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An Uncertain Ending for Blair's Role
Published on Monday, July 21, 2003 by the Guardian (UK)
An Uncertain Ending for Blair's Role
by Peter Preston

The jolliest, most wryly perceptive movie of the summer is out this week. Goodbye Lenin, in which an East German mum lies comatose through the eight months that destroyed the squalid wall and awakes asking for her old loves - pickled gherkins and ersatz coffee. It's terrific - which means an automatic hunt for a Goodbye 2. How about Goodbye Blair?

Let's suppose the coma began eight months ago, in October 2002, and the last newspaper piece mum read before her heart attack was Polly Toynbee in the Guardian: "This is the best government Britain has ever had - by far." Ah, yes, we remember it well. Now, July 2003, comes the wake-up stir. And the world has changed utterly.

For peace, harmony and progress, read bitter chaos. "Dame" Glenda Jackson is baying for Blair's head. A media dawn chorus from Canary Wharf to Shepherd's Bush wants Alastair Campbell's first. Labour's backbenches are seething and heaving and revolting. Iain Duncan Smith takes the lead in some polls. An awful event in an Oxfordshire wood is the apotheosis of everything Harold Macmillan knew could knock good governance off the rails. Events, dear boy, events.

What's happened? Why has "best" turned to "worst"? So you sit on the end of mum's bed and try to explain.

Some things that inspired Polly's confidence - like Estelle Morris's calm competence at education - were gone, unpredictably, a couple of weeks later. Carole Caplin and Alan Milburn, in their various ways, weren't much help. But really, from beginning to end, this is all about the war.

Did we win? Yes, mum: easily. Did hundreds of thousands die? Some thousands, yes - but far below many forecasts. Is Saddam gone? As far as we can tell. And did he use his weapons of mass destruction on our boys? No, mum: he doesn't seem to have had any. Not even that 45-minute rocket that could wipe out Cyprus I was reading about when I had my turn? No, mum, not even that.

And what, pray, does our re-awakened lady say then? Does she snarl with fury and talk about official deceit - or does she heave a sigh of relief? No gas, no dirty bombs or long-range missiles, no anthrax, no nothing... Is that an "Oh, good!" or an "Oh, no!"?

The problem with trying to explain thus, with trying to put the last eight months in a context, is that you can't quite explain.

You can say, of course, that some people were keen on the war and some weren't, and that hindsight and self-justification always rule, OK. You can say George Bush is a demon-dunce of a figure here, an oily ogre. You can say that intelligence - mainstream or confected - has been playing its usual miasmic game. You can stress the great unknowns - why Campbell went ape with the BBC, why Dr David Kelly talked to so many journalists quite so commodiously, what misty circumstances contrived to turn a bad situation tragic.

But you still can't make everything fit. And nor can you quite stop the pervasive charades. I was, and am, against the war - but I never believed either dossier, dodgy or otherwise, and nor did any other opponent of war I encountered. Some Labour MPs might have used the stuff as a flimsy shield to fend off irate constituents, but they weren't misled. Excuses, excuses. The people who believed were the leaders who wanted to believe, not the never-were-and-never-could-be convinced.

Why chuck extraneous mud when it isn't necessary? Tony Blair is our most avowedly religious PM in recent history. We knew that when we elected him. He has convictions we can't all share. Good thing, bad thing? On the one hand, it seems, he stands for nothing, a hollow shell of a man unmasked. But eight months back, he was Polly's hero - and on that other hand, he still stands for better education and health in a Britain where reforming things happen, where vested interests can occasionally be confronted, where the army we pay for can sometimes be used to stop some savagery far away. He is, in short, not a man without conviction - but one unhinged and perhaps undone by conviction.

It may be that, some unexpected day soon, he'll be gone. There's only so much pounding one man can take. But what will that avail us? Will those so furious with Blair over his euro timidity fare better with Gordon Brown - or even Duncan Smith? Will those who resent America's influence do better with either of them? (Tell that to our Cape Cod-loving chancellor.)

The war was a mistake, mum. A terrible, self-deluding, self-destructive mistake. It may be the kind of mistake you never recover from. Bush is sinking fast in the polls - a majority on the Zogby survey last weekend don't want him as president next time round. The bloody nightmare of attacks in Iraq goes on and on. Political truth and political consequences.

But pause before you swallow too many pat theories, as peddled by all the usual suspects. People are still human beings, no matter what they do. My best BBC friend thinks Campbell is genuinely outraged about the coverage; and he may be right. My best political friend thinks Blair a true believer. And for the rest, for the details, the motivations, the private desperations, we just don't know. Repeat: don't know.

Goodbye Blair? Perhaps. But the script still needs a lot of work - and there's one transplant from Goodbye Lenin to hang on to. There, for a while, the Honecker past, its vinegary gherkins and Stasi communality, comes bathed in a wistful nostalgia. There the departed regime seems suddenly cuddly, just like the old Labour of long ago. And, maybe soon, the New Labour of love finally lost.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003


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