. Cabinet government has collapsed, as ministers campaign against each other’s policies (as on hospitals) or discard responsibility for the doings of their predecessors (as at the Home Office). When critics charge British government with being presidential they misunderstand the word. Presidencies have checks and balances. Britain under Blair has been not presidential but courtly, a place of jesters, spinners, flattery, feuds and favouritism. Above all it has revolved round patronage, whose abuse may be its downfall.

Last week saw the return on stage of that icon of Blair cronyism, the attorney-general, Lord Goldsmith. His office is supposedly that of independent legal adviser to the crown. Yet his controversial certification of the Iraq war as legal and the Saudi arms contract as incorrupt strained credulity. In both cases the weight of professional opinion was against him, yet the best he could do was to cite “national security” and “foreign relations” as overriding prima facie rule of law. An attorney-general is not a defence or foreign secretary; he is supposed to tell us the law.

If the executive wishes to overrule him, he should make it do so publicly and accountably. In the Saudi case the appeal to national security was ludicrous.

History has assigned to his lordship the role of presiding over the last act of Blair’s administration. Assuming Yates is on to something, Goldsmith must decide whether (or by what process) a prosecution of cash for peerages is to be conducted. His position is impossible. He gave a large sum of money to the Labour party, was made a lord and was given a top job by Blair. He must decide whether a similar sequence of events, in the case of other individuals, merits criminal prosecution, a prosecution that could put his benefactor in the witness box if not in the dock.

On Thursday he told the BBC (Britain’s parliament by default) he had consulted a few other lords about the propriety of this and they thought it fine. On what planet do these gilded ones live? Such conflict of interest would be beyond ridicule under Louis XIV, yet it passes muster in the court of king Blair.

Any cabinet must have available to it in-house legal advice of the sort provided by an able attorney-general, but that advice must be public and challengeable or, if secret, will be regarded as part of a political decision. In the latter case the same man cannot hope to carry public confidence as an independent legal voice, let alone as crown prosecutor.

That role must be moved to the new supreme court or at least the lord chancellor’s office.

Total command and control over the machinery of government has been the hallmark of Blair’s style, as taught by his mentor, Margaret Thatcher. It was described in 1997 by his longest-serving aide, the now-troubled Jonathan Powell, as a shift from a government of feudal baronies “to a more Napoleonic system”. The metaphor was ominous. While the emperor pursued glory abroad the lack of able barons at home degenerated public administration into centralised dictatorship. Today’s shambolic upheavals in health, education, police and prisons are due to just such Napoleonic centralism.

The patronage state is now drifting on autopilot. As if oblivious of the scandal swirling round appointments to the House of Lords, Jack Straw, the leader of the Commons, proposed last week to entrench the practice. He suggested that half a new second chamber be elected and the other half appointed, with two-thirds of the latter chosen by the parties. Since the elected half is bound to be on some party list system, Straw’s proposal would ensure that 80% of the new second chamber would fall under the patronage of the party leaders. Its composition would be even less independent than now.

At times I can understand countries whose officer class, sitting in their barracks over brandy and cigars, finally lose their cool and send tanks into the streets to “defend the nation” against corrupt ministers and weak assemblies. Britain in 2007 has a leader who refuses to go and a parliament that refuses to remove him. His fate is in the hands, if not of the Brigade of Guards, then of a commissioner of police. A written constitution, anyone?