Comment at end
20th December, 2009
WELL, YOU’VE GOT TO LOVE HIM –
OR HATE HIM (It’s the law – according to the Press)
Two Times articles today by John Arlidge about our former Prime Minister. This one centres around Tony Blair’s thoughts on the press in this country – “It’s not journalism”
He’s damned right it’s not! It’s unaccountable brainwashing. And sadly it seems to have worked, at least to an extent.
Excerpt: ‘He blamed his negative image in Britain on the press, saying: “They don’t approach me in an objective way. Their first question is how to belittle what I’m doing, knock it down, write something bad about it. It’s not right. It’s not journalism. They don’t get me and they’ve got a score to settle with me. But they are not going to settle it.”
Fighting talk. That’s what I like to hear. You tell ’em, Tony!
The fuller article is a lengthy and interesting “day in the life” – or perhaps “week in the life” tale of Blair’s charity, political, religious and business involvements.
You have to admire his drive, energy, ambition and self-confidence; unless of course you hate him. In which case it’s all self-serving glory- & money-making. Or an attempt to cleanse his conscience over the “disaster” of Iraq. All self-serving nonsense, of course, by his enemies.
Personally I am delighted that a British politician is so highly lauded and respected worldwide. But then envying others is not in my make-up.
Love him or hate him, Tony Blair has not let the grass grow under his feet since shifting the family, the guitar and the home gym out of Number 10. It’s little wonder that the hammering he gets in the British press affects him like water off a duck’s back. He’s hardly here to notice it. On the rare occasions we and his family get to catch a glimpse of him in Britain these days, he looks as content as a newborn.
And why not? That seems to be how he feels. Irritating for some, eh?
While most of the British press and lobbies with a grudge continue to tell us that he belongs behind a more secure set of these –
– Tony Blair is the world’s political superstar, feted wherever he goes. Apart from here, of course. No surprise that Cherie and the children often feel like a one-parent family. Why the hell would he want to hang around miserable Brainwashed Britain? Would you in his position?
I’m beginning to conclude that such as John Rentoul, Oliver Kamm, Julie and a few others including myself probably worry about him and his reputation far more than he ever does.
The article below is revealing in many ways. Being that the Times is possibly the only newspaper in this country whose gut reaction to Blair isn’t invariably – “ARRRGHHHH! Get thee behind me, war criminal!” – I imagine we can take as a fair representation John Arlidge’s interview with THE MAN. Mr Arlidge’s own opinions and bias does have an irritating habit of surfacing at times, sadly, blemishing an otherwise worthwhile account. Reporters do not report these days – they opine. It’s the law!
Since it’s almost Christmas and therefore time for the oldies and goodies, let’s get in the style and class mood and listen to these guys. They could be singing about OUR guy.
You’ve either got or you haven’t got STYLE –
Frank Sinatra – Dean Martin – Bing Crosby
“You’ve either got or you haven’t got class, How it draws the applause of the masses…”
Article excerpts follow.
[I have inserted headings in places where relevant.]
Disregard the fact that Mr Arlidge gets it wrong about quite a few things, including the “disaster” of Iraq. He too does not completely “get” Blair. For those who haven’t yet realised it and probably never will, Iraq was a great success. (See Christopher Hitchens Sep 2005 article, shortly after the 7/7 suicide bombings.)
Is the former prime minister a philanthropist or a hustler? The Sunday Times went to discover the truth about Blair Inc
By John Arlidge, The Times
‘It may be dimly lit and humming with a billion mosquitoes, but the Milima restaurant in Kigali is the first place foreigners go when they step off the plane in Rwanda. On the terrace, fast-talking Nigerian entrepreneurs trade cloned mobile phones over plates of grilled Lake Kivu tilapia. Danish aid workers plan vaccination programmes. And wealthy jet-lagged American tourists arrange to see the country’s best attraction, the gorillas in the mist, in the morning, and its worst, the genocide museum, in the afternoon.
Today, there’s a new — yet very familiar — face in this small-town Africa crowd. Sitting at a table sipping Inyange mineral water is Tony Blair. The former prime minister is having supper with an old friend, Rick Warren, America’s most high-profile evangelical pastor, who gave the invocation — blessing — at President Barack Obama’s inauguration in January.
NEW DRAMA – WHAT TONY DID NEXT
To their right sits a wiry German banker with wiry glasses. Christian Angermayer heads a 45-strong group of European investors who are in town for the week. The talk is of government reform, privatising tea plantations, distributing mosquito nets through churches and, towards the end of the meal, the meaning of life. “The desire for spiritual awakening is the defining issue of our times,” says Blair solemnly.
On the surface, this bunch of middle-aged white fellas in the heart of black Africa have little in common. But they are all actors in a new and intriguing drama: What Tony Did Next.
“I’M A SOCIAL ENTREPRENEUR NOW”
Since stepping down in June 2007, Britain’s longest-serving Labour prime minister, who is still only 56, has said little about his plans for the future.
We know he is unrepentant about his decision to become America’s staunchest ally in the invasion of Iraq, but insists he is committed to the cause of peace in the Middle East. He works in Jerusalem around 10 days a month as the representative to the quartet of major powers in the region — the US, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia.
We know he has signed lucrative advisory deals with private firms, notably the Wall Street bank JP Morgan, and national governments, including Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.
He’s told us he has established a Faith Foundation that is dedicated to encouraging people of different religions to work together to address some of the world’s most pressing social problems. And we know he makes lots of speeches for lots of money — up to £140,000 a pop, plus expenses.
The range and diversity of his roles, and his big pay days, have left many wondering what he is up to. Is he a politician? A businessman? A campaigner for religious tolerance? Or simply on the make?
AND JOINED UP GOVERNANCE?
Blair is all four, but, rather than seeing the roles as contradictory, as his many critics do, he says they are part of a compelling new political and personal movement that will end up giving him even more power and influence than he had when he was in Downing Street. As Labour leader, Blair claimed to have found a political “third way” in Britain — a path between left and right that emphasised co-operation between the public and private sectors rather than a stark choice between the two. Now he thinks it’s time for a global third way that brings together the state, business and religion in what he says will be the world’s first network of good governance charities, private-sector initiatives and faith groups.
“I’m a social entrepreneur now,” he says defiantly. “I can engineer social change on my own terms, outside of a big government bureaucracy.”
BLAIR IN AFRICA
Blair’s new political philosophy takes small but neat form in one of Africa’s smallest and poorest countries.
Blair, wearing a light grey suit, trademark blue shirt and “I’ve got work to do” RM Williams boots, steps onto the tarmac and roars off in a Mercedes with blacked-out windows. He’s here for only two days and starts preaching his new gospel straightaway.
“Thanks to globalisation, the world today is all mixed together,” he explains over a breakfast espresso at the Serena hotel, the best in town. This is coffee country and the brew is a rich, dark antidote to jet lag.
“Government, business, climate change, religion, migration — they’re all part of everyone’s lives, everywhere, every day. That can be scary, but it’s also a positive thing. The trick is to find a way to make all the different pieces work together.”
The way Blair sees it, the only things that matter in the modern world are good governance, hard cash and religion. He wants to help governments create the right conditions for business to grow and to encourage religious leaders to harness the power of faith to do good. In Rwanda, Blair’s charity, the Africa Governance Initiative, pays for a nine-strong team of staff to work permanently in Kigali, many in the president’s office, where they are supporting local ministers and helping to stamp out corruption.
Blair is following the same three-pronged approach in Sierra Leone — and soon Liberia — and in Israel and the West Bank. He thinks his new philosophy travels well and can spread across the world. On the surface it does.
JUST A MIDDLE EAST PIECE?
A few weeks after the Rwanda visit, Blair finds himself standing on the Ephraim border crossing, next to the forbidding 26ft-high slabs of concrete that Israel built after the second intifada to create an impenetrable — and impenetrably ugly — wall between Israel and would-be Arab suicide bombers. He’s there to make sure the checkpoint is open, so that Israeli Arabs can cross from lush, green Israel into the arid, stubbled territory of the West Bank to trade and shop in local markets. “I drive these Israeli army guys crazy trying to keep checkpoints open, but it’s vital to keep people and business moving,” Blair says.
He believes that good governance — in this case, border checkpoints that are secure enough to ensure Israelis feel safe but open enough to enable Palestinians to go about their daily lives — helps to foster private enterprise and boost the economy of the West Bank, which will, in turn, encourage peace between Jews and Arabs.
“My theory of the Middle East, that I developed when I was in office but could not implement, is that Palestinian statehood has to be built from the bottom up. It is only if Palestinian institutions, governance and business work, and Israelis feel secure, that you will get a political deal.”
With Rwanda, Jerusalem, the West Bank, Sierra Leone, Liberia, plus work trips to the UAE, Kuwait and Zurich, and regular speaking jaunts to New York, Washington and Yale, where he lectures on religion, Blair scarcely spends time in Britain. “I’m out of the country three weeks in four.” On a recent visit to Washington he listed Jerusalem, not London, as his home in the visitors’ book in the British embassy. He says he misses his nine-year-old son, Leo, terribly and can’t remember the last time he took his wife, Cherie, out for dinner.
“There always seem to be conferences in Paris or he’s visiting donor countries to get some more money, or going over to the US to see the State Department or the president,” Cherie says ruefully, as she waits for her Ulysses to stop his wanderings.
HE DOES NOT MISS BRITISH POLITICS
Blair does not miss the politics and the media here. Shortly after his trip to Rwanda, on a rare visit to London, he arranges to attend a conference on investment in Africa at the Queen Elizabeth II centre in Westminster. By coincidence, it’s the state opening of parliament.
Sitting in the Sovereign Room, waiting to talk to the president of Sierra Leone, he peers through the window and catches sight of the Queen’s coach as it crosses Parliament Square. He throws his arms above his head and says: “Ah, the Queen’s speech — and I’m not doing it! Yeeeees!”
EU – HE DIDN’T REALLY WANT TO ‘PRESIDE’ – REALLY, Mr Arlidge?
Not even the prospect of one last electoral heist with his old henchmen Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson can tempt him. He has not cleared his diary for next May, although he hastily adds he will play his part in the election campaign, if Gordon Brown asks him to. Fat chance. He’s relieved not to have been elected president of Europe. “I love my new life as it is,” he says with an “I never wanted that crappy low-paid bureaucrat’s job” smile.
The truth is, after the vilification he has received over his decision to go to war in Iraq — vilification he has just reignited and intensified by saying he would have invaded Iraq even without evidence of weapons of mass destruction and would have found a way to justify the war to parliament and the public — he has largely given up caring what people here think of him.
“You get to a position where the criticism you get, you just have to live with. It’s the way it is. When you are someone like me, you create a lot of controversy one way or another. You just decide to do what you are going to do and let that speak for itself.”
His equanimity is handy since he’s about to face the most uncomfortable questioning of his political life, in front of the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war, in the new year. He’s convinced going to war was “the right thing to do” and will not stop trying to justify it inside and outside the hearings. To the long list of reasons — critics say excuses — he has advanced, he has a new one. He says the emergence of political parties that cross the Sunni/Shi’ite ethnic division is paving the way for a sustainable peace across Iraq and much of the Middle East.
“It means you are breaking out of a divide that can very easily become sectarian. That is probably the single most important development that has happened there — an extraordinary political achievement. If you can get it to take root, its implications for the region are absolutely enormous.”
He goes on to dismiss claims that it is the presence of foreign forces that has sparked the recent spate of deadly terrorist attacks in Baghdad. “The terrorism continues even as the Americans withdraw, which is an indication that it is not actually about American troops being there at all. It is to do with an attempt to destabilise the democracy. Democracy is a threat to groups who want to organise and run affairs on the basis of a narrow theocracy.”
Blair dismisses critics who accuse him of manipulating intelligence to “trick” the country into going to war. Ken Macdonald QC, the former director of public prosecutions, said last week he was guilty of “deceit” and “subterfuge”.
NEW PROJECT MAY BE FAR BIGGER THAN ANYTHING ELSE HE HAS ACHIEVED
They are, Blair says, “doing it more for effect than anything else”. Anyway, he has bigger fish to fry. He believes his new political project will end up being far more important than anything he achieved when he was prime minister, including the Iraq campaign.
“If we build it in the right way, it will definitely have more impact, because of its global reach,” he says. “Some people in politics can’t really conceive of having an impact unless you’ve got a political job with a bureaucracy behind you. But this is a different world and you can use what you have gained in politics to create something different. What I am able to do in Rwanda now is more important than what I was able to do for Rwanda as prime minister. Ditto in Palestine.”
Blair is approaching his political afterlife with the zeal of a man who has not changed his core political philosophy and believes it is even more relevant now. To his Faith Foundation, African work, consultancies and speech-making, he’s recently added two new roles.
He lobbies for the Climate Group, a business-backed organisation that encourages entrepreneurs to develop and market high-tech ways to combat global warming. And he’s set up a sports foundation, to encourage people to “make the most of themselves through sport”.
BLAIR’S MOTTO: ‘DON’T RETIRE, DON’T EXPIRE’
Retirement, or even taking a few days off, never crossed his mind. “Bill Clinton told me to go and relax and have a think about things. But then George Mitchell said, ‘Keep going. Just get straight out into something new.’ I would have gone crazy if I had tried to lie on a beach for a few months, so I started work in the Middle East the week after I left office. My motto is: don’t retire, don’t expire.”
Neither is likely to happen any time soon. The hair may be all grey now, but he’s still full of puff. There has been no recurrence of the heart problem he suffered in government. He has lost weight. “I play football more.” He’s happier, too, and looks it. “I’m only doing the things that interest me.” Take religion. He did not discuss faith when he was prime minister. “We don’t do God,” is the best-known quotation of Alastair Campbell, Blair’s former press secretary. Now, you can hardly get Blair to shut up about it.
LABOUR PARTY CRITICS DON’T ‘GET’ HIM EITHER
Labour MPs argue that a former Labour leader should be more sensitive to the party’s links to the less fortunate. Others accuse him of cashing in on the contacts he built up in office, notably during the Iraq war. Khadr Musleh, a Palestinian political analyst, says: “In Arabic, there’s a special word, eghtina, which means ‘self- enrichment through public office’. It doesn’t imply anything illegal and in the Middle East it’s considered totally normal. Yet it is a little surprising to see a former British prime minister behaving in the same way.”
Blair admits to working his Rolodex like a whirling dervish but says there’s nothing wrong with that. “I got out of politics early enough to have a second act in life. Why shouldn’t a politician be able to do that? Others do. Nobody says Bill Gates is bad for moving from business to philanthropy. Why shouldn’t a politician do a business model when they change their life?” He believes lucrative public speaking gigs are a perk of leaving office. “When leaders step down, they all do a certain amount of paid speaking and that is fair enough. If all I wanted to do was make speeches, let me tell you, I could make five times the number.”
AFRICA’S SAVIOUR – DOING GOD
Everywhere he goes in Africa, he is lauded as some kind of saviour and he appears to enjoy it. After meeting him in Kigali, Anastase Murekezi, Rwanda’s minister of public service and labour, goes on television to describe the encounter as “a blessing from God”. In each African village Blair goes to, there are young children called Tony Blair. Spend time with him and you get an awkward sense that he sees himself as a bit of a 21st-century missionary saving souls — economically if not spiritually.
The religious piece of the new Blair puzzle is fraught with problems, too. Take Rick Warren. The roly-poly US pastor may be a good partner when it comes to distributing mosquito nets, but he is vehemently opposed to gay marriage, abortion and stem-cell research — all of which Blair endorsed while in office and promoted as proof that, under his leadership, Britain was becoming a more liberal and forward-looking country.
Worse, thanks to his own actions as prime minister, Blair’s exhortations for people of different religions to live and work peacefully together fall on deaf ears in large parts of the world where religious conflict is greatest. His decision to become America’s leading partner in the “war on terror” and the invasion of Iraq soured Muslims’ view of him. Many in the Middle East and further afield regard his Faith Foundation as merely the latest attempt at western Christian proselytising.
MEDIA IN BRITAIN IS A PROBLEM
Blair knows his protestations will not placate his critics. He’s all but given up trying to convince people in Britain he means well. “I’ve got a problem with the UK media. They don’t approach me in an objective way,” he says. “Their first question is how to belittle what I’m doing, knock it down, write something bad about it. It’s not right. It’s not journalism. They don’t get me and they’ve got a score to settle with me. But they are not going to settle it.”
He gets a better hearing abroad these days, which is one of the main reasons he spends so much time overseas. “It’s not true that nobody likes me! Reading the papers in Britain, you’d end up thinking I’d lost three elections rather than won them. There is a completely different atmosphere around me outside the country. People accept the work that you are doing, as it is. They don’t see anything wrong with being successful financially and also doing good work. If I did what these people who criticise me here wanted, I’d end up sitting in a corner, but that is never going to be me.”
FAMILY CHRISTMAS – CATCHING UP WITH MEMOIRS
And so, he’s on the move. Always. His latest mysterious private jet touched down in London from Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport on Tuesday at the end of his 40th foreign trip of the year. It’s time for a rare, short “working break” with Cherie and their four children, Euan, 25, Nicky, 24, Kathryn, 21, and Leo. The family are spending Christmas in South Pavilion, their £4m grade I-listed, seven-bedroom country house in Buckinghamshire that was once owned by Sir John Gielgud. Blair will spend much of his time finishing his memoirs. “The publishers are really on my case.”
The year is almost over. The Blair decade is done. Soon, if the opinion polls — which have shown Labour consistently behind the Tories for two years — are right, new Labour will be a memory, swept away by the “heir to Blair”, David Cameron. Blair says he believes Labour can win and he “hopes very much” it does. But, talking to him, you feel that in his heart he knows that the game is up.
REGRETS, HE’S HAD A FEW
What does the man who created “the Project” most regret about his time in Downing Street? It must be Iraq. His hesitant, stumbling answer suggests he knows it but is grasping for an alternative. “I think the, um, the thing that I, I, er, er, erm, miss, I think, is probably not being there to see through public service reform. We took it a certain distance and I’m sure in the end it will help in health, education, law and order and will stand the test of time.”
And what did he get most right? “The biggest problem for Britain is that, because of the strength and richness of its past, it can find it hard to position itself for the future. I think I, we, helped to create a set of attitudes — be it about the minimum wage or equal rights for people who are gay or the emphasis on an open society — that left the country looking towards its future, not back to the past. That’s what I’m doing.”
He believes it, all right. But then he believes in everything he does, even the bits, like Iraq, that turn out to be a disaster. What’s the truth? Is he a peacemaker and many-sided philanthropist? Or is he, as his enemies insist, an all-purpose big-bucks gob for hire and hustler supreme?
It’s hard to avoid concluding that Blair is politics’ answer to Gordon Ramsay. He’s incurably optimistic, charming, fast- talking, fun, loud and successful. He spends his entire time rushing around the world on private jets, popping up on television, getting richer than he ever imagined — but mainly being Tony Blair.
Now at last he can do God
Although Tony Blair is the most openly devout British political leader since Gladstone, he did not “do God” in office, partly because Alastair Campbell told him not to and partly because any discussion of faith prompted snorts of derision from an aggressively secular electorate.
Now, however, out of office and with Private Eye no longer lampooning “Rev Blair” in its spoof St Albion parish newsletter, he can speak, and act, freely.
In Rwanda, he prayed with the Rev Rick Warren, the founder of the vast Saddleback Church in the US and the country’s most high-profile evangelist. Warren serves on the advisory council of Blair’s Faith Foundation.
In Jerusalem, Blair set out his views on religion in the 21st century to The Sunday Times.
“Faith and its place in society is the issue of the 21st century. There’s a lot more of it around than people imagine. We, in Europe, tend to think that, as people become wealthier, they push religion to one side. But the Christian church in China and Africa is growing. The single richest country in the world — America — is still an intensely religious country.
“And even if people aren’t part of organised religion, the spiritual yearning and the desire for spiritual awakening is as great as it has ever been. There is also very deep within people a sense of social obligation and compassion — a desire to be part of a society and a community. Without spiritual values, there is an emptiness that cannot be filled simply by material goods and wealth.
FAITH & GLOBALISATION
“At just the time that globalisation is breaking down barriers between peoples and nations, faith can play one of two crucial roles. It can encourage people to embrace this world that is opening up, to be part of it and to respect people who have a different faith, culture or historical tradition. To say, ‘I can relate to them because we are both people of faith.’ Or it can shut people down, create ignorance and fear and prompt communities to retreat into mutually antagonistic spheres. That is where the extremism comes from.
“I see both sides all the time in the work I do in the Middle East. There are some Jews and Muslims who believe the conflict is a cultural war. And there are others who think, ‘This is a common heritage we have in this place. We should open up to one another and learn to live together.’
“And it’s not just the Middle East. If you look at the conflicts in the world today, the overwhelming majority have at least a dimension, if not the most important dimension, that is about religion: Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Somalia, Yemen, parts of Thailand, Northern Ireland, Mindanao in the Philippines, parts of India.
“And, yes, Britain. Religion defines many of the migrants that come to the UK. It is the easiest politics in the world to exploit that situation for political gain, as some in Britain now seek to do.
“We need to fight that by distinguishing the reasonable from the unreasonable. Migration is a good thing. Britain is better off for it. But it must be handled in an orderly fashion.
“At the same time, it is reasonable to say that there is a common space to which everyone in Britain must belong from wherever they come. It is unacceptable for anyone to say that there are cultural reasons why women are treated as second-class citizens or that they use to justify violence.”
To keep track of Mr Blair’s busy life visit his official website here
Tags: africa, Brown (Gordon Brown & his Labour Government, Faith Foundation, feral beasts, from June 2007, Iraq, Iraq inquiry, Islam, Israel, John Arlidge, Middle East - Countries/Issues, the press, The Times, Tony Blair