UPDATE: John Rentoul carries the below at this Independent blog. JR still believes the “right thing” for Blair to have done at the Inquiry would have been to apologise. If “sorry sems to be the hardest word”, it’s because it would NOT have been the last word, as it is for most of us when we apologise. THAT’S my point.
Comment at end
6th February, 2010
THE POLITICS OF APOLOGIES
I have a couple of bones to pick with John Rentoul. He won’t mind, I’m sure, as he knows I know he is probably the journalist most trusted to present fairly on most issues of politics, but especially as regards Tony Blair.
At the end of a recent post on Rentoul and the BBC employee I mentioned that I disagreed with Mr Rentoul regarding Tony Blair’s failure to apologise to the bereaved families present.
Saying that Blair “should have acknowledged the audience in the room”, and “He should have turned to them at some point and paid his respects to the fallen”, John Rentoul also says at Another act in the leader’s tragedy that Blair’s “defensiveness is understandable against the antiwar bias of most of the media.”
I have several points to make on this; on defensiveness, on apologies to the audience and on anti-war press bias. In this game of political positioning there is more to consider than showing one’s feelings of empathy with (certain) others. Something the Archbishop of Canterbury might also wish to remember as he addresses his constituency. Consider yourself suitably chided, Your Grace.
To apologise may be considered politic, but not every time one is offered the opportunity.
THE ‘ALL-IMPORTANT DECIDER’
But first, Rentoul also makes this observation on Blair’s “telling details”-
Blair: ‘”I believed – and in the end so did the Cabinet, so did Parliament, incidentally,” he said, demoting cabinet and Parliament to “incidental” status. Thus he fed the antiwar theme that it was his personal war, because it feeds his perception of himself as All-Important Decider.’
Blair will get it in the neck whatever he says. He could be accused of allowing himself to be crucified as though he WERE the ‘All Important Decider’, and much has and will be written about this evident self-flagellation. But he cannot surely be accused of throwing others to the dogs of anti-war. I have yet to hear him naming others either personally or as a group of being AS responsible as he is, except perhaps as an “incidentally”.
SO, INCIDENTALLY, ON THE MEANING OF ‘INCIDENTALLY’
Unfortunately Mr Rentoul is falling into the antis’ trap of concurring to the antis’ view that Blair suggested it was “incidental” that the cabinet and parliament believed as he did. In fact the “incidentally” was actually meant to indicate the opposite.
It was of the “in case you’ve forgotten, by the way” variety. It was not to suggest that those two bodies were incidental, but to point out that they were in agreement with him. Without saying that the cabinet and parliament also held responsibility for the decisions and could or should be sitting in the hot seat with him, he was reminding us that they had both agreed with his conclusions. This subtle difference in the contextual meaning of “incidentally” is important. Sorry, JR.
Interpreted as I think Mr Blair meant it leads to the direct opposite of Mr Rentoul’s interpretation of Blair’s meaning with this phrase.
In Blair’s phraseology he was reminding us that he was not alone in this belief. In Rentoul’s interpretation he was saying that he was.
So back to the other bones to pick with Mr Rentoul.
1. BLAIR’S ‘DEFENSIVENESS’
This “defensiveness” accusation seems to me a red herring and rather unlike Mr Rentoul, who is normally so balanced in his writings.
In the afternoon session which I attended I didn’t see Blair’s evidence as particularly “defensive”, although he did defend himself when probed. It would have been rather odd if he hadn’t defended his position, since every other witness has done the same. Apart from that, he and the rest of us know that this Inquiry is mainly about calling Mr Blair PERSONALLY to account. And all in the face of the facile belief that it is commonly held that this Inquiry is actually ‘The Trial of Tony Blair’.
Don’t forget this from Rentoul here –
‘One junior producer at the BBC asked me without thinking if I had seen much of “the trial” during the day.’, which as a “witness” I referred to here more fully.
You never thought it was about “learning lessons”, did you? It’s his ‘trial’ after all, as the BBC producer in a phone call to John Rentoul reminded us so graphically, within my hearing. Mr Blair will defend himself, even if no-one else will. Or is he peculiarly and singularly not expected to do so?
2. PAYING RESPECTS TO THE FALLEN
My main issue with Rentoul, though, is on paying respects to the fallen. My approach to this may seem uncaring of me, and more so of Blair. I think it is the opposite, in both cases.
To have acknowledged the audience in the room and paid respects to the fallen would have actually been wrong.
I have come to this conclusion for several reasons.
- For a start, an apology is not really what these people want. They want a confession of prime ministerial wrong-doing/lies/deceit/criminal intent and an ensuing trial and conviction. Even crawling on his knees to each and every family present in that room would not have made the slightest difference to their perceptions. They would have concluded one of the following: he was still lying thus not being genuine, or he was acting for the camera being on a mission to deceive yet again. Or, most importantly and wronger and yet wronger still – that he was finally admitting it was all a big mistake to go into Iraq.
- Secondly, the relatives of the forces’ dead do not speak on behalf of all of us. Sixty million people are not represented by a few dozen or even hundred bereaved relatives, much as the relatives might they were. The voters spoke in their millions on their attitude to Blair and Iraq in 2005 when he won a historic third election.
- Thirdly, the armed forces is a voluntary organisation, and people join with their eyes open to the dangers. It is in some ways demeaning to the memory of the fallen to look to a prime minister to apologise for their paying the ultimate sacrifice.
- Fourthly, relatives are speaking for themselves, and not necessarily as their lost soldier would wish them to speak.
- Fifthly, there is an underlying undercurrent of hijacking of the apology cause by others. Others who are deeply politically motivated and highly suspect. As Rentoul says, “he must feel contempt for the way the Socialist Workers Party, which wanted Saddam Hussein to prevail, has exploited a tiny minority of the families of the servicemen.” For that tiny minority, the vocal ones who will never be satisfied, an apology was NOT a risk worth taking, imho.
- Sixthly any apology would have been purposely misinterpreted by the press as an overall apology for the Iraq campaign due to his personal fear of repercussions if he hadn’t apologised. This inevitable accusation of the sudden discovery of a conscience would have been entirely inaccurate in EVERY way, factual and by implication.
- Lastly, but there will be other reasons, I’m sure, Mr Blair has said he is sorry about the deaths of our troops on many occasions, even in his last parliamentary address. If that did not satisfy the bereaved then, why would it do so now?
Yes, many of those seated behind him, and perhaps even a majority would have been against the whole Iraq campaign and thus by default, anti-Blair. But not ALL of them. As downstairs in the Additional Viewing room, I think the audience would have been more mixed than we might assume. The diminishing numbers of the Stop the Warriors were mostly outside, rather than in. Others who made the effort to attend wanted to see the former prime minister on this historic day and see how he dealt with it as well as actually listen to what he had to say.
The following may be tough for some to read, but I write it as I see it.
TOO MUCH (MIS)INFORMATION
In my humble opinion these (largely) anti-Iraq war bereaved families have had far too much leeway to hog the headlights. Yes their loved ones died. Yes, their pain is real, as is the pain of someone who loses a loved one in a car or work accident through no fault of their own. Yes, they may have valid complaints about equipment shortages. And importantly, yes, they may not have agreed with the war in the first place. None of this puts Tony Blair or any prime minister or politician personally in the position of being forced to eat dirt from the soles of the bereaveds’ shoes.
WHAT OF THE REST OF THE BEREAVED FAMILIES, THE MAJORITY?
There are other bereaved families, the huge majority, equally deep in mourning, perhaps even with their own questions. The few – less than a handful – from whom we hear constantly are the tiny minority. The press and through them much of the public have a skewed impression. They have accepted as typical and representative the idea that this anger at Blair from the forces’ families is universal. This conclusion is likely out of all proportion to reality.
Read this recent comment at the Ban Blair-Baiting petition from a serving soldier (no. 532)
As a British Royal Marine, i fully believe Tony Blair was 110% RIGHT to take us into Iraq. People keep asking why they did not further seek a 2nd Resolution. France among others were never going to give a 2nd Resolution as they were currently selling certain items to Iraq. As were Russia among others. History will PROVE he was totally CORRECT and RIGHT to take us into Iraq to put down any chance of Sadaam pursuing a WMD programme. Well Done Mr Tony Blair. You have my best wishes and full support
So, WHY? Why did he not say something like this:
“As I have said on many occasions I am sorry that any of our troops died in this conflict, and I will always retain their sacrifice in the front, not the back of my mind. I will always be immensely proud of our forces, their dedication and professionalism. They are the best in the world.”
Simply because press coverage and the agenda of the anti-war brigade is so biased that it would be seen as an apology for his ‘mistake’ in the first place, that mistake being the alliance with the USA against Saddam. He simply does not accept that going into Iraq with our strongest ally was a mistake.
In summary, John Rentoul probably still believes that Mr Blair should have referred to them to show his personal sympathy. I beg still to differ. These families are surely entitled to regard and sympathy. They get this in spades from the press. But these families are just that; families. They have no superior right to consideration or to feel free to continually draw blood and apologies from Mr Blair for the rest of his life for his political decisions. They should stop using the “apologies call” as an acceptable excuse to wrangle from him a hopefully self-incriminating confession. They won’t get it.
If you’d like to check on the video or read the transcript you will notice that Sir John Chilcot invited Mr Blair to apologise to the relatives present on several occasions towards the end of the day. FIVE times, directly or indirectly he suggested this (marked in red below):
INQUIRY CHAIRMAN JOHN CHILCOT TO TONY BLAIR
THE CHAIRMAN: Our participation in the Iraq conflict has been very divisive here and abroad, has caused deep anguish to those who lost people they loved, some of whom are in this room. There is gratitude, great gratitude, to our armed forces for the sacrifices they made and the bravery they showed and great sorrow at their losses. But we, like you, have also experienced at first hand the anger which is still felt by many people in this country and we have been asking, therefore, the question why. And so, as we conclude today, can I ask what broad lessons you have drawn you have drawn some already in the course of your testimony and to say whether you have regrets about key aspects of the Iraq conflict?
RT HON TONY BLAIR: I mean, I have said some of the things that I think are lessons that can be learned about nation building. I think you have got to look very carefully at what type of forces you require because there will be a security situation that you face, a challenging security situation. I also think you have really got to look at the issue to do with the nature of this threat from Al Qaeda on the one hand, Iran on the other, and the impact that that will have, not just on Iraq but potentially in different arenas right round the Middle East region and beyond.
I feel of course, I had to take this decision as Prime Minister and it was a huge responsibility then, and there is not a single day that passes by that I don’t reflect and think about that responsibility, and so I should. But I genuinely believe that if we had left Saddam in power, even with what we know now, we would still have had to have dealt with him, possibly in circumstances where the threat was worse and possibly in circumstances where it was hard to mobilise any support for dealing with that threat. I think we live in a completely new security environment today. I thought that then, I think that now. It is why I have said this to you a number of times today I take a very hard, tough line on Iran today, and many of the same arguments apply.
In the end it was divisive, and I’m sorry about that and I tried my level best to bring people back together again, but if I’m asked whether I believe we are safer, more secure, that Iraq is better, our own security is better with Saddam and his two sons out of power and out of office than in office, I indeed believe that we are, and I think in time to come, if Iraq becomes, as I hope and believe that it will, the country that its people want to see, then we can look back, and particularly our armed forces can look back, with an immense sense of pride and achievement in what they did.
THE CHAIRMAN: And no regrets?
RT HON TONY BLAIR: Responsibility but not a regret for removing Saddam Hussein.
[groans from some in the audience who felt that he should have expressed regrets (or an apology to them for their losses?) “Be quiet, please,” said the Chairman, and Mr Blair continued] ….
I think that he was a monster, I believe he threatened, not just the region but the world, and in the circumstances that we faced then, but I think even if you look back now, it was better to deal with this threat, to deal with it, to remove him from office, and I do genuinely believe that the world is safer as a result. I know sometimes, because this happens out in the region, sometimes people will say to me, “Well, Saddam was a brake on Iran”. Let’s be clear, there is another view of foreign policy in this instance, which is the way, if we had left Saddam in place, he would have controlled Iran better. I really think it is time we learned, as a matter of sensible foreign policy, that the way to deal with one dictatorial threat is not to back another, that actually the best answer to what is happening in Iran is to allow the Iraqi people the freedom and democratic choice that we enjoy in countries like ours.
THE CHAIRMAN: Thank you. This brings us, I think, to the end of today’s hearings. Is there any final comment, beyond those you have already made, that you wish to add before we close?
RT HON TONY BLAIR: No.
- Watch Tony Blair’s evidence here, click Afternoon Session, and for this last section, move the cursor to the last 6 minutes.
- Read transcript of Mr Blair’s evidence here
More from Rentoul on ‘The Tragedy of Tony Blair’:
But otherwise it was a defensive performance. He was not going to change any minds by his evidence on Friday, but there was a chilly self-regard about him that suggested that he had given up trying. I can see why he went for the defensive option, but I think it was a mistake. He should have acknowledged the audience in the room. He should have turned to them at some point and paid his respects to the fallen. Of course, he must feel contempt for the way the Socialist Workers Party, which wanted Saddam Hussein to prevail, has exploited a tiny minority of the families of servicemen, and there was a risk of a negative reaction, but it was a risk worth taking.
He dealt with the “Fern Britton fallacy” only to close it down. He did not try to explain his unwise foray into counterfactual history: that he would have had to “deploy other arguments” for removing Saddam if Iraq had complied with UN resolutions. He had not meant it, he said, and moved on. Again, understandable: any attempt to explain that he would have feared that Saddam would resume his weapons programme would have been twisted and misreported by antiwar media determined to ascribe to him a “secret” real motive.
His failure to express regret for the 100,000 Iraqi dead was similarly defensive. I think his evidence would have been more compelling if he had stood firmly by the decision to join the American invasion, while accepting more directly and with sadness that the occupation had gone badly. Again, his reluctance is understandable. He does not want more of those “blood on his hands” headlines.
Thus the tragedy of Tony Blair continued to unfold. His priority was to manage the reporting of his session, and his defensiveness is understandable against the antiwar bias of most of the media. One junior producer at the BBC asked me without thinking if I had seen much of “the trial” during the day. But I do not think that the high-pitched obsession of the media reflected public opinion. The demonstration outside the inquiry was tiny, with the flags of Baathist Iraq prominent among the SWP placards. Nor would there be many takers on most high streets for the thin chant that went up, to the tune of “Yellow Submarine” – “We all live in a terrorist regime”.
There was a curious divide among senior Conservatives who were around Westminster on Friday. More than one spoke privately of how much they admired Blair, and how brilliantly persuasive he still was.
The Iraq inquiry was the wrong forum – and there was something Roman about the thumbs-up for Elizabeth Wilmshurst (a round of applause when she finished) and the thumbs-down for him (shouts of, er, “We disagree” when he did). Because one of the interesting questions for history is how Iraq broke the Labour Party. It drove it to the madness of undermining and driving out its most successful leader.
But last week the Chilcot inquiry was not so much a historical inquiry into Britain’s part in the Iraq war, as a case study in how the media works. One of the fellow defenders of Tony Blair into whom I bumped in the satellite-truck village encamped in the mud outside the QEII conference centre opposite the Palace of Westminster was Lance Price, a former No 10 press officer. He has a book serialised in a rival newspaper today, called Where Power Lies: Prime Ministers v The Media. The answer is not a happy one for Blair. It turns out that the Chilcot inquiry is not contemporary history so much as media studies. Which is a shame.
John Rentoul blogs at www.independent/eagleeye
[Note: That link above to Rentoul’s blog does not work for me. This one does.]
1.’Tony Blair, Outcast’
You hope, eh… Mr (Tory) Neil?
by Andrew Neil
2. Good for Tony Blair- He Stood His Ground
3. “Never apologise, never explain. Just get the thing done, and let them howl.” (Agnes Macphail, Canadian politician.)
It seems the Queen also rather likes this quote. Well, it’s all right for Her Majesty. She is not required to explain or be ‘held to account’, just quietly reign.