Blair Part 2, the reckoning: gripping but flawed television

The second part of Michael Cockerell's magisterial 3-part series on BBC2 television, Blair: The Inside Story, was broadcast this evening (27 Feb 07).  Despite some much-trailed criticism of Blair from two heavy-weight former diplomats (Sir Stephen Wall and Sir Jeremy Greenstock), both of whom must be storing much more lethal ammunition in their wine cellars than anything fired off this evening, the programme's treatment of two key events in the Blair record, Kosovo and Iraq, was disappointing.  Much was inevitably familiar — but there were too many omissions of items crucial to any judgement of Blair's integrity and consistency, including for example his public declarations, in the lead-up to the Iraq war, that toppling Saddam Hussein and his régime could not and would not be a legitimate objective of any attack on Iraq, and that Britain would not participate in a war on Iraq without the authority of the UN unless a resolution authorising it had been "unreasonably" vetoed (no such resolution was either passed or vetoed, unreasonably or otherwise).  Both these pledges were flagrantly dishonoured.

Naturally decisions on how much and what to include or leave out in one of three 1-hour programmes are bound to be subjective, and some important things can't be squeezed in.  But in this case there were also too many serious misrepresentations of the historical record. 

Examples: the programme or its participants advanced or strongly implied the following  propositions, none of which is true:

  • "The mounting expulsion of Kosovo Albanian refugees from their country into vast refugee camps in neighbouring countries was the last straw propelling NATO into the start of its 3-month air attack on Serbia" (actually the expulsions of the refugees from Kosovo began only after the beginning of the NATO attacks, which greatly accentuated and accelerated Serbian ethnic cleansing of Kosovo);
  • "The bombing eventually forced Milosevic to capitulate to NATO's demands, hugely to Blair's credit since he had been the firmest supporter of military action" (actually the bombing got NATO nowhere:  it was a secret resumption of diplomacy, without UK participation, that led to Milosevic's acceptance of terms which differed radically from NATO's original demands).
  • "The diplomatic efforts of Russia and France eventually precipitated Milosevic's surrender" (actually it was secret diplomacy by emissaries of Russia and the US, with the President of Finland, which brought about the Serbs' eventual agreement to withdraw their forces from Kosovo).
  • "It was Blair's success in Kosovo, achieved by obeying his sense of what was right and by backing his deep-rooted belief in his Mission, that reinforced his confidence in his own judgement and moral sense over what had to be done about Iraq" (actually Blair had been party to a gross deception of public opinion about the US and UK's real objectives at the Rambouillet conference, the conference which led directly to NATO's illegal, unsuccessful and counter-productive attack on Serbia. The NATO attack was subsequently deliberately misrepresented by Blair as a success, a myth which he perpetuates to this day.  What he really learned from Kosovo was that he had got away with murder, and thought he could get away with it again in Iraq).
  • "French President Chirac said in a television interview, in the run-up to the Iraq war, that at that moment France would "veto" any UN resolution to authorise force against Saddam, enabling Blair and other UK ministers to misrepresent him as having threatened to veto any such resolution at any time" (it is true that Blair and his colleagues deliberately and publicly lied about what Chirac had said.   Chirac had indeed declared France's intention to vote against any war resolution at that time.  But he had made it clear that France would not, and would not need to, cast a 'veto' against a resolution authorising the use of force, because since there was no majority in the Security Council in favour of war at that time, France's No vote would not constitute a veto — a technical but important difference spelled out very clearly by Chirac in his interview.  In the event the US and UK withdrew their draft resolution without allowing it to come to a vote, knowing that it would have been defeated without any need for a veto, as Chirac had correctly predicted).
  • "At the time when Britain was enduring the German blitzes early in the Second World War, the only country that stood shoulder to shoulder with Britain was the United States" (terrible and revealing historical howler by Blair in his speech to a joint session of the US Congress, whose flagrant falsity was not pointed out by the programme despite its showing of the relevant clip in full).
  • "The failure to secure a 'second resolution' in the UN authorising the use of force against Iraq was partially attributable to Greenstock, UK Permanent Representative at the UN at the time:  where Blair went wrong was in failing to ensure that the occupiers of Iraq, the US, UK and their allies, gave top priority to maintaining law and order on the streets of Baghdad and Basra in the period immediately after the invasion — 'he took his eye off the ball'" (actually Greenstock was not at all to blame for failing to get the second resolution:  there was no resolution because a substantial majority in the Security Council rightly believed that any attack on Iraq at that time would be premature and unjustified, when the UN weapons inspectors had not completed their work and the position over Iraq's alleged possession of WMD was still unclear.  Blair's most disastrous blunder was his failure to insist in advance with Bush that Britain would not take part in any attack on Iraq unless it was expressly authorised by the Security Council.   He knew that any attack on Iraq without UN authority would be illegal — indeed, an act of aggression.  Compared with that failure of nerve and integrity, Blair's subsequent failures over the maintenance of law and order in Iraq were relatively minor, although in themselves certainly shocking and inexcusable).
  • "It was understandable that Blair told parliament and the public that the intelligence pointing to Iraq's possession of WMD which posed an immediate threat to the UK was strong and consistent, when he knew that it had been assessed as sporadic and patchy:  understandable, because he had to rely on this intelligence in order to give a strong lead to the country and the world" (a remarkable attempt by a former cabinet secretary to excuse and condone deliberate lying to parliament and the country in order to gain support for a decision which Blair pretended had not yet been taken, although in fact he had taken it several months earlier.  Ministers can still be heard asserting that they only supported the Iraq war because 'the intelligence was wrong', when what was wrong was Blair's and other ministers' lies about the reliability of the intelligence). 

It's a pity that so many inaccuracies and misrepresentations of what really happened were allowed to pass uncorrected in a programme which clearly sought (with considerable success) to deliver a sober and objective verdict on a period of Blair's premiership in which so much of his personal activity in international affairs was so discreditable.  Still, the overall effect was unarguably damning in spite of these flaws.  The impression left by the programme as a whole was of a weak man who seeks to conceal his weakness by always choosing the 'tough' rather than the prudent, conciliatory or pacific option;  a man impelled, perhaps by his religious faith, to act on what he perceives to be his moral instincts rather than on the basis of calm analysis of the options and their likely consequences, or on the advice and warnings of those whose judgement is informed by a better knowledge of the salient facts, and of history, than Blair himself can command.  Many good things have been done during his time in office, but they are tragically outweighed by his self-delusion, his misjudgements and his resorts to dishonesty in defence of what he has persuaded himself to be right.  It's time he went.


2 Responses

  1. Phil says:

    I certainly hope it's not Blair's religious faith that's driving him. When I was growing up 'Christian' was a rough synonym for 'well-meaning Guardian reader'; I'm just about resigned to it meaning something else entirely in the American context, but I'd rather the meaning didn't change that much over here.

    I'm slightly puzzled by your correction of the programme over the WWII reference. Unless your point was that 'Britain', in 1939-40, meant 'the British Empire and Dominions', which is quite a different matter. You could argue that Britain was never so isolated as between 1949 and 1973.

    Brian writes:  Thanks, Phil. 

    On your first point, my guess, wholly lacking in supporting evidence, is that the vast majority of Guardian readers are nowadays either agnostics or atheists with a steadily deepening suspicion of the malign effects of religion on society — all religion.  But I could of course be quite wrong.  

    On your second point, I neither said nor implied that Britain was 'alone' at the time of the blitz in opposing Nazi Germany:  one of the more obnoxious things about Blair's remarks is his apparent ignorance of the fact that the countries of the Commonwealth stood (and later fought) alongside Britain from the UK's declaration of war in September 1939 onwards.  But the principal point that I sought to make, evidently without sufficient clarity, was that Blair was also dreadfully wrong to assert that the US (alone, as he claimed, or in good company, as he didn't) stood by Britain at the time of the blitz, whereas he surely should have known that the US entered the war only on 7 December 1941 after being attacked by Japan at Pearl Harbor, and even then it was Hitler Germany which declared war on the United States, not vice versa.  The London blitz took place between 7 September 1940 and 16 May 1941, during the whole of which time the US was officially neutral.  Did none of Blair's acolytes check his script for accuracy on that extremely important occasion?

  2. Phil says:

    Good grief, you're right – December 1941, even later than the USSR's forced entry into the war. I'm mortified to have missed that.

    Not only airbrushing the Commonwealth nations out of the record but writing the Americans in – quite a feat of revisionism. It's not far short of Tony Benn's story of the woman who admonished him to beware of the Communists (I remember the War – we fought them then and we'll have to fight them again!)

    Brian writes:  Also see on this…. and ….