David Runciman: Summing up the Blair years

Historians in the News

When Tony Blair came to office in 1997 he relied for intellectual muscle on sociologists such as Tony Giddens - the LSE don who strategised the "third way". Nearly a decade later, as his "legacy" looms, it is the historians who are summing up the Blair years, bringing in their verdicts. Among them is David Runciman, who formulates his critique of Blair, post-9/11, as "the politics of good intentions". What, I ask him, does the phrase mean?

"It's not to suggest that the people I'm talking about - Blair, and to a lesser extent, Bush - don't have genuinely good intentions. I don't doubt their bona fides. It's not accusing them of the bald hypocrisy of professing good intentions and underneath it being somehow greedy and power-crazed. What I focus on is the real value, or outcomes, that their good intentions have. In the political world what counts is consequences. So the contrast, or double standard I discern, is not that between good and bad intentions but between good intentions and bad consequences."
Where, from the historian's point of view, have major players such as Bush and Blair gone wrong since 9/11?

"They have allowed their faith that their personal values are the right values - together with a burning desire that we must appreciate that - to become uncoupled from thinking about consequences. In fact, it's slightly more complex. I actually think Blair-Bush are fully aware that good intentions by themselves aren't enough, but they think, for example, that in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan, where things have gone wrong, their good intentions compensate for what's gone wrong. That's the double standard I'm talking about."

Are they hypocrites?

"It's not the crudest kind of hypocrisy - where, for example, you try to persuade people that you're something that you're not. The Michael Moore view of George Bush would be an example of that. Underneath the fine words, Moore pictures a power-crazy oil baron. That is specifically not the kind of hypocrisy I'm accusing Blair and Bush of. What I perceive is the hypocrisy of simultaneously wanting to be judged by one standard, while knowing that standard - the standard of good intentions - isn't enough to justify and explain what they're doing. The lesson of history is that, in the end, good intentions add nothing to the consequences by which you will finally be judged.

"Blair is certainly aware of that and of the hypocrisy involved when, for example, he says about the Iraq war, 'I want you to know, and I want you to rely on the fact, that I did all this in good faith' while, at the same time, asserting, 'This action can only be judged by history.' Those two positions, which he has simultaneously taken up, are wholly incompatible. They point in two different directions. Blair's hypocrisy, so to call it, is that he is fully aware of the contradiction, yet the whole effort of his political rhetoric is to try and bind the positions together."

Has Blair learned what you call the lessons of history?

"New Labour have a reputation for being very present-centred and not that much concerned with history. But when you look at Blair himself and the language he uses to justify what he does, it's usually steeped in it. I don't think he's guilty of Orwellian double- speak, nor do I think he's deliberately rewriting history to cast himself in a good light. I think what he is actually doing is using history in two ways - it's what I call the double standard again, and if you study his speeches it goes back to 9/11. Simultaneously he wants us to believe that after 9/11 everything has changed. But, on the other hand, there are these enduring lessons of history that we can valuably refer to: we can, for example, make crude analogies with Hitler to illustrate what course must be taken, post-9/11. What he is trying to do is to have it both ways."

Is Blair more aware now of the judgment of history than he was in 1997? "I would say that the impact of 9/11 on him was to make him more conscious of the fact that he was playing politics in what was going to be judged, historically, a crucial era, and that he personally was going to be judged in a broader perspective than he might have been otherwise. That's then been coupled with his nagging suspicion that his legacy is not going to be what he wished, post-Iraq."...
Read entire article at John Sutherland in the Guardian

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