While Blair sat atop the Prime Ministerial throne and his terms rolled along, his mind increasingly wondered to the question of what his legacy as leader would be. While he hoped it would be the remains of his strong domestic agenda, the reality is of course very different. You ask anyone in the world – from a youngster in Britain to an old taxi driver in Singapore – what they associate Tony Blair with and the response is always the same. One word. One word that still haunts not only Blair, not only the Labour Party, not only British politics, but the whole world; Iraq. In 2003, Tony Blair made a decision to enter an effectively bilateral war alongside President Bush and the Americans against Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi regime. He did so with the consent of parliament, but without the mandate of the United Nations. The evidence backing up the case for war, pointed at a limited capacity to own and build weapons of mass destruction, and the intelligence presented to Blair suggested that Iran, Libya and North Korea were much greater threats.
Nonetheless, Bush had a vendetta against Hussein after he’d made an attempt on his father’s life, the Americans were furious that the administration had communicated with and even harboured Osama bin Laden, and Iraq was a tactical point of control for the USA, it being a key region, and being rife with oil. Blair followed Bush for a number of reasons. For one, Blair held a great amount of reverence for the ‘Special Relationship’ between the UK and the USA, and came to regard Bush as a close personal friend. Another reason was the moral case; Hussein had a history of genocide, repression, and fierce dictatorship, as well as a previous utilisation of chemical weapons. Blair saw regime change as vital, and pivotal in bringing stability to the tumultuous region. The Prime Minister saw the Iraq war working alongside the stuttered Israeli-Palestinian peace process, a pipedream that never materialised. Blair was also genuinely presented with intelligence that hinted at WMD capability, however him and his chief spin doctor, or officially Director of Communications, Alastair Campbell allegedly ‘jazzed it up’ with the 45-minute claim in the Iraq dossier.
Unlike his US Republican counterpart, Blair never planned to be a war leader, but the events in Sierra Leone and Kosovo and his successes there combined with the atrocities of 9/11 gave him the appetite for military action in Afghanistan and Iraq. Instead he wished to be liked by the whole public, placing an enormous amount of focus on utilising the media, getting the newspapers on his side, and appearing young and personable. He turned 10 Downing Street into a bustling hub of celebrities and parties, dressing down in jeans and playing his guitar for guests. He was the youngest Labour leader for years, and had redefined the party as the contemporary New Labour. After his second landslide victory in 2001 his mind started drifting towards the future, and how history would view him. He made a conscious effort to start building positive potential legacies of his stewardship, namely, his investment in public services.
However, looking back, what is Blair truly remembered for? Is he remembered for winning 3 consecutive elections? Is he remembered as the pioneer who reshaped Labour as an electable entity? Do we remember him as overseeing the longest run of positive economic growth in British history? Or do we remember him for improving the National Health Service and bringing down waiting lists? Is he remembered for his substantial investment in education, or for bringing the 2012 Olympics to Britain? Is he remembered for his heroic intervention in Kosovo? Or his significant work in providing aid to Africa? Or perhaps for his likeable public persona? Or maybe for his charismatic PMQ’s performances? Or is he remembered for defeating the Tory party again and again? Is he remembered for spear-heading Third Way political thinking alongside Bill Clinton? Let me save you some time. No, he is not remembered for any of these things. All of these potential positive legacies are left in the wayside by death tolls of British soldiers, by 2 middle eastern wars persisting into the future, by 1 million protestors taking to the streets of London against the war being ignored, by his Senior Minister Robin Cook resigning in condemnation of the war, by the mysterious death of David Kelly, the weapons inspector who could’ve stopped the war, by the insurgency attacks of Iraq, by the Islamist retaliation of 7/7, by the ‘Bliar’ pickets, by the Chilcot Enquiry, by the chants of ‘war criminal’, by the phony Iraq dossier, by the absence of WMD, by the lies, by the cover-ups, by the disaster that was the Iraq War.
Iraq was a cataclysmic failure, an admission that Blair still won’t fully admit as he points to a recent poll showing the majority of Iraqis are happier now than they were under Hussein. Nevertheless, his great legacy is undoubtedly the Iraq crises. The war has left a very evident scar on the British political hierarchy, which has become exposed recently, when British Parliament debated intervention in Syria. Syria might seem like yesterday’s news, but in terms of the reasoning behind Parliament’s decision, it is still very relevant to British Politics. Blair went to war without the consent of the UN, therefore in the eyes of many, underwent an internationally illegal war. Wherever he goes, the chants of war criminal still follow him. His military intervention was based on questionable intelligence. Is anyone noticing a pattern here? Look at the Syria crises. Two long years and 100’000 deaths after this civil war started there were claims of chemical weapons being used by Assad in Damascus. This was at the time, based on unverified intelligence, and weapons inspectors were placed in Syria while President Obama and David Cameron contemplated ‘liberal’ intervention again. The names and faces had changed, but the intentions of the US-UK leaders were the same; the President wanted to punish a middle-eastern rogue nation for ‘crossing the red line’, while the Prime Minister wanted to hang on the American coat tails. The United Nations were yet to pass any resolutions on military action in Syria, and already, a young, liberal-minded Prime Minister, ahead of his party, had gone to Parliament and asked for consent to British intervention. Once again he made the moral case for toppling a brutal dictator, he wished to stand alongside a powerful American President, and believed in the deployment of chemical weapons based on incomplete intelligence. The whole scenario was hauntingly reminiscent of 10 years previously. Then comes vote time. Now the wound starts to bleed. Echoes of Robin Cook, of Chilcot, of bloodshed, of terrorism, of insurgency reverberate around the House of Commons. It becomes apparent that 60% of Britons are equally scarred by the previous wars and want no involvement in Syria.
It’s like watching a sick movie for the second time, but this time, getting wise and hiding behind the sofa before the scary bit. MPs defeat Cameron. The House says no to war, by a mere margin of 13 votes. The legacy of Blair’s Iraq spooked politicians into voting against action. Every MP must have been remembering the hatred suffered on the part of Blair, the guilt after every death, the widespread condemnation, and refused to face the same themselves. The House of Commons would have voted for intervention in Syria if it weren’t for Blair’s war on Iraq. Fact. So this ever-discussed legacy of Blair, how negative is it really? Has it quashed an over-eager Prime Minister, allowing time for the diplomatic Russian solution? Has it just stopped a repeat performance? Has it stopped an unnecessary war? Has it got Britain to learn from its mistakes? Has it prevented more British lives lost in Syria? Has it diluted the gap between the West and the Muslim world? Has the legacy of Iraq stopped the legacy of Syria? Has this saved the legitimacy of British politics? The answer to all of the above may well be yes, and this may well be Blair’s legacy.
There is one more thing to consider though. The Commons said no to intervention, so the UK chose not be taking part in Syrian military action, when intervention was a very real possibility. This means that the politicians of Britain have saved some face and popularity, allowing the UN to come up with a diplomatic solution. Great Britain will no longer be seen as America’s poodle, or arrogant enough to police the world. This all sounds great for the UK, but what about for Syria? Say we voted no and the UN didn’t deliver the plan to remove the chemical weapons. Say Russia didn’t propose the idea and America got its mandate for intervention. And lest we forget, chemical weapons or no chemical weapons, there is still a civil war going on, and casualties continue to pile up. Yes Iraq was a mistake, but we may have learnt the wrong lesson from it. Should we have learnt never to intervene in the internal crises of Middle Eastern countries, or should we actually have learnt to maintain our commitment to fiercely opposing injustice and oppression, and just implement our intervention better, with a stronger focus on post victory reconstruction and nation building? Yes there are elements which make the Syrian conflict different from the Iraqi one; the intra-religious sectarianism between Sunnis and Shiites is playing a more prominent role, there is the unstable nature and part extremist tendencies of the rebels, and there is uncertainty surrounding the source of the chemical attacks. Nonetheless, from a humanitarian point, there are still thousands dying, there is still a brutal dictator in place who’s armed forces are committing atrocities and killing in greater volumes than its opposition. Day by day the death toll rises, and the Iraqi legacy Blair has left means one poignant thing. In the face of injustice, brutality, and genocide, Britain will now stand on the side-lines and watch. We will do nothing. Perhaps it’s this that threatens the legitimacy of British Politics the most.